Bridge to Story

Dramatic Tension in Memoirs

With fiction we are allowed to fashion a story the way we want, for bringing in a maximum amount of dramatic tension. We can give our protagonist wooly issues to deal with. We can set antagonists in front of her to work against, and we give her issues she can (mostly) succeed against.

We create the problems she will face.

With fiction we first foreshadow tension, and then we present the tension, build on it, and then erect problems that will take the situation higher still. Lastly, that tension comes to a head in a climax of energy and resolution.

But with memoir that tension plays out the way things really happened, there is no option to craft the tension from our imagination. We are working with facts.

So what is the fix for this problem?

The tension must come about from how we present the facts of the scene. No need to lie, just – omit.

The goal here is to leave the finer points of the episode, the minutiae, the trivial, out of the scene and instead, skew (slant) the points of a scene, twist them to our need for focus, so that this important stuff can heighten tension (and interest) in your story

Example Toggle


With Memoirs or fiction based on your own life we tend to want to stick up for ourselves. We rationalize events we are writing about. But the best story is one where you have mastered the art of Failing to Stick Up for Yourself.  In memoir, as well as in fiction based on our memories, we and our loved ones become characters in a piece of writing.

As Evelyn Waugh once wrote in the prefacing author's note for his autobiographical novel ‘Brideshead Revisited’:  I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they.

In the same way we wouldn't write moving dramatic fiction without a character who has a wart or two; we as writers must ask the hard question (or twenty) of these memoir characters and their events.  If we are the winner in the memoir's scene we must then dig deep and ask at what cost? For what gain? - These are the questions that dare to delve into and excavate your story's true theme.


She opened her eyes to the dark and glanced to the glowing clock. 2:44 A.M. Her orange tabby, Sam, waited; his tiny paw soft. Polite. She stretched to snap on the headboard lamp and watched Sam yawn wide. Patient. Respectful. Balanced there on her sternum. He hadn’t moved a muscle. She moved to touch the white underside of Sam’s chin, but he turned from her, hungry.


(Look at the small added bits – the truths we normally wouldn’t think of divulging when writing characters based on actual people):

 She opened her eyes to the dark and glanced to the glowing clock. 2:44 A.M. If she lived with someone she wouldn’t be wide  awake at this hour. At least with no one in bed, she could scratch herself in places she itched. Her orange tabby, Sam, sitting on her chest. His tiny paw touching her clavicle. Soft. Just the hint of claw unsheathed. Polite. She reached over and snapped on the headboard lamp, she liked that little pain. Sam yawned wide. Little vampire fangs. Patient. Respectful. Balanced there on her sternum. He hadn’t moved a muscle.

She moved to touch the white underside of Sam’s chin, but he only turned and presented his rump to her: Good, you’re awake. See? It’s me. We’s hungry.

The bits that are added in the example, could easily have been left off, they don’t paint a pretty picture of this woman- scratching herself, liking cat claws, the cat’s rump. But in drawing from the reality of this character they do make her more identifiable than a stock older woman character. They bring a bit more reality to her morning.  Warts and all.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

If we are the memoir’s victim in the remembered scene the question becomes: is the victimizer a character with a humanizing rationale for their actions against your character?

Seeing this side of an antagonist makes for a well rounded reality that can often be missing in characters of first-time memoirs. We need to ask these deeper questions because these are no longer people in your life - they are now characters: protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters in your book.

From these queries we must recognize what is the drama of the memoir's scenes. We must be bold and from that recognition leave out the non-dramatic bits. We must also take the hard step of not sticking up for ourselves in answering those deeper questions. In failing to stick up for ourselves - in the pursuit of a good moving memoir - we gain a well roundedness for these characters.

At the expense of shielding the you in your memoir we run the risk of telling a deeper, more meaningful tale.

You might ask – “In other words, for those of us writing a memoir, or bio-based fiction, we just have to "vomit" the truth (sorry for the gross visual)?”

Well, that’s not it entirely; looking at it that way is looking at the mechanics.

Failing to stick up for yourself comes down to POV - truth does come into it - but more so, I think you have to write yourself and your loved ones from the point of view of an author, less the point of view of a participant.

A participant (Think: this life happened to me) might very well phrase the story and express their actions in ways to make themselves 'look best'. Where as an author (Think: I am here to tell this tale) won’t bother sticking up for herself and making things look better than they might have been.

She would hold nothing back in regards to her characters, she'd tell the story with as much of each character's perspective and their truths as she could. She’d leave the excuses out of her narration, and just go for an open view of everyone – no matter the warts. Because she’d know that warts are what make characters interesting. She’d move from being a participant in the story to the authorial teller of the tale.

Ask yourself this right now: Who are the heroes in your memoir? What costs are they asked to pay for being heroes?  What’s at stake? Did you put those things into your work, or leave them out because of the bad light it might have cast on the main character in your story?

Look at any of your own work either memoir or bio-based fiction. Check for how truthful you are to all of your characters. Be the author telling a tale, less so, an individual sticking up for herself.