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Suspense, Anxiety, and the Life of the Good Reader

Four chapters into our latest read-aloud, The Scarlet Pimpernel, the ninth-grade student whom I was tutoring spontaneously commented, “This is a really good story . . . it keeps you wondering what’s about to happen!” Heartily assenting, I turned the page to begin the next chapter of mounting mystery. But hours later, having left behind the novel’s Parisian streets and English inns, that comment echoed within the very different setting of my twenty-first century suburban preoccupations and pronounced an epiphany to my hard-hearing ears.

Hardly had I stepped out of the world of the novel—hardly had its delightful captivity of my attention been broken—before the drone of daily anxieties reinstated itself in the back of my mind. Can I stop for groceries quickly enough to get dinner on the table in time? Do we have to sign any more paperwork tonight? When will we hear back about the offer on that house? In what order should we tackle the projects if we do move? How much can we do before the baby comes? . . .

Though those questions pertain to my particular life in this particular week, they’re interchangeable with different sets of questions that have run through my mind in weeks past or will appear in weeks to come, and I’d wager every one of us can hear, if we listen, the incessant hum of our own what-ifs.

But now, the echo of my student’s voice interrupted that hum. It keeps you wondering . . . really good story . . . Here I was, fresh from savoring an author’s skill in building suspense for her novel, and already pursing my lips in dull distaste at the suspense in my own life.

Literature does not only provide an escape from life; it also teaches us to live. Its characters, when they parallel our own acquaintances, provide the bit of critical distance needful for loving and understanding people with whom we don’t easily relate; its heroes set us models to aspire after in imitation; its settings refine the prescription for the lenses through which we observe our own places; its archetypes establish touchstones by which we recognize our positions in a greater Story; its words bestow the supreme human dignity and delight of naming our experiences, sons of Adam as we are all. And, as I had now to realize afresh, the structures of its plots train us to live in story rather than overwrite it, as the idolatrous tendencies of our hearts too often lead us to do.

Immersed in a story, my student and I could both relish the literary art of suspense, an essential ingredient of the most delicious plots. Suspense is not merely a state of not knowing what will happen. It is, rather, a state of knowing that something is about to happen, but not knowing what that something is. It is a heightened awareness that something significant hovers on the horizon, and that when it arrives, it will either catalyze the plot’s central action or unlock its deeper meaning—the two plot culminations that provide the sense of satisfaction integral to our experience of a good story. The more a reader attends with delight to the development of a plot’s suspense, the more fully she will grasp the meaning and participate in the experience of its final resolution.

That life is a story, whether the life of a soul or the life of the world, is among Christianity’s boldest assertions. Within that simple predication are affirmed two of the most empirically elusive claims of the faith: that all life has an Author, and that all life thus has authoritative meaning. To assent to all this is an act of intellectual daring, but to mold thought and action in consistency to it is the feat of a saint or martyr. For it means relinquishing our toddler’s-crayon-grasp upon the writing of our own stories, and submitting to life as a character bound by all the rules of plot.

It will take till beyond death’s denouement to contemplate all of what this means. But for now, for just a moment, we can at least consider what it means for the element of suspense in our own lives. Those unending questions, the incessant what-if’s, are no cause for passive fretting nor for overwriting the authorship of our days. They are, rather, the signal to the attentive reader that it is a good story we’re living, that something significant hovers past the bend, that an eager patience in turning each page will not finally be disappointed; they will wrest from the good reader’s lips, not a sigh of frustration, but a humble, gladsome homage to the Author whom we trust will make the plot come out right in the end.

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