Skip to main content
Publish date:

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.
Image placeholder title

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.

Image placeholder title

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.

4 Lessons Writers Can Learn from ‘The Good Place’

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?

Image placeholder title
Mail's Here!

Mail's Here!

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, you've got mail.

Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson: On the Power of Creative Teamwork

Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson: On the Power of Creative Teamwork

Authors Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson discuss the benefits of working as co-authors and the process of writing the newest Presidential Agent novel, Rogue Asset.

5 Tips for Writing About Big Historical Events in Fiction

5 Tips for Writing About Big Historical Events in Fiction

Novelist Anna Stuart shares her top five tips for writing about big historical events in fiction so that the story stays front and center...and engaging.

Mantel vs. Mantle (Grammar Rules)

Mantel vs. Mantle (Grammar Rules)

This post looks at the differences between mantel and mantle with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Agent Advice

Agent Advice: Analieze Cervantes of The Harvey Klinger Literary Agency

Agent Advice (this installment featuring Analieze Cervantes of The Harvey Klinger Literary Agency) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 4 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Webinar, Submission Deadline for Your Favorite Writing Websites, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce 4 WDU courses, an upcoming webinar on creating an author website, and more!

How To Find the Right Professional Editor for Your Writing

How To Find the Right Professional Editor for Your Writing

It's not enough to know when your manuscript is ready for a professional edit—it's knowing who is the right fit to do the editing. Here, Tiffany Yates Martin discusses how to find the right professional editor for your writing.

From Script

Understanding the Writer and Agent Relationship (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, read an intimate interview with Verve Literary Agent and Partner David Boxerbaum about the state of the spec market, the relationship between a writer and agent, and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Ending Your Story Too Soon

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Ending Your Story Too Soon

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is ending your story too soon.