Keep Your Reader Hungry

What suspense can there be in historical writing, given that the past is already settled?

Plenty.

History is never settled, which is why societies will always need historians. Even when the reader knows what the eventual outcome of events will be, historians inject suspense by pursuing their preferred questions: how and why.


This is one reason why the reader is gripped by Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH. Even though Binet makes the outcome of the story clear from the very beginning, he uses the stock-in-trade of the thriller to keep the reader hungry until the eventual tragedy has unfolded. The same could be said of Hilary Mantel’s great novel of the French Revolution A Place of Greater Safety.

The same could be said of any book dealing with relatively well-known historical events, whether the Norman invasion in 1066, or a biography of Alan Turing. Historians build suspense into these accounts using techniques such as dramatic revelations, compelling characters, stalling, and internal cliff-hangers.[1] As Christopher Bram has pointed out for Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera, knowing the outcome replaces the ‘suspense of what’ with ‘the mystery of why’.[2]

These techniques rightly belong in the grey area where narrative and argument overlap. Matt Houlbrook’s Prince of Tricksters tells the story of a con-man who goes by many names, including Netley Lucas. Houlbrook’s book is about what it is possible to know about a man who lied about everything. There is suspense for the reader in the historian’s self-consciously self-defeating effort to unmask the trickster, and suspense in Netley Lucas’s audacious deceptions. Who will he be next?

And this problem of Lucas’s identity and how the historian deals with it is also an intellectual one. The suspense in the book makes an argument about the tidy assumptions we make about historical identities, and the importance of the con-man to a specific period in British history.


There is another way in which history is never settled: choose a different endpoint, and the entire shape of a history changes.

This is how Kate Summerscale changes the entire meaning of the murders she explores in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and A Wicked Boy. I won’t ruin the suspense, but her choice to follow stories to a different conclusion is a choice available to all historians. Sometimes the most obvious endpoint is not the most satisfying one from a narrative point of view.

Suspense, like the many other elements of good story writing, is not simply given to the historian by the sources, although it can often feel like that. Suspense is something that can be crafted, by choosing what to include, and what not to include.


Practice

  1. Read a Dan Brown novel.
    1. Go on, pretend you didn’t enjoy it on some level.
    2. Think about how the author uses suspense. Dan Brown novels are the best thing I know for this, as they are so straightforward in the way they use the classic techniques of suspense.
  2. Experiment with the tools of suspense in your historical writing. Try hamming it up to see how it feels. You don’t have to keep any of the results, but you may want to keep some. Here are a few to try out:
    1. Unanswered questions. Experiment with different types. They can be intellectual, or narrative.
      1. Deflect questions with new questions endlessly. Where is the line between tension and exasperation?
    2. End sections with big questions, or promises of revelations to shortly follow.
    3. Delay the gratification your readers want from cliffhangers. Ask challenging questions, and hold off answering them by changing topic. Use the style of the argument by deferred meaning.
    4. Flashbacks/forwards. Begin your piece with an endpoint.
    5. Strong characters. All strong characters want something badly. Their desires drive suspense.

[1] For a masterclass, see Yorke’s Into the Woods, not simply for the argument it makes about plot, but the way it relies on cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, inviting the reader to find out what happens in the next one. See, for instance, the end of the chapter on p.73.

[2] Bram, The Art of History, 19.

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