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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.


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