Thursday, September 06, 2007
Hanging onto Cliffs
We've talked a lot already about beginnings, how to start our books, and about starting hooks. There are beginning hooks and there are ending hooks. How we end our scenes and chapters are just as important as how we start them.
Some writers think "cliffhangers" are only for suspense and action books. On the contrary. Every scene and chapter needs some sort of hook at the end to get readers turning pages. No matter what the story is, it won't do to wrap things up nice and neat when the story isn't over yet. Good stories are all about tension regardless of the genre. Questions are raised constantly, and for each question answered another one turns up, escalating into what will become a really good read.
Okay, so what happens if you end every scene or chapter with a nail-biter? It would get pretty boring. Tension doesn't always equate to edge-of-your-seat, heart-in-your-throat, eyelash-pulling suspense. If you ended every chapter with the same kind of "they're all gonna die!" scenario, it's gonna get old real fast.
By the same token, if you end every scene or chapter with the characters getting in the car for a safe drive home, sitting cozily at the dinner table for the evening meal, walking hand-in-hand down a tree-lined boulevard at sunset, you'll end up with about the same reader-apathy.
Mix it up. Shake it up. Don't be predictable. Vary your hooks as you do your paragraphs and sentences within the story itself. Always keep readers wondering what's up. Pack some surprises and a few twists into the narrative.
I'm in no way an authority on anything, so let's take a peak at the wise words of some master storytellers and teachers.
My hero Donald Maass says: "Cliffhangers have degrees of tension, escalating upward from unanswered questions to surprise developments to sudden danger. There are also subtle ways to create cliffhangers. A sudden plunge in a protagonist's fortunes, a low moment, is a kind of cliffhanger. It provokes the unspoken questions, 'What will she do now?' and 'How will she get out of this?'"
Another hero of mine, Leonard Bishop (Dare to be a Great Writer), talks about the episodic novel, which he says is a source of reader agitation that comes from splitting a one-event scene into several parts. This tactic prolongs the scene and the split can be used to end a chapter on a hook (ala Dan Brown's The Davinci Code), but the result is an empty passage that goes nowhere fast. So using filler to lengthen what's assumed to be exciting can result in the reader scratching her head and saying "So what was the point of that?" We all know that everything we put on the page must be important to the story, so dragging out an exciting scene just to hook readers from one chapter or scene to the next is like cheating. If a tense moment exists in a scene, it must have substance and support the plot.
In Writer's Digest's Handbook of Novel Writing, Orson Scott Card says about cliffhangers: "These are the gulps you can use to down a whole novel… Yet while each closure, each minor climax, each chapter climax is fulfilling to the reader, none of them is completely fulfilling. Inherent in every climax is the promise of more tension and greater fulfillment later. In its crudest form, this is the cliffhanger technique—putting the protagonist into an awkward dilemma and then leaving him hanging there while the reader waits to buy the next day's installment. Such obvious tricks irritate most readers; but the technique, in a more subtle form, is essential to creating a novel as a whole. After all, what is a novel if not the writer's attempt to involve the readers emotionally in a dilemma and keep them involved until its resolution?"
Okay, example time. 8^) The following ends the first chapter of my WIP:
Machine gun fire sprayed above our heads just as Heinrich drew back his fist. Though still in shock, my mind worked well enough to guess the shot from Heinrich’s pistol had been a signal to his men outside. I stared at the fist aimed at my face, the knuckles white, the backs of his curled fingers sprouting fine hairs as pale as those on his head. And he wore a ring on his middle finger, its ruby center surrounded by Sanskrit letters that I could read with crystal clarity. They spelled the word Vyantara. Then I saw only darkness.
So how about your cliffhanger endings? Share your example.