Monday, February 11, 2013

Cliffhangers: leave them wanting...



I love a good cliffhanger. Even when they're cheesy and overdone and at the end of every chapter (cough Da Vinci Code cough), they are ridiculously effective. And when they're done beautifully and consistently and you don't even realize it's happening to you until you're in the middle of the next chapter (cough Leviathan series cough), it's even better.

Cliffhangers are sooo good when they're done right, but I've found there are just as many ways to go wrong with them. Cheesy intros, false cliffhangers, killing tension - you worked too hard to shoot your cliffhanger in the foot. So my humble thoughts on how to do cliffhangers right (by telling you what you're doing wrong, YOU'RE WELCOME):

1) Switching POV at the beginning of the next chapter
WHY I HATE IT: Because it kills the tension for me. If I have to spend an entire chapter reading about someone else, by the time I get back to the character on the cliff I've forgotten that they've been hanging there all along, and you've lost the hard work you've put into building the tension in the first place.
HOW TO FIX IT: If you want to shift POV, shift to a character that's related to the secret but has different information than the last character. That way, the reader gets a different perspective on the secret and the tension is even BIGGER while we wait for the secret to explode

2) Overblown drama that gets resolved in the first paragraph of the next chapter
WHY I HATE IT: Because you tricked me as a reader. False cliffhangers are easy to spot from a mile away, and if you do it enough I won't trust you as the writer. And if I don't trust you, I've lost investment in your story. And your cliffhangers lose their power, catch-22 style.
HOW TO FIX IT: Don't be scared to follow a character over the cliff, or let them hang there for a bit. Readers like to be kept in tension, it's what drives them through the rest of the story. Most of the time when I see false cliffhangers, it's because the author was too afraid to find out what would happen if Roberta really DID steal Michael's baby (say wha?).

3) Making every last line of every single chapter a cliffhanger (ahem DAN BROWN ahem)
WHY I HATE IT: Because it is cheesy, and it's lazy writing.
HOW TO FIX IT: Work harder. Sorry, I know that's the lazy answer, but it's also the right one. Cliffhangers don't have to be looming shadows that fall over our beloved protagonists right as they discovered the buried treasure. They need to be smart, and subtle, and woven naturally into the narrative of the story (easy pease, right?). They need to be secrets the readers know but the characters don't put into jeopardy, because we just can't help reading on to find out what happens.

4) Holding your cliffhangers until the end of the story
WHY I HATE IT: Because it makes the rest of the story boring.
HOW TO FIX IT:  Subplots with climaxes throughout the story. Yes, the final climax scenes should be climactic, but that doesn't mean you can't have little climaxes through the rest of the story (that's what she said). Your story should rise and fall like a living thing, raising tension and releasing it and then ratcheting it higher so that by the time we get to the climax it's four in the morning and we're hungry and a little thirsty and maybe have to go to the bathroom but we can't even put the book down long enough to lift the toilet seat because we're all strung out on your plot lines.

5) Cliffhangers with obvious resolutions
WHY I HATE IT: Because there's no tension in the obvious. Also see nit #2 above.
HOW TO FIX IT: Don't go for the obvious cliffhangers. Don't put your MC in mortal danger, because no one actually believes you're going to kill them (although I would like to see that done). Instead, go for almost mortal danger. Cars veering crazily toward them, ipecac syrup in the punch bowl, a little sister with some Crayola scissors and a love of hair styling, etc. Give me something that won't kill them, but will put them in a world of pain (literal or emotional), and I just might believe you'll do it. Chapter NEXT, please.

So how about you? What do you hate about cliffhangers out in the real world (aka fiction)? What have you seen done well? Which cliffhanger books have kept you from your sweet slumber?


Bethany Elizabeth said...

I'm with you on a couple of these for sure - when every chapter is a cliffhanger that's just ridiculous, and when the cliffhanger is immediately resolved it feels cheap. Although I think I disagree with #1 - it might just be because I read so much high fantasy, and it's very common for the authors to leave the readers in the middle of a battle and jaunt off to a forest or a farm for awhile. :)

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I think cliffhangers at the end of a chapter need to be subtle at times. They shouldn't always be !!!!!!! moments.

Sometimes they need to be ??
And sometimes !?

And sometimes they need to be moments of quiet revelations and touching interactions that drive the reader to turn the page not because they are hanging off a cliff, but because they want to jump off a cliff with these characters.

Luna said...

Great advice! Thank you for sharing your insight.

Lola Sharp said...

Hey girl, heeeeyy! How are you??? *misses*

I know, I've been the biggest slacker of all the slackers in all of slackerland when it comes to blogging. (I just haven't had anything to say and I've been in my writing cave) (with the exception of twitter...twitter is just such a faster easier way to keep in touch with everyone. Everyone who is on twitter, that is. Ahem.)

Anywhoodles, how the heck are you?! How's the writing going? Email me, fill me in on All The Things.


Lola Sharp said...

Oh, and I agree with your post and tips! :)