For Memoir Writers and Thriller Writers

Class taught by Carol Brennan King October 19, 2022

Because all the writers in this class do not write the same genre, I thought we might dole out some special content this week. We will begin with a favor for memoir writers. Many times, memoirists are tempted to start with “I was born in a small town in west Tennessee to a small farming family. I had three brothers and two sisters, and my dad drove tractor and fed cows and my mother made butter from the cow’s milk and fed the rest of our family.”

Digital reconstruction of Taddeo Gaddi’s triptych. Left to right: “Annunciation and Nativity,” “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Ten Saints: Maestà,” “Crucifixion” (c. 1330–34), tempera, gesso, gold leaf and traces of silver, 15 9/16 x 5 1/2 in, 13 13/16 x 9 15/16 in, 15 9/16 x 5 11/16 in (image courtesy the New-York Historical Society) 

Already it’s not sounding all that great. But, you could use the triptych format of telling only three related or otherwise connected stories from your life. Think three pictures: one from each story. That’s what a triptych is, usually three photos in a three-part frame. So how do you pick the three stories?

First, do the same exercise recommended for most memoirists. Set your timer for maybe 15 or 20 minutes and begin a list of the events that come to your mind. It might look like this:

The middle of five kids or the oldest of three born after the war. (This could bring back a lot of memories.)

started first grade at 5

went to a school with an outhouse

college life ended with mother’s heart attack

married a GI during the Viet Nam Era

went to Africa to live after learning French in France

Enough of that, but you see that you are collecting memories

Now pick three periods of your life, perhaps from the memories of your last exercise, or perhaps because you naturally find them interesting.

Now, choose three blank pages and put an age or period of your life on the top of each page. Think about using age periods, like maybe (15 to 21) (30-40) and ( the last 5 or 10 years). Give yourself 10-15 minutes to jot down whatever comes to your mind related to each of those periods. REMEMBER – you pick the periods that matter to you.

Don’t labor over these exercises. Your mind will start making appropriate connections. You just need to record what surfaces.

THEN, read your work out loud, watching for connections, patterns, symbols, or repeated words. Or just things that stick out to you.

Let what you have written sit for a while, and sifting through for your most intriguing ideas, search for the stories that are emerging, and the stories that link together in a way that your reader is pulled along. You are looking for stories that will stand alone, yet connect with each other in that Triptych frame.

If I were doing this I might start with the power and impact deer had in my life as a child. I might go on to talk about how my love for things wild played a part in my life taking me to Africa, and finally how the sighting of a deer brought peace to my life as a retiree.

Now on to our mystery writers:

I borrowed some material from Jenna Kernan about the 10 Dos and DOn’ts for Writing Page-Turning Thriller Novels at

1.Don’t tell your reader everything or DO Include Unanswered Questions, like why does Dave Kintner’s car have Utah plates when he says he spent his life on the east coast?

2.We know that you as a writer did a ton of work on the backstory of your main characters, but you don’t have to tell your reader all you know. or DON’T let the backstory drag the plot.

3.We have long talked about how every chapter or scene must end with a hook, something that keeps the reader reading, Duh! So, DON’T end a chapter without a hook, an unanswered question, or some kind of appetizer for the next pages.

4.DO set your protagonist at a disadvantage because readers love A Power Imbalance.

5.And what is better than a dark secret that the protagonist keeps from the reader. DO drop hints to show how scared the protagonist is that his opponent, or anyone else for that matter, will discover his secret. What if she failed gym class and all that talk about strength and courage is hanging on by a thread?

6.The author has lots of tools to amp up the tension, and one of the most useful is one of the most familiar: the ticking clock. As Jenna Kernan says, “The key here is that the reader and the protagonist know about the impending disaster and that the writer sticks to the deadline.” If you, as the writer, promise something is going to happen, DO it. It must happen or be averted exactly as predicted.

7.If you play nice with your protagonist, there is no tension to keep the story moving. So DON”T go easy on your star character. The ride must be full of bumps and threats and the opponent must never let up. Again, as Kernan says, “Presenting a protagonist with an ethical choice between two bad outcomes is a great way to reveal character.”

8.There are more than fists and physical weapons to set up tension. Kernan says, “DO use dramatic irony. This means that you let the reader know of a threat, secret, or some other danger that the protagonist does not know or expect. The reader, however, does know because you told your audience, so they know and fear what is around the corner.

9. DO let the protagonist score some points and win some encounters. If the wins lead to greater opposition and greater opportunities for the antagonist to gain ground, the tension is raised and the reader slides to the edge of their seat.

10.Finally, you must make the stakes worth the risk. You put the protagonist in danger, but the protagonist engages despite the danger because victory means so much. There has to be an apparent, to the reader, reason for the protagonist to fight through to the end. Allow your hero to consider escaping, but at the same time, having counted the cost, be willing to take whatever risks are ahead.

NOW, you have a lot of tools in your toolbox, all of them good ones, just don’t try to use all of them. Then the piece may become melodramatic. Pace your story. Give the protagonist and your reader occasional respites to catch their breath and think through what they have accomplished. Then, think about which tool is going to be most effective next.

WELL, THERE WE ARE: TOOLS FOR BOTH THE MEMOIRIST AND THE NOVEL WRITER. Use what you have learned from both types of writing to make your story the best. REMEMBER, the best writing keeps the reader engaged, whether it is a memoir or a thriller. A bored reader, one who can predict the next scene, is not likely to pick up your next book or story, or perhaps, finish this one.

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