Writing a memoir about childhood familial trauma has taken me into fraught storytelling territory. The narrative centers on growing up in the shadow of my maternal aunt’s murder that took place when my mother was pregnant with me. She kept her sister’s murder a closely guarded secret throughout my childhood. This aunt was my mother’s only sibling. She had two small daughters who came to live with our family five months before I was born. At the time, my mother had three children of her own: the eldest had Down syndrome; the youngest was 10 months old. Secrecy around the true nature of my aunt’s death further pressurized an already stressful family situation in which abuse and neglect became more frequent.

As I began writing, I groped my way in the dark, daunted by the amount and nature of the material I had to cull. What I’d lived through was complex and layered, freighted with dark events and heavy emotions. More questions than solutions arose. For example, how should I present my mother’s abuse and neglect of me without those events overwhelming the narrative? How and when should I reveal that I’d discovered the family secret by snooping in my parents’ private papers when I was nine, leaving me with a secret of my own to hide? With each question, I confronted an artistic choice around where and how to present highly charged, emotionally laden content.

Memoirists who’d inspired me, such as Maya Angelou, Mary Karr, and Joy Harjo, had created compelling literary art from childhood familial trauma without its darkness and weight straining or imploding the narrative. They paced their memoirs, narratively and emotionally, handling their injurious experiences artfully and intentionally, modulating the emotion embedded in their experiences as a composer would when writing an especially moving musical score.

I began thinking of this modulating as “emotional pacing.” Intuitively, I sensed that it differs from narrative pacing in this way: Narrative pacing addresses the overall speed of storytelling; emotional pacing addresses the impact of events and their associated emotions throughout the narrative. I returned to Angelou, Karr, and Harjo to explore my intuition.

Through close reading, I detected recognizable patterns of emotional pacing that turned on the way each writer manipulated narrative distance around and between emotional events. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou manipulates narrative distance as if she were adjusting the lens of a movie camera, toggling between exposition and narration and shifting perspective between the narrator’s child and adult selves. Her shifts often incorporate poetic devices, figures of speech, and imagery to amplify or compress emotion or convey its felt sense in the body. For example, when depicting her rape as an eight-year-old, the narrator stays almost solely in narration from her child perspective, slowing the pace significantly up to the assault then pausing the pace completely during the assault. In that pause, the narrator shifts into exposition and her adult perspective to deliver the following commentary:

The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot.

The shift increases the scene’s emotional potency, while the graphic, biblically-inspired metaphor further intensifies both the emotions of terror, betrayal, and helplessness and the felt experience of physical pain from the rape itself. From her adult perspective, the narrator gives voice to what her eight-year-old self in the midst of being brutally violated couldn’t possibly have articulated. The shift in perspective amplifies the emotional impact of the rape, the resonance of which lingers in the chapters that follow.

In The Liars’ Club, Karr, like Angelou, manipulates narrative distance by toggling between both the narrator’s adult and child perspectives, and between exposition and narration. She also uses shifts in verb tense from past to present and closely-coupled digressions to pace important, emotionally impactful events such as her mother’s breakdown.

For example, after comparing her mother to Anthony Perkins’ character in Psycho from her adult perspective and in past tense, the narrator shifts to present tense and her child’s perspective:

Then we’re in the lavender bedroom….[Mother] picks up toys one at a time off the closet floor and flings them into the box. We have left our room a mess, she says in a hoarse voice I don’t think of as hers. But that’s the only voice she has left, her drunk Yankee one.

The syntax changes here, too, from more complex, textured sentences to shorter, more staccato, subject-verb-object constructions. The impact of this complex moment relies on slowing the narrative in present tense and zooming in through the narrator’s child perspective. Copious sensory details delivered in rich, figurative language—the narrator’s scuffed oxblood loafers, her satchel thumping her right hip, the day’s heat making the air thick as gauze—further intensify the scene’s emotions.

In Crazy Brave, Harjo uses yet another technique to manipulate narrative distance: blending genres. Her narrator incorporates poems, fictionalized memories, and mystical stories from her Native American heritage, fusing them with a more traditional approach to nonfiction narrative.

For example, the narrator interrupts the traditional narrative to braid in an archetypal Native American story of the girl and the water monster, “a story no one told anymore.” This story stands in as a microcosm for her own heroine’s journey to reclaim her power against a monster who she sees “fighting with lightning,” whose force “broke trees, stirred up killer winds.” Harjo inserts this metaphorical story between scenes in which she depicts her stepfather’s abuses and the imminent threat he presented to her and her family. It places her personal story within a universal story from her culture, thereby resurrecting the archetypal story and signaling that she will find her way out. Nested poems and indigenous stories function as step-backs from the intensity of the narrative that precedes and follows them while foreshadowing what is to come, lending texture and depth to the portrait she’s creating of her emerging Poet self.

The way each writer emotionally paced her story was driven by her story’s message. This was a direct response to questions that propelled her investigation into her past and that were reflected in the work’s themes. I saw how each story’s emotional pacing functioned separately but in tandem with its narrative pacing, each writer adjusting the narrative tempo as necessary to support the emotional story. Scene breaks and juxtapositions—almost any kind of change in technique—affected how emotions were carried or co-mingled, how long they were held, and the way they rose up and dissolved from one narrative moment to another.

Emotional pacing relies on shifts in narrative distance around and between the narrative’s emotional events. Techniques to accomplish this can be subtle, such as inserting a poetic device or creating a juxtaposition. They can be overt, such as changing point of view, verb tense, or genre, or inserting scene or chapter breaks. Typically, techniques are blended. How we select and combine them depends on our purpose in shaping the narrative to deliver a particular message. Try some of these techniques when writing about complex and layered experiences freighted with dark events and heavy emotions and see which ones bring the emotional story alive in the reader.


Aggie Stewart writes memoir and essays. She moderated a panel on emotional pacing in the trauma narrative at AWP22 in Philadelphia. She has an essay forthcoming in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies in October 2022. Ms. Stewart is writing a memoir about growing up in the shadow of her maternal aunt’s murder, which occurred when her mother was pregnant with her and which her mother kept a closely guarded family secret.