tension memoir two drops of ink marilyn l davis

Memoir: Building and Using Tension

By: Marilyn L. Davis

Why is Tension Important in the Memoir?

tension memoir two drops of ink marilyn l davis


“Tension has to exist at the level of the language; it has to exist at the level of the story; it has to exist at the level of the intellect; it has to exist at the level of the heart; it has to exist at the level of what we would call the soul, that archetypal tension of inherent dichotomies, the moving forward in life between morality and aesthetics.

When we write, we’re asking our readers to engage in that tension because without tension there is no resolution. And it’s the resolution, at some level, that story relies most upon. Even if it’s at the level of aesthetics or if there’s no plot whatsoever or action, we still have to have the resolution of the tension.” ~ Kim Barnes


What Makes a Good Story?


In looking for a publisher, I’m struck by how many are looking for good memoir. However, each agent polled talked about how the story is the compelling reason that they either take on the author and help them develop their memoir, or they are willing to shop the manuscript.

We’ve grown up on stories, from Aesop’s Fables to the best memoirs of 2015. Spanning time, values, and beliefs, there is still a common thread, a story that educates, enchants or entertains, and those are the three essential elements of a good story.  How do you educate, enchant or entertain? You step outside of yourself and view the story of your life as if you were the fly on the wall. It is a process whereby you are the protagonist or central character, and as such, you are actively involved emotionally, mentally, and physically, but also you are acting as the silent observer of the events.

If you think about memories, you have the luxury of remembering the details that in the heat of the moment you might have missed. For instance, when recalling an argument with a parent, you can recreate the dialogue and that will convey some of the emotions to your readers, but in retrospect, you can also add what you were thinking before you spoke, giving them a richer understanding of the context of the argument.

marilyn l davis two drops of ink

Shakespeare's use of tension in Romeo and Juliet follow the example of feelings for a loved one. Romeo can either stay loyal to his clan, or fulfill his love of Juliet- but not both. Click To Tweet

Thus the conflict.

And as a reader, we turn the pages to find out the outcomes.

Become Your Own Shakespeare

How you felt about your loved one when they were criticized by your parents entails more than the defensive words you used to justify the relationship. It’s all of the emotions that a person brings out in you, so that your defense of them is heightened by your emotional attachment.

“I love him.”

“He’s no good for you.”

“But I love him.”

” He’ll never amount to anything; he’s not like us. You will stop seeing him.”

“I still love him.”

All of that may have been the dialogue, or what was said, but the backstory is that you came from an affluent family and your love was from the “wrong side of the tracks”, is a different race or religion, or there was an age issue. 

These add tension to your descriptions, and that tension is what engages a reader.

Readers recognize that there will be consequences for any action, and that also gives you an opportunity to create tension in your writing.  Which consequence is acceptable; which outcome is the lesser of the two evils? We start getting involved as a reader and may even debate the options as if we are the protagonist rather than the reader.

Tension makes a reader turn the page. But it is not always about life and death situations. Click To Tweet

The Dreaded Change

memoir tension

Change generates feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear, even when the proposed changes are beneficial. As a person in long-term recovery, I vividly remember my conflict between continuing my drug and alcohol use or getting into recovery. While it was a personal conflict, others who are struggling may wonder:

  1. Will she change?
  2. Can she become a better person?
  3. Will she succumb to the lure of drugs and alcohol again?
  4. How many more missed opportunities will she experience?
  5. What relationships will she sacrifice if she continues her use?
  6. Can she find redemption?
  7. Will she succeed or fail in her attempts to stop using?

Step outside of yourself as the writer; ask the questions a reader wants answered, and then write them.

These questions and your answers help you generate tension. You have to spend some time reflecting, but when you do write for both the reader and yourself, it generates not only tension, but the accompanying relief when the tension is resolved.

Nobody Knows This But I’ll Tell You

shamed man for cory's article

Secrets are another tension building element to consider. Readers are nosy by nature, otherwise they would be living their lives without any interest in someone else via their memoir. Click To Tweet

The emotional needs, wounds, or skeletons in the closet cause tension and keep a reader focused on your life. They want to know the ins and outs, delve into the nooks and crannies of your life because you’ve made that life interesting to them.

Writers are creating a relationship with the reader, especially in memoir. Until someone picks up your book, they don’t know you. Your memoir is an opportunity to let the reader know you in an intimate manner, and many writers feel vulnerable in the process.

It seems contradictory to tell the world what happened, when, at the time, the writer was doing everything possible to keep the facts hidden. But now that you’re ready to expose the events, you are doing so with a motive in mind. We’re right back at the educating, entertaining or enchanting.

Overcoming Obstacles

memoir tension marilyn l davis two drops of ink

When we are faced with obstacles in our lives, there’s tension and conflict.

  1. What can we do to change this situation?
  2. How can we overcome this barrier?
  3. What steps will move us forward?
  4. Who can help with this problem?
  5. What can we modify to improve our situation?

In your memoir, you’ll tell us how you overcame your obstacles and barriers, but you’ll also be telling us what resources we may have in our lives to prevail. I encourage people struggling with addictions to find their resources, whether it’s meetings, church, sponsors, or therapy, all of which helped me with my recovery.

The Tension Tool-kit

Tension is a great writing device. To help you generate tension in your memoir, consider the following questions and see if you don’t write so a publisher does care what happened to you.

  1. Does your opening paragraph generate intense feelings? Curiosity? Novelty? Marvel?
  2. What focuses your story? Redemption, Renewal, or Rediscovery?
  3. What competition does your theme have?
  4. What surprises does your story offer that isn’t already published?
  5. Do your words reproduce the opposition and apprehension you experienced?
  6. Do you give your readers relief and let them breathe in between stressful events?

As a further incentive to write that memoir now, consider reviewing what other agents have to say about memoir. Who knows, maybe yours will be among the top memoirs in 2017. Good luck.

Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing

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  1. After the writing is done, how do I find a literary agency to help me with the publishing?

    • Hi, Michelle. If you look on our home page, and search ‘literary agents’, there are some new agents looking for various genres. There are also regular searches, again, by the type of book. Either way, good luck and keep us posted as to progress!

  2. Good morning, Joan. Thank you for reblogging one of my memoir posts from Two Drops of Ink. I think though that you’re being too hard on yourself. I have always believed that how something is said is just as important as what is said, therefore, how I write about memoir might not resonate for some, whereas how you say it will. That’s the beauty and power of words. They are the common denominator for all writers, but we all use them in our unique ways. Keep writing!

    • Thanks for your words of encouragement, Marilyn. I’m new to blogging but have written brief memoir for both my parents and published my own. I hope I can add to the conversation about memoir writing.

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