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Keeping the Pages Turning

A guest post by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, CG, MFA

“Make them laugh. Make them cry. But, most of all, make them wait.”—Charles Dickens

Uncertainty keeps a reader turning the pages. It’s the need to know what will happen next. This is what we call suspense. I’m not talking Stephen King-type suspense. I’m talking about the type of suspense you create in your family history narrative by deliberately creating loose ends. You’ll tie up these ends as the story unfolds or toward the end of the story.

            Creating uncertainty in your narrative can be as simple as raising questions. Review events in your ancestor’s life that you’ve uncovered in your research. Then think about which ones might lend themselves to some mystery. The advantage you have in being a nonfiction writer is you know what happens next. But your reader doesn’t. You might know that your immigrant ancestor doesn’t do well once he gets to America. Raising a question that foreshadows his ill fortune raises reader interest: “If Giuseppe leaves Italy behind, will he find prosperity in America?” Any loose threads you dangle in front of the reader, though, need to eventually have a satisfying payoff. By posing a question like this, you’re teasing the reader to keep reading, because you’re implying that life won’t be good for Giuseppe when he gets to America.

            Sometimes our ancestors left us ready-made cliffhangers. Perhaps your ancestor was involved in a lawsuit. You don’t have to give the reader the outcome when you first introduce the lawsuit into the narrative. Hold back. Leave the outcome hanging. Move on to another topic or ancestor, then come back to the outcome later. Or maybe your ancestor left a ready-made emotional piece of suspense in a letter when he asked his sweetheart if she’d wait for him until after the war. End the chapter there. Then delay giving the response a bit. Keep the reader turning the pages to discover what she said.

            Although not a family history per se, Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has three narrative threads running through her book: the story/biography of Henrietta Lacks and her family history, the story of the Lacks cancer cells, and the story of Skloot finding and interviewing Henrietta’s children about their mother. Skloot creates suspense and keeps the pages turning by alternating chapters with these three threads, creating then tying up loose ends as the story unfolds.

            You can easily do the same thing by either writing about three interrelated branches of your family and alternating their stories, or by looking for three major themes in your family. In Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg, he weaves together the themes of searching for his mother’s sister whom she had kept a secret, the sister’s mental illness, and his grandparents’ life in the Ukraine.

Of course, when you leave loose threads and questions open, you’re making a promise to the reader. You are promising that you will come back to whatever you suspended in front of them in earlier chapters by answering those questions as best you can by the end of the story.

Visit Sharon’s new website: She will be teaching Focus on the Personal/Family Memoir through Writer’s Digest University, beginning March 29.

More about Sharon

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is a partner in the Salt Lake City-based research, writing, and publishing firm of Warren, Carmack & Associates. Sharon offers consulting, mentoring, writing, and editing services for nonfiction books, with an emphasis on memoirs, biographies, histories, family histories, and annotated diaries.
The author of sixteen books and hundreds of articles, columns, and reviews that have appeared in nearly every major genealogical journal and publication, some of Sharon’s book titles include You Can Write Your Family History, Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts, and Your Guide to Cemetery Research.
Her work has also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Steinbeck Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Writer’s Digest, and Personal Journaling. She is an assistant editor for Brevity and a contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine.
            Along with a BA (summa cum laude) in English from Regis University and an MFA (with Distinction) in Creative Nonfiction Writing from National University, Sharon holds a Diploma in Irish Studies from the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Sharon teaches nonfiction writing classes for Writer’s Digest University, and Irish research classes for Family Tree University.
            Sharon can be reached through her Web site: