Monday, 24 September 2012

Cliffhangers For Unscrupulous Writers



The dirty secret about cliffhangers is that they work.

Whether they’re corny, cheesy, clichéd, obvious, predictable or downright contrived.

Sure, you may well get called a hack and a cheap manipulator, but cliffhangers only guarantee the reader will cross the chapter break, they don’t guarantee they’ll like what they find when they get there.

Obviously, it would be preferable if writers used this technique for good instead of evil. But we all know that's not how cliffhangers are used for the most part. Anyone with a television set can see the abuse and misuse they are put to nightly. Still, it’s worth having this weapon in your arsenal. How you use it is your affair.


Danger
The simplest and the most common: physical peril. If doom is impending, seeing how a character manages to avoid it works even when the solution turns out to be fairly straightforward (he ducked!).

The Dilemma
Rather than a simple choice, the dilemma offers the added cliffhanger of ‘The Consequences’. If Jack is clinging for dear life off a cliff, and in the next chapter he manages to get a handhold and work his way to safety, that’s the end of that. But if Jack’s only chance of survival is to cut fellow climber Tim loose, sending him plunging to his death, and then climb to safety, the consequences of his actions have already become the next cliffhanger. Chaining cliffhangers together is an excellent way to give readers no convenient point of disembarkation.

What’s in the box?
When something hidden is revealed—in a safe, behind a curtain, the contents of a letter—opening the box but not revealing what’s in it never fails. Cheap? Yes. Effective? No doubt.

Will they or won’t they?
Romance outcome is always going to keep the attention. Doesn’t matter how obvious it is that they will end up together, readers want confirmation. And once they have it, they will lose all interest, so best to save it for as near the end as possible.

Why did he do that?
Unexpected behaviour, something unusual or out of place, requires explanation. If the bank robbers prepare to go into the bank—guns, masks, explosives—and then they all put on their tap dancing shoes, you’re going to want to know what the hell they plan to do.

Discovery
When someone’s secret is discovered, when the thing they’ve always feared would ruin them gets out, what happens? How do people react? How does the owner of the secret react? Is it as bad as they feared? Worse? The only real reason to give a character a secret is to see what happens when it’s revealed.

Will it work?
When you go to the trouble of coming up with a complicated plan to get the thing you really want, whether it’s a girl or a diamond or a murder, the moment the plan is put into action, the reader wants to know whether it will be successful.

It’s gone wrong!
When things don’t go to plan, what’s our hero going to do? Give up? No way. Improvising a solution is more exciting than when things go smoothly. Let’s see you get out of this one, says the reader.

I’m about to explain all
At some point he figures it out. He knows who did it, or how it was done, or whatever. But just because the character knows, that doesn’t mean he’s going to spill the beans right away. Very annoying, but no one’s going to stop reading now, right?

Anticlimax
Of course, it’s best not to set up a cliffhanger and then reveal there was no real danger. It was just the cat, or a wrong number or a dream. That’s lazy and amateurish. But it still works. Every time. Not saying you should use it. Just saying.

Delayed Punchline
You set up the big cliffhanger at the end of Ch.4, with the girl tied to the bomb, the countdown on ten seconds, the hero still locked in a police cell on the other side of town. Then Ch.5, a man buying cheese in a cheese shop... WTF? No bomb, no girl, no hero. How can this be? Oh, it can be, alright.  It’s irritating, it’s frowned upon, it’s hated by readers... but they’ll keep reading.

Disclaimer: I’m just splitting atoms for the purposes of science.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.

41 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent checklist of cliffhangers. I admit, I probably don't use them as much as I should. Just not evil enough I guess.

Grace Robinson said...

What a great post! I never thought about the different types of cliffhangers before or analyzed how they can be used effectively. Very insightful and helpful, thank you!

And the bank robbers in the tap shoes...I'd like to read that story. You got my curiosity up. ;-)

Nancy Thompson said...

I love cliffhangers, except at 3am when all I really want to do is sleep. But I hate those hangers that, when you read on, they were somehow false, without real danger. Kind of like a soap opera--very cheesy!

E.J. Wesley said...

Going to save these for for notes on chapter polishing, Moody. Love using cliffhangers to finish off chapters.

mooderino said...

@Alex-I'm pretty sure you have a dark side. I'm just waiting when you finally reveal it.

@Grace-"The Bank on Broadway" is in the works (not really).

@Nancy-But soap operas are still very popular. Damn you television!

@EJ-This post has DRM security so only keep the notes on one computer or in a notebook, but not both.



Karen Lange said...

I agree, they do work! Thanks for the breakdown. This is a good reference.

Have a great week!

Writer in Learning said...

Thank you very much for your posts and again this one has been very helpful and I hope I can put it to good use.

mooderino said...

@karen-cheers, you too.

@WiL-YVW

cleemckenzie said...

I guess cliff hangers are what made The Perils of Pauline such a success.
:-) I like using them to pull the reader into the next chapter and as a reader it's fun to be filled with expectation at the end of a chapter. The one technique I really don't like is when the author intrudes with something like, "He'll soon find out he's made a terrible mistake."

That sends me running for another book.

Great post.

Gina Gao said...

This is very helpful. I am really thankful for this post because I am starting to write my book, and I am in desperate need of tips.

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

Donna Hole said...

One anti-climax works great, as long as the next cliff hanger is unexpected. A good list here. These work well too as scene builders to up tension. But as a reader, I always want a pay off for my continued reading.

.........dhole

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I think what you call cliffhangers are what I call 'hooks'. A hook is anything that will keep the reader interested and reading. The end of every scene should have a hook of some kind, even if only a small one, because scene breaks (and especially scene breaks that are chapter ends) are natural places for the reader to put the book down. How often do you think 'I'll read to the end of a chapter and then I'll make a cup of tea'? Except, if the book is well-written, you get to the end, and you don't WANT to go make that cup of tea anymore. I KNOW a well-written book won't let me put it down at the end of a chapter, and yet something in me is still looking for those natural breaks to put the book down.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Excellent breakdown Mood. I use cliffhangers often. I don't use the cop-out kind. A writer should really show their craft and create a real intense one.

Your posts are always so informative and helpful Mood, thanks.

Michael

mooderino said...

@lee-that kind of author intrusion is very annoying.

@Gina-if it's tip you want,you've come to the right place.

@Donna-nothing like a good pay off... nothing like a bad one either.


@Ciara-I think of hooks as more wide reaching reasons for reading on, whereas cliffhangers tend to be more immediate and contained.

@Michael-cheers!

Freya Morris said...

Yeh great post! Some of those I'd never considered as a "cliff hanger" before.

mooderino said...

@Freya-the more immediate the threat/reveal, the more cliffhangery it gets.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Like Alex, I too don't use too many cliff hangers. I need to incorporate them more in my stories. Excellent checklist, Mooderino.

mooderino said...

@Rachna-although cliffhangers can lead to frustration, frustration leads to anger, and anger leads to the dark side of the force.

Lynda R Young said...

hehe I love this list of cliffhangers. I love them at the end of chapters, but not so much at the end of a book.

mooderino said...

@Lynda-truly the most unscrupulous of all cliffhangers.

Scribbles From Jenn said...

Informative post. Cliffhangers may be considered a cheap shot, but they get the reader to turn the page. We may pass out bookmarks with our books image on them, but what we really want is you to keep turning the page.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

George R.R. Martin is the king of cliffhangers. He structures his multiple narrative novels in such a way that each chapter ends with one and you don't get tired of it because by the time you return to that character, so much has happened in the rest of the world. IT's why his books are page turners. I call that clever writing.

mooderino said...

@Jenn-I love a book that keeps me up at night. Cliffhangers FTW!

@Michael-it's the several years between cliffhanger and resolution that's the killer.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great list. I've actually come to like cliffhangers a bit--they're frustrating at the end of stories, but I love the anticipation of not knowing what will happen or what has already happened.

Lydia Kang said...

Nice post! What a great breakdown of types of cliffhangers. :)

mooderino said...

@Golden-they definitely work, not always satisfying.

@Lydia-TYVM

Jay Noel said...

I end each chapter with a mini cliff hanger, but I write in 3rd person limited episodic - so I use multiple viewpoints.

The anti climax IS EVIL!!!

You're right - cliff hangers get readers talking. Even if they complain and grumble about it, people flock to read it.

Romance Book Haven said...

Great list of cliffhangers! I'm making a list. Thanks!

Nas

Cally Jackson said...

I ABHOR the anti-climax. Even as a kid, they drove me crazy. I remember wanting to chuck my Goosebumps book across the room after yet another predictable anti-climax.

Great list, though. I've used some of these in The Big Smoke. Perhaps I'll use the remaining ones in my next book. :-)

mooderino said...

@Jay-I think the anti-climactic cliffhanger can be used for comedic effect, or as a misdirect for sucker punch. But even then it's a pretty risky move.

@Nas-cheers.

@Cally-I wonder how many you could get into one chapter. That'd really drive the reader crazy.

Caryn Caldwell said...

Well said! I love how you labeled all the different types of cliffhangers. I hadn't thought about it that way before, but you're right - there really are so many different types. I'll have to apply them consciously - for good, of course, not for evil. Mostly.

The one that always gets me to keep reading is "What's in the box?" I never can resist being on the verge of hearing a big secret like that.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Listened to a podcast the other day where the author said there were many elements to a good novel that can be interchangeable and removed, plot, character etc. But the thing that a novel must have is story that makes the reader wonder what will happen next. If they don't feel a need to know that, they'll probably stop reading.

mooderino said...

@Caryn-As long as you lostly don't be evil, I think you're fine.

@Charmaine-I certainly think it's a very useful tool, but at the same time people reread books, so there must be other attractions also, I would assume.

Anne R. Allen said...

Thanks! This is very helpful. My new editor wants me to write very short chapters with cliffhangers in each--the James Patterson formula. This will help. You're right that the anticlimax usually works, in spite of the cheesiness. Good point about how it works in comedy.

mooderino said...

@Anne-Ah, the James Patterson formula. First, rip out your soul...

Margo Berendsen said...

A great list! So many of them made me smile. And really with just a little extra thought and work, many of them aren't so unscrupulous!

mooderino said...

@Margo-but without thought or work, they're diabolical!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article!

mooderino said...

@Anon-Thank you, mysterious stranger.

Christina Farley said...

Great list! Thanks.

mooderino said...

@Christine-you're very welcome.

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