“And Then What?”: Creating Suspense in Biography

Most subject’s lives don’t play out like a whodunit, so how do biographers create suspense—or drama, or tension—to keep readers reading? Moderator Gayle Feldman questioned panelists John Aloysius Farrell, Carla Kaplan, and John Matteson on that topic.

Certain story lines are inherently suspenseful, Kaplan said, such as court scenes and episodes of social conflict. Referring to her book, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, she said, “breaking taboos and flouting social convention is by nature suspenseful.”

As far as specific techniques, Matteson spoke out against foreshadowing or including “teasers,” believing that “in most instances, they tend to kill suspense rather than heighten it.” We live life not knowing what will happen next, and readers should experience the subject’s life the same way. But he said he liked to use the technique of ending a chapter with the start of a journey, trusting that will pique the reader’s curiosity.

One problem can be that readers already know the broad outline of famous subject’s life and expect certain events to be covered. The key for biographers, Farrell said, is to present the subject’s unknown side, too. Matteson called this a “dialogue” between the known story and the unknown, which can create tension. That dialogue can also take the form of challenging the reader’s conception—or misconception—of the subject with a completely different reality. But whatever story biographers present, Kaplan said, they have to make readers identify with and care about the subject. With that identification, readers will be compelled to see how the subject responds to problems and conflicts, both internal and external.