Scheherazade: the Modern Mystery Maven

by Nancy Means Wright

When I read of another tragic loss of life in the vicinity of Bahgdad, I think back to Scheherazade and the magical, mystical tales in The Arabian Nights, and recall how a suspenseful story saved a life.

After hearing his brother’s account of an unfaithful wife, Shah Shahryar discovered his own wife in a stranger’s embrace and, fed up with women, ordered her death. “Henceforth,” he told his minister, the Wazir, “you must fetch me a new bride, then each morning, lead her to her execution.”

Such suspense already!

Frightened parents hid their daughters, and soon the only girls left in the kingdom were the Wazir’s own two daughters, Scheherazade and Dunyazad.  Scheherazade, the eldest,  was bold, beautiful, and inventive, rather like a female sleuth from a modern mystery. Seeing her father the Wazir, panicked because of the dearth of brides, she said, “Just send me, Papa, to the  callous fellow. Either I shall live–or die a death for all women (I think here of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) and whatever happens, there should be nothing but pride for you.”

Naturally the Wazir calmed down a little.

And naturally, the Shah was captivated by the plucky Scheherazade. Yet remained resolute in his decree of death–he couldn’t lose face by going back on his word.  But he promised his shocked countrymen that the executioner would use only the sharpest axe. Entertainment for all? So here’s the big question: Would she live–or die?

Scheherazade climbed into the sultan’s bed in the most translucent of nightgowns (a little excitement here), and the couple made love as though the world might end at first light–as indeed it would for the average exploited female.

But not for our crafty heroine.

For Scheherazade had a plan. She’d awaken her lord at midnight and beg to see her sister Dunyazad for the last time. Entering the shah’s bedchamber, the sister would ask for a story to while away the final hours–and Scheherazade would take it from there.

“One day,” our heroine began, “a fisherman removed the sealed stopper from a brass jar he’d pulled up out of the deep, and from its neck a giant plume of smoke poured forth and took the form of a figure with hands like pitchforks and teeth like tombstones.”

It was the wicked Jinni, furious at the world after his “century of bondage,” and vowing that the first man he laid eyes on after his release… “should die!”

“Oh, no…”

On the story continued to its hair-raising climax.  Then stopped. 

“What happened next?” the fevered king shouted. “You can’t stop now. Go on!”

But alas, pink-faced dawn was creeping through the windows. “And now,” said Dunyazad, “my poor sister must die.” And she burst into appropriate tears.

“But if my good lord will let me live till tomorrow night,” murmured the wily Scheherazade, “I promise to tell you the end of the story.”

Whereupon the sultan, hungry for the tale yet overcome by the good smell of coffee, cried, “By Allah, I shall not kill her till the tale be told!”

So it went, night after night: Scheherazade completing the old story, then beginning a new.  The king wholly enmeshed in the storyteller’s web. A thousand and one nights, hardly interrupted by the births of seven babes (midwives there to cut the cords, but never the narrative flow).

Then one eve our heroine gathered the sweet offspring to her breast, asked for a pardon, and the sultan, like many an avid reader, came to realize that he couldn’t live without his storyteller to stimulate his imagination with romance, suspense, and conflict–because life was too dull without it.

So he ordered his scribes to write down the stories on scrolls that others might enjoy them, and told Scheherazade to teach all the would-be storytellers the art of suspense. In this way the art was passed down through the ages to this very day. For storytellers must know, he said, how to tease their readers with a provocative pause–that the latter might come back again and again to find out “what happens next.” For without suspense, the axe would fall.

Today’s Scheherazades, both female and male, have learned this, have they not? See below for a few chapter-end teasers:

“For the first time in this annoying case, he felt the vague stirring of the waters as a living idea emerged slowly and darkly from the innermost deeps of his mind.” (Dorothy Sayers)

“Jackson sat bolt upright and grabbed the nurse’s arm. ‘My wife,’ he said, ‘where’s my wife?'” (Kate Atkinson)

“My master looked at me and said, ‘I fear something has happened to Severinus.”” (Umberto Eco)

“The pressure was building, he could feel it, and the parting words of the maitre d’ came back to him.//’Tomorrow’s going to be a killer.'” (Louise Penny)

“Everyone of them, including his brother, had a pistol pointed at Billy’s heart.” (John Daniel)

“‘Lock up,’ he said. // Like never before, I thought.” (Camille Minichino aka Ada Madison)

“Then he looked at the three young women on the porch. ‘This isn’t over,’ he said. ‘You may think it  is, but it’s not.'”

I thank Janet Dawson, above, for the perfect ending to this story-blog.

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20 Responses

  1. Awesome post. Left me almost as breathless as the Shah! 😉 I love finding the “sweet spot” to end a chapter that will keep readers up much later than they intended to keep reading.

    Here’s the last line in a chapter of PENANCE, the YA book I’m pitching to agents now:

    Jada’s rage was replaced with abject terror when she clicked on the red notification and saw the subject line of the new message.

    I HAVE YOUR FRIEND

    • Great chapter ending, Joyce! I love your reference to the “sweet spot.” And Penance is a provocative title. Let me know how your pitch turns out. Scheherazade is role model for pitches to agents, too.

  2. A great blog post! Enjoyed it very much. Love those hooks that take readers into the next chapter. (insert evil laugh here)

    • Thanks, Pauline! I like your evil laugh, and so would Scheherazade, no doubt.

  3. What a fun blog! And very true. Had a great time reading about the shah and his final bride. And it illustrates the important point, it’s not just the first line that has to hook readers…it’s the end of every chapter. LOL

    • First and last lines must have hooks, according to wise old Scheherazade. She loved suspense, and of course saved her life through creating it. Thanks for responding, LJ!

  4. I remember reading and loving the tales as a child. There’s much writers can learn from them in building suspense. My husband gave ARCs of Death Legacy to a few friends to read. Since it’s a mystery thriller, I was delighted to hear that they couldn’t put the book down and that it was a page turner.

  5. Obviously, as a page turner, your Death Legacy would be approved by Scheherazade, Jacquie! Like you, I, too, read these tales in childhood. I loved Aladdin and his Lamp and Sindbad the Sailor? And of course Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves! all page turners.

  6. Great post, Nancy, and l thank you for including something of mine. I now wonder: did Scheherazade know what was going to happen next, or did she have to come up with something by the seat of her harem pants before bedtime every night?

    • Ah. Great question. It brings up the difference, I think, between those of us who plan out a book in advance, and those of us with no idea of what will happen next until we type merrily along and suddenly….. zing! I’m of the latter type, and I like to fancy that so was Scheherazade. She would simply wing it, night after night, with one hand massaging her fragile neck and….at least a whole day to decide which of a dozen endings she might choose.
      On the other hand….

  7. Nancy, I loved this post. I’m speaking at a “literary lunch” fundraiser next week and, with your permisison, may borrow some of the Scheherezade story. Suspense is an essential ingredient.

    • I’d be happy to have you do so, Linda! Scheherazade belongs to all of us storytellers. Enjoy the literary lunch–sounds fun! Yes, shrimp, savory sauce and suspense.

  8. What a good post, Nancy. It took me a while to learn about suspense. At a reading last night I talked about the fact that in my first unpublished book I was so eager to exonerate the innocent that I gave away my red herrings by Chapter Three.

    • A funny story, Anita! I gave away a lot in my first mystery, too, before my editor intervened. Now you can use the mishaps in your talks and readings and get a good laugh. People love tales of bloopers–and they love suspense!

  9. Nancy, What an inspiring story, and one I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard told just that way. That’s how I was cured of writer’s block–having that axe dangled over my neck every week for years, first in college, to finish a weekly literature essay, and then in business, with proposal deadlines. It’s amazing what the threat of death, actual, academic or financial, does to loosen up one’s imagination. And when I get into my characters, the threat of their death does the same thing for me! Thanks, Peter.

    • Well, actually, Peter, I adapted the tale a bit, but the bare bones are there. How interesting to see how you were cured of writer’s block! That proverbial axe–I know it well from grad school and a hundred other deadlines–even self-imposed ones. Yes! teacher’s threats, employers’ threats.. I threaten myself with “no chocolate until you finish this blog!” (It doesn’t always work–the chocolate keeps me going.)

  10. HI Nancy. I loved this post and the comments. Sometimes I’m surprised at the dull chapter endings I come across. It’s too easy to put the book down and go to bed. My favorite comment from a reader was that she felt like crap the next morning because she could never finish a chapter of Dying for a Dance without going on to the next. I think that’s a good thing!

    • That’s a great compliment to you and your novel, Cindy! Now I’m heading back myself to look at my latest chapter endings, See if they’d keep the old king from giving me the axe. Thanks for commenting!

  11. The one and only time I’ll be in a post with Scheherazade and I have you to thank, Nancy! And how lucky that I’m reminded about the importance of suspense and leading chapter endings, just as I start a new book. I’m going to take something from here and turn it into a mantra. Thanks!

    • Another book, Camille? Hurrah! You, like Scheherazade, are indefatigable. Thanks for not suing me for appropriating your work! Anyway, the crafty Scheherazade offers us all a reminder to keep up the excitement. No letting down, I keep telling myself…

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