By Lyssa Tall Anolik
What makes readers turn the page?
Conflict and tension. I touched on this back in January with the introduction of story arcs. A story arc is based on an initial conflict, followed by ever-mounting episodes that hold the line of tension and build to a final climax in which all that is at stake comes to a head and finally resolves, for good or for ill.
But maintaining conflict and tension goes beyond story arc. It should be built into each page, each chapter, each vignette or poem. It’s the taut line that pulls the reader through the work, compels us to turn the page because we must know what happens next: Will the injured mountain climber make it out of the blizzard alive? Will the middle-aged father be able to put himself back together after the tragic death of his wife?
Examples of conflict & tension in memoir
In Bill Bryson’s humorous A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, the conflict arises when two out-of-shape guys set out to bumble their way along the mountainous ATC. Will they be able to survive on candy bars and dumb luck? Tension occurs along the route in the form of physical obstacles as well as encounters with bizarre or just annoying people met along the way.
Robyn Davidson, in Tracks, treks solo across 1700 miles of Australian outback with a dog and seven camels. She maintains tension in her narrative by placing us right there in the desert with her, sweating and thirsty in the searing heat, learning about and grieving for the loss of Aboriginal culture, and daily facing her fears, discovering what she is capable of along the way.
Conflict and tension should even drive a personal essay. In Annie Dillard’s “A Weasel is Wild,” the author grabs us by the jugular when she – and we – locks eyes with a wild, ferocious creature. She holds that line of tension throughout the short piece by drawing us ever deeper into her impassioned exploration of that primal part of ourselves that is still wild.
What if you don’t have a “dramatic” story?
Not to worry. Life, even the most serene moments, contains inherent conflict. Let’s say you are a Zen poet admiring a still pond with lily pads and a heron. Tension exists because the moment will not last. The heron will dart for a fish or wind will disturb the clear surface.
Maybe you wish to chronicle the seasons of your garden. Show us your emotional and physical relationship to the lives you’re tending: the sowing, the weather, the waiting, the thrill of first shoots pushing from the ground; the flowering, the harvest, the withering and dying. What are the frustrations and obstacles that make the joys so rewarding?
What about vignettes of sweet moments with your grandmother? Even if there is no conflict in your relationship, conflicts from her life can pepper your stories. My grandmother saved stacks and stacks of empty margarine tubs in her basement. When she sent me home with homemade applesauce, she always said, “Now be sure to bring this back when it’s empty, dear. It’s a good size.” It was the 1990s and she still had not let go of depression-era hoarding. Even if Grannie led an easy life, you can still capitalize on the tension of age: She will not live forever.
What’s at stake?
No matter what your subject matter, this is the question memoir writers should constantly ask. What is the physical, emotional, spiritual or intellectual struggle – large or small – for your main character/s? Even watching a tiny ladybug labor up a blade of grass can be edged with conflict.
Keep a little mystery in your writing
Don’t give everything away at once. Right from the beginning, when you’re setting a scene, even before you introduce your readers to your main conflict, you can create tension by creating questions. Start with an incomplete scene: There is a green room with a chair and a bed. A window is open. A red scarf dangles over the sill. A half-written note lies on the desk. A reader will ask, “Who lives in this room? What does the note say? Why isn’t it finished? Why is the scarf hanging out the window? Where is the room’s occupant?”
Now you can slowly begin to answer the questions by telling your story, but not all at once. Parse out the information, creating new questions along the way, daisy-chaining questions and answers to keep the tension building. The reader enjoys the thrill of discovery. One word of caution, though: Allow your reader to keep guessing for a bit, but don’t string them along for too long or they’ll lose interest.
Take a piece of writing that needs spicing up. Try reading it as if it were someone else’s story and ask yourself the following:
- What questions does this piece raise and how soon are they answered?
- Where is the conflict and tension?
- What’s at stake for this character?
If any of the answers are unclear, brainstorm ideas on where/how conflict and tension can be pulled out or built in. Even better, ask a friend to read your piece and answer the questions above. Getting outside opinions is essential to the revision process. Others often see things we miss, especially connections and elements of tension that our subconscious mind may be hinting at in the work, but our conscious minds don’t yet recognize.
It may even be the right time to join or form a writers group if you don’t already have one. Multiple opinions about one piece create a different kind of tension – one that pushes us to consider trying new approaches to our work, which stretches our comfort level and makes us better writers.
This is VoiceCatcher’s eighth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.