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You lived through it, that traumatic scene you’re writing about in your memoir. When it was going on, maybe you closed your eyes during most of it. Maybe you closed yourself off emotionally during all of it. But now, writing about it, you need to open your eyes — your mind and your heart — fully. Stare. Don’t flinch. Be a great noticer. Take in every detail. Write in detail. Linger in the scene. When you slow down time, tension rises.

A writer-friend recently critiqued an essay I’d been working on. In one scene, my brother is about to tell my husband and me some startling news: He fathered a child forty years before. The mother gave birth in a home for unwed mothers. The baby was put up for adoption. The baby is now a forty-year-old woman who has just found her birth father, my brother.

I zipped through all that in my essay like I had a train to catch. Covered the whole thing in a couple of paragraphs.

Back to work. Slow it down. Let the reader see each person in the room. Is my brother flicking his ear, a gesture I’ve never seen him do before? Am I sinking deeper into the sofa cushions, settling in for the evening? Or am I sitting up straighter? Leaning in to my brother as he speaks? Is my husband’s shoulder touching mine? What’s the temperature in the room? Am I suddenly wondering what the thermostat is set on? Does the air feel altered?

Stop the clock from ticking away, withhold information, release it slowly, force your readers to pause in their rush to find out what happens next — that’s how you create narrative tension, forward pull. Keep your readers a little twitchy.


  • Adam Cohen says:

    Great advice! So much success as an artist seems to be based on having the confidence to slow down and let the reader/viewer come to you.

  • Judy Goldman says:

    Thanks, Adam, for your note. Yes. Why are we in such a hurry? Maybe it’s like young people giving speeches in school, how they nervously rush through it.

  • Claire says:

    Slowing down. Those words do Make me twitch.

    I think my rushing mentality has been due to an underlying belief in shortage. Shortage of almost everything. Especially of time
    – the lowest lying culprit.

    Thanks judy.

  • Judy Goldman says:

    Very interesting comment, Claire. Thank you. Of course, we go fast because we need to take care of the next thing that’s crying out to be done. Hurry, hurry. Keep checking them off!

  • Chris Bailey says:

    Nice job raising the tension with small details. So what happened next?!?

  • Judy Goldman says:

    Chris Bailey, do you mean what happened next in the story about my brother and his daughter? Or what happened next in the writing of my essay? Different answer, depending on which question you’re asking. Thanks for the comment!

  • Thanks Judy! I was just revising one of those scenes flash fiction style! (Abigail’s friend)

  • Judy Goldman says:

    Hi, Kelly! Of course, I remember you! Thanks for your note. We’ll both just keep revising!