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How Memory Loss Builds Suspense in The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 foray into Arthurian-inspired fantasy, is not the first book you would think of as a suspenseful novel. But Jane K. Cleland's principles of building suspense with memory loss explain how the device heightens tensions in novels like this one.
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The Buried Giant, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 foray into Arthurian-inspired fantasy, is not the first book you would think of as a suspenseful novel.

Rather than the fast-paced action and adventure often included in the fantasy genre, this novel is characterized by a quiet restraint. The primary character, Axl, is an elderly Briton who sets out with his wife, Beatrice, on a quest to find their son, whom they barely recall. When action does occur and they encounter magical creatures, the prose reflects no more excitement than when the couple discusses their wish for a candle to stave off the darkness in their simple home.

Yet, despite its steadfast tone, The Buried Giant is filled with suspense.

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A mist over England causes loss of memory in Britons and Saxons alike. Axl and Beatrice, anxious to free themselves from the mist and recall their lives together, leave their village. Their journey becomes entangled with the political relations between Britons and Saxons and with the final duty of the aging Sir Gawain, last surviving knight of King Arthur's Round Table. Through it all, the mystery of the mist—and what it's hiding—pulls readers through each episode of the quest.

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How do we write suspense so that readers become eager to keep reading and find out what happens next—especially in a calm, quiet narrative?

In this excerpt from Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot, Jane K. Cleland explains the connection between memory loss and suspense.

Inspire Reader Curiosity

The narrative question, that key longing or conflict that forms the overarching driver of your story, shouldn’t be answered all at once, or too early. Writing that engenders reader questions creates suspense. Leave readers with more questions even as you deliver answers.

In order to achieve this paradox—revelations leading to mysteries—you need to create full-blooded characters and peel away the layers of their personalities, characteristics, intentions, and/or motivations slowly. One reliable way to structure this character-driven slow reveal is through the use of an unreliable narrator. If a character’s version of events cannot be trusted, the reader has to wait for the plot to unfold before the truth is revealed.

From a writer’s point of view, you’re on solid ground if you have a character struggle with remembering things. Memory is dicey.

Remembering something isn’t like rewinding a movie that lives in your head. Cognitive psychologists report that recall comes from recreating a memory, not replaying it. When recreating a memory, we gather up the bits and pieces of sensory threads and cognitive strings and knit them together into whole cloth. If we don’t have all the pieces available to call on (and we rarely do), we unconsciously fill in the blanks without even knowing we’re doing so.

Further complicating the issue is that we humans tend to believe what validates our pre-existing values, so we complete our memories with what we assume is true. This process also occurs unconsciously, when traumatic incidents block all or part of a memory from forming in the first place.

 Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

True to Cleland’s advice, we have more and more questions as Axl and Beatrice move forward on their quest:

  • The couple becomes certain that their son is waiting for them in a nearby village, though they barely remembered him when they set out; what truly happened when he left them years before?
  • The two lovingly support each other through the trials of their journey, so why are they so worried about recalling their past together?
  • Knights and warriors seem to recognize Axl somehow; who is (or was) he, really?
  • And we learn with the couple about the source of the mist and how to end it, but how and why did it come about? And what consequences will come from “de-mistifying” the world?

If you’ve read The Buried Giant, do you agree that Ishiguro’s exploration of memory builds suspense? What other books have you read that create suspense without the expected excitement? Think about your current works-in-progress. How can you build suspense in an unexpected way in your own writing?

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