This blog was featured on 07/11/2016
Writing Memoir: Pacing
Contributor

When we speak of pacing in fiction, we are talking about the interweave of narrative, description, dialogue, and conflicts and decisions. The plot pulls the story along and keeps the reader turning the pages. In some ways, how much or how little of these elements you use is subjective. Consider what you like when you read. For example, I prefer limited amount of dialogue and enjoy intricate descriptions of the characters’ inner workings, what he or she is thinking and feeling and why they react they way they do. I love descriptions filled with sensual imagery and unusual metaphors or similes.

When we begin to write our memoirs, we may not be thinking about plot. We may be writing down the basic story of what happened and what we think about it before we consider how plot is essential to a reader. But if we use the same craft elements for memoir as we do in writing fiction, we will write something dynamic, fascinating and true to the holistic arch of the story.

The pace of the story is determined by the descriptions. Too many and the reader will start to disconnect; too few and it will not be vivid enough. Descriptions carry us along and work best interspersed with dialogue and plot. It's all in the details. As a writer, you need to transport readers into your setting and time period as well as to make connections to the universal truths in their own lives.

 

Description, dialogue and decisions move the plot along.

The main character is you: how do you write about yourself and show a personality worthy of your reader’s emotional investment? Start with vulnerability and courage on the page. Then through description, dialogue, and the decisions you made, you show that you are unique and yet flawed; that you acted on desires and sought solutions that may or may not have worked; that you are a real person with inner conflicts, quirky personality traits, motivated by the same things that motivate us all: to discover the key to understanding, the gift of insight, the ability to change. You want the reader to see the world through your eyes. At the same time, this is not a persuasive essay. This is your life, in all its messy twists and turns and wrong assumptions and judgments and aha! moments and love and tenderness and awakening. Nevertheless, you want to write in a way that makes sense to readers, that follows either the structure of before, during and after (before I was hurt, unhappy, unhealthy, struggling, abused, confused, etc and then I did this and this happened and afterwards, I was healed; found joy, acceptance and friendship; became a better person; became stronger, etc) whether or not you write in a linear time frame or use backstory, or you can use the Hero’s journey as a template: the call to adventure, the encounter with guides and mentors, given seeming impossible tasks and a protagonist you must conquer (even if it is your own doubts, fears, and weaknesses), leading to receiving the reward of insight, wisdom, or change.

Tension moves the story along. Tension is created through inner and / or outer conflicts. Inner conflicts are psychological or moral--desires, choices, reactions, beliefs, hopes and dreams. Outer conflicts include relationships, the sequence of events, heritage, family expectations, social-historical context, challenges such as health challenges or outer circumstances such as poverty, war, famine, or racism. The desire to be a free spirit while my culture and family told me that I needed to earn a living is one of the conflicts that underpin my stories of growing into adulthood. Or the tension between pleasing a loved one I disagree with while suppressing a desire to be heard and respected is another.

 

Decisions

Decisions move the plot along. Decisions are ways the character makes choices that determine their fate, such as where they end up, how they feel, their relationships, and their gained insight or wisdom or change of attitude, perception or understanding.

 

Dialogue

Dialogue is natural; it is the way we interact with the world. It can be as simple as a few sentences. Too much dialogue and the piece will seem weightless and insubstantial. It can be used to illuminate the setting, tell the back story, show a relationship between characters, give information about the characters or the circumstances the character is in or the characters’ beliefs and attitudes. It captures the nuances of the characters’ speech patterns, especially if there is an accent, special verbal ticks, or particularities. It can show where a character is from, what they know, what they want. 


Each character should have a unique viewpoint and should sound unlike the others. Characters can be defined based on what they ask or tell as well as what they refuse to reveal.

Dialogue can replace long narratives to move the pace along with information that is important but not essential to tell in detail. It can transition between time periods. It can heighten tension, as when two characters disagree or be a way to shed light on how others perceive you.

 

Plot keeps the reader turning the pages.

Plots move from a conflict, challenge, quest or question, to resolution, transformation or change of attitude, perception or understanding. The main character is changed in some way.

Just like fiction, a personal essay or memoir has to include an inciting incident. Something has to happen to set off a physical, emotional, and/or intellectual reaction. For example, if you wrote an argument between your brother and your mother in which your brother wants your mother to stop riding her motorcycle, you'd want to denote what started that argument and whether the argument was about safety or about seeking control in the family or generational and personality conflicts.

Memoir is both a story of your inner knowledge and your experiences of interaction with the world: family, friends, lovers, mentors, guides. You also have antagonists: those who tighten the tension by misunderstanding, physical or emotional mistreatment, judgment, intolerance, even by being overbearing and meddlesome. Your antagonist could be your loved ones with expectations or friends who mislead you or demand misplaced loyalty. He/she can be a mentor who is competitive or a spiritual guide who misuses his power.

 All these elements can be woven together in a way that bring you as the character to life but also keep the reader engaged and on the edge of their seat to see what happens to you.

 A surprise delights the reader. It has to seem authentic and realistic. In other words, the events leading up to it must point towards it in some way.

 Not all endings are positive and may leave a question unanswered. But the reader wants to see that the protagonist gained something from the experience. We read stories to learn how others cope, especially with loss, uncertainty, failure, illness and trauma. 

 

“The king died and the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot.” —E. M. Forester

Why do you think this is or is not a plot?

 

 

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