Conventional wisdom for writers of non-fiction is that building suspense is one of the key tools to keep readers engaged.
Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, advises writers that, since they will have few opportunities to include suspense, they should make good use of any they do get. Even Dickens advised: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”
But in his podcast series The Last Days of August, Jon Ronson chooses to be upfront about deciding not to build suspense.
The series, an Audible Original which is now freely available, concerns the death of porn actress August Ames. In episode two, Ronson says this:
“Before I take you to my interview with Mercedes Carrera, I want to stop for a moment, and tell you something. These first interviews were recorded in early 2018 but this is the Jon of a year later talking who, with my producer Lena, spent ten months investigating August’s death. I don’t want this to be one of those shows which creates narrative tension by fuelling suspicion that a person might be a murderer. So I want to tell you that while we uncover some extraordinary and unexpected things and devastating mysteries will reveal themselves and be solved, this will NOT turn out to be a murder mystery.”Jon Ronson, The Last Days of August : The Last Days of August: Episode Two
It’s a bold decision to take, and even bolder to be open about it so early in the piece.
Perhaps a glimpse of Ronson’s motivation came in a conversation he had with Manveen Rana for the new Times podcast Stories of our Times in which he discusses his history of anxiety and how that’s been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
“I also developed a new kind of anxiety called scrupulosity. It’s an excessive concern about behaving in an ethical manner. You tie yourself up in knots about doing the right thing ethically…. Specifically I suppose mainly as a journalist. You want to make sure that your stories are ethical, that you’re treating everybody in the right way, whilst still being a proper journalist. You know as journalists we have a great responsibility over people we are chronicling, and you’ve got to be ethical.”Jon Ronson, on Stories of Our Times