Narrative Methods: Finding Suspense Points

Henri Augustin Gambard, La maladie d'Alexandre, 1846. Public domain. La Salle University Art Museum.

When I started teaching history, I had to figure out quickly how to turn narrative-shaped factual information into interesting true stories for the classroom. One of the most powerful tools I discovered was what (borrowing a term from other disciplines) I’ll call the pregnant moment: a mental scene that sums up action or change in an ambiguous way, allowing the student’s imagination to roam while impelling the student to reckon with the implied before-and-after of the scene.

Pregnant moments not only build suspense into the narrative structure of a lesson. They also provide rich opportunities for embedding active learning in a lecture, since they let you invite students into a scene to talk together about the possibilities it implies.

Sometimes you can create this kind of suspenseful moment just by setting a scene in a general way—by inviting students to imagine themselves, for example, as members of a community who have just encountered a strange invader or whose lives are about to be transformed by a new technology or idea, and asking them to talk through what’s likely to happen next.

But it can be especially effective to use primary sources to create a pregnant moment for students based on a more specific interlude in human experience.

Last week, for example, I needed to provide some of my students with a framework for thinking about the division of Alexander the Great’s empire among his generals after his death, leading to a new imperial settlement across the Mediterranean and Persian world after the fourth century BCE. (Please note: This is pretty far outside my training and expertise, so I can only hope I’m not confessing to terrible ignorance in describing my approach to the topic.)

Instead of charging ahead to talk schematically about the empires and wars of the Diadochi, listing off the successor states of the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, and the Antigonids, I decided first to linger—at the risk of lionizing a murderous “great man”—on the moment of Alexander’s death. He died young in Babylon, amid the remains of the vast Persian empire he had overrun, in June 323 BCE.

Looking through secondary accounts, I found references to two primary sources, both purportedly discussing the same moment. One is the only truly contemporary account known to modern scholars. The other is from a Roman history that was written more than three hundred years later. I quickly tracked down good-enough copies of these sources in translation.

In class, I set the scene by introducing the first source. In the summer of 323, I told my students, the officials of the Esagila, a temple to the god Marduk in the city of Babylon, were dutifully carrying out one of the responsibilities of their profession: carefully recording the behavior of heavenly bodies. (Such records would be crucial for playing their important public role as astrologers.) They left behind a clay cuneiform tablet documenting their observations, night after night. (I also showed my students a photograph of the tablet, which is now held by the British Museum.)

I read aloud part of the surviving text in translation. That month, the stargazers were frustrated repeatedly by overcast skies:

[Year fourteen of Alexander, Month Two]

Night of the fourteenth, beginning of the night, the moon was … in front of Theta Ophiuchi.

[Night of the eighteenth,] first part of the night, Mercury was fourteen fingers above Saturn. …

The twenty-first: clouds crossed the sky.

Night of the twenty-second: clouds …

[Night of the twenty-third: …] clouds were in the sky.

The twenty-fourth: clouds ….

Night of the twenty-seventh: clouds crossed the sky.

By quoting this litany, I was trying to fold my students into the moment. If it’s done right (with respect for students’ attention span), a litany like this, far from being boring, builds up suspense.

Then I slowly read the key line:

The twenty-ninth: The king died. Clouds.

This got a lot of laughter because I paused for ironic effect before reading the last word. I was trying to convey the suddenness, the surprise, that may have attended Alexander’s death—and thus, the lack of advance planning. This is how an empire of some two million square miles, overrun in little more than a decade of mass murder, came to an end.

Now, I advised my students, with the king’s demise at age 32, the empire is thrown into confusion. Alexander’s generals, we’re told, have to gather to figure out what should happen next.

I was trying to create a sense of danger and a sense of that all-important historical currency, contingency.

So I turned to my other primary source, the account ascribed to Quintus Curtius Rufus, apparently a Roman politician who wrote a History of Alexander in perhaps the first century CE. With appropriate caveats about the date and sourcing of this text, I loosely quoted for my students a scene from Curtius’s history (book 10, chapter 6) to describe the confusion that ancient observers believed would ensue in such a moment:

Now at Babylon … Alexander’s bodyguards summoned his principal friends and the army officers to the royal tent.  These were followed by a crowd of the rank and file, all anxious to know to whom Alexander’s estate would pass. Many officers were unable to enter the royal tent because they were presented by the milling crowds of soldiers …. At first loud weeping and wailing broke out afresh, but then their tears stopped and silence fell as they wondered what was going to happen now. At this point Perdiccas exposed the royal throne to public view. On this lay Alexander’s crown, robe and arms, and Perdiccas placed upon it the ring the king had given him the previous day. The sight of these objects once more brought tears to the eyes of all and rekindled their grief. ‘For my part,’ said Perdiccas, ‘I return to you the ring handed to me by Alexander.’

As I explained to my students, we’re told that the dying king has handed Perdiccas, one of his commanders, his imperial signet ring, the most important instrument of his authority, supposedly instructing him to deliver it “to the strongest.” Thus, Perdiccas seems to have the task of sorting out which of many powerful, ambitious men should take the throne. If Curtius is to be believed, he affects not to want that task at all; Perdiccas can’t wait to be rid of Alexander’s ring.

The point of this scene: It’s tense and terrifying. Curtius knew that ancient readers would anticipate that the question of who should succeed Alexander the Great, dying without a clear heir, would be a matter of life and death to the people in that room, many of whom are hardened killers. They’re weeping because they’re sad, or at least want to appear to be sad, but also because they’re scared.

For a time, we’re told, an uneasy peace holds. Perdiccas reigns as a kind of general-regent in the name of Alexander’s infant son and incapacitated brother. Before many years, however, the empire predictably dissolves into warfare among the Macedonian generals.

That development finally let me launch into an overview of the successor empires that defined the Hellenistic world after Alexander, which provided the framework for much of the rest of my lesson.

If the pregnant moment of Alexander’s death worked as I think it did, it created the stakes my students may have initially needed to invest themselves in the meaning of, for example, Ptolemy I Soter’s rise to power in North Africa, and in the unusual society shaped by Ptolemaic rule there in the following centuries.

That’s how the pregnant moment works. Usually, you can put it together fairly quickly; it’s a tool suitable for instructors short on time and instructors with limited expertise in the topics at hand. The trick is to find a moment of ambiguity as well as changea moment from which important things must flow, but have not yet flowed. Your students’ imaginations will do much of the remaining work.



Image: Henri Augustin Gambard, La maladie d’Alexandre, 1846. Public domain. La Salle University Art Museum. Photograph by Jonathan W. Wilson.

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