3. Find your essay’s conflict.
Here’s a secret for all the folks out there with perfect marriages, perfect houses, perfect children, perfect stock portfolios, and perfectly alphabetical bookshelves: That’s great! We’re happy for you! But we don’t want to read 10,000 words about it.
An essay without conflict is like a puff of cotton candy: Sweet, insubstantial, and not long for this world. The best stories always involve some form of struggle, lesson, or accomplishment, because that’s what we humans are really curious about.
A happy ending only feels happy because of the conflict that came before it; otherwise, it’s just an ending.
We don’t flock to a marathon finish line because we particularly enjoy seeing sweaty, bedraggled runners cross a painted line on the pavement; we do it because we know they’ve traveled 26 miles of hell to get there. The top of Everest isn’t nearly as interesting as the climb, you know? A happy ending only feels happy because of the conflict that came before it; otherwise, it’s just an ending.
Lest we worry we can only write about the darkest, gloomiest times in our lives, here’s another secret: I bet the happiest moments in your life, the most startlingly bright and most joyful memories you own, have a lot more hidden conflict than your mind would have you believe.
Here’s an example: If you asked me to pick a moment where I was perfectly content, where all felt right in the world, and I felt gloriously happy, I could answer in an instant. I’m on a sunny rooftop in Spain, drinking cava and nibbling on ham and cheese with my beloved. It’s a beautiful day in May, and we’ve just gotten engaged.
But the more I investigate that memory, interrogating it to find the real heart of my happiness, I remember how the day began: Due to a translation error, we’d arrived late to our scheduled times at the Sagrada Família – a place I’d desperately wanted to visit for decades. I was stressed because we were late; my fiancé was stressed because he planned to propose. We’d skipped breakfast and were starving. And then, evidently too caught up in the joyful windfall of the proposal, we’d taken a wrong turn and walked several miles in the wrong direction before we realized our error.
The memory of the rooftop picnic feels all the sweeter because of the turmoil that came before it, a happy ending to the hunger and stress and tired feet that preceded it.
Look closely at your own happy memories. What did you endure to get there? How can you best show that conflict – inner or external – to the reader?
4. Maintain a sense of tension from beginning to end.
Imagine that every time you publish a piece of writing, you are handing a reader a rope. Their only job is to not drop the rope – to keep reading and paying attention. It’s your job to hold that rope taut from beginning to end, never once letting the line slack or jerking your reader around.
Holding a narrative yarn taut is all about maintaining a steady release of information to the reader. Don’t bombard them with your entire life story in the first three paragraphs. Don’t leave out an essential piece of information until the last section (unless you are aiming for a “twist ending,” which, fair warning, has generally fallen out of favor in modern publishing and often makes editors quite cross).
Holding a narrative yarn taut is all about maintaining a steady release of information to the reader.
A writer must give the reader incentive to hold the line, to keep reading after each sentence. The siren call of Netflix, YouTube, and Twitter is strong. A fine-tuned essay is one that silences that call, embedding the reader so deeply into the world you’ve built that they can’t hear anything outside of it.
In some ways, holding tension in nonfiction is easier than fiction, because you already know which parts in the memory made your heart beat a little faster (if it spiked your blood pressure in real life, it should spike your readers’, too). In other ways, nonfiction is harder, because you can’t throw in a car chase or murder to keep your tale moving along at a nice clip.
Here’s one strategy for understanding which points to highlight and which to skip: Pretend you are telling your story out loud at a party or to a friend. (Actually say it out loud – no cheating!) Or better still, call up a real friend and ask to tell them this story. Note which parts you speed up and which parts you slow down, pausing to emphasize critical moments. Note, too, which parts your friend loses interest in or which parts make them gasp or react. See which sections you can skip and which require more explanation. Then, when it’s time to revise your first draft, hand over your essay to a third party. Ask them to mark where they felt restless, where they needed more information, or where the narrative seemed to jump. (You can also just watch their reactions as they read, but most folks tend to find this a bit creepy.)