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.

12 comments:

Alice Sharpe said...

What a fun and informative blog, Karen! Lots to think about. Mostly, I think we tend to do this without thinking, knowing instinctually when the end of a scene signals a chapter end rather than a scene end. And as you said, every scene end needs to be a cliffhanger as well. The point of writing is to tell our story and that means drawing a reader inside our world.

I liked the writers you quoted. And I agree that endings need to be varied.

One of my pet peeves runs along the line of this : end of chapter one -- "A loud shot thundered in the air." Beginning of chapter two starts : "It was a car backfiring." That's extreme, I know, but I don't like to be teased.

I liked your chapter ending. It would definitely have me turning a page. Here is one from the book I am line editing now, Avenging Angel:

Would a fall from the face of the mesa kill a person?
She tried to gauge the distance.
It might. In fact, it probably would. She became very still. It seemed the dry, hot air collapsed inside her lungs as her mind raced.
Was this the way to avenge her family?
Could she do it?
Could she lure Alazandro to this mesa, to this ledge?
Could she use her own hands to push him to his death?
If he confessed, could she do it? Did she have the guts? The will?
She closed her eyes as twenty years of nightmare images filled her head.
And knew the answer.

That's a scene ender, not a chapter ending, but I chose it because I believe so strongly that scene enders are as important as chapter endings. They need to intrigue, to compel, to excite, to reveal. They need to escalate the stakes and most of all, they need to keep the tension taut.

Thanks for a good think!

Karen Duvall said...

Ooh, Alice, I love your cliffhanger. It even has an actual cliff in it! 8^) Gave me chills. Very nice.

I agree that our writer instincts tell us when to end a chapter, but sometimes a little or of this or less of that makes the hook stronger. That's happened with me, anyway. Where I think I've ended the chapter, move on to the next, then discover the real ending was actually a few paragraphs later and would have to shift those paragraphs over to the previous chapter. It's often one of those tweaking things you do during edits.

I happen to enjoy those books written in multiple viewpoints where subplots start out independant of each other only to merge towards the end. The master of this is Dean Koontz. His book's scene would end on a daring cliffhanger with one character, and then the following scene is in a totally different POV in a situation separate from the other one. You have to wait until the cliffhanging thread is picked up again. I love the anticipation of that, but then I love surprises, too. Not all readers will put up with getting put off like that, but I think it's scrumptious. 8^)

Alice Sharpe said...

No, I said it wrong, Karen. I love what you described Koontz doing, as well. No problem with multiple POV and cliffhangers, etc...

I'm talking about false danger. She's terrified. Someone is chasing her. Bang. End of chapter. Oh, hee, hee, it's a car backfiring, not a gunshot.

Same POV, just a set up false set up for shock value and no pay off. It's like a little wink, wink trick. I don't like it.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Great post, Karen!

I agree with Alice (and your examples). Ending hooks - chapter or scene - need to create questions in the reader's mind so they'll turn the page to find out what happens next. Sometimes those are highly tense (ie, life or death situations) and sometimes they're not, but so long as they create questions, they work.

This is the chapter one ending hook of my wip that just won't die:

Oh, God. She couldn’t go now.

She looked back toward Pete. Her chest grew even tighter.

She had to warn him. Considering everything he’d done to her, everything she’d been through the last seven years because of him, she didn’t owe him a damn thing. But if the two men across the room went after him to get to her, all because of one stupid mistake she’d made here tonight, she would never forgive herself.

It was clear to her then that she wasn’t leaving like she’d hoped. Her plans had just been drastically altered. She only prayed this time no one died because of her.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Alice and Karen...love your hooks!

Piper Lee said...

I had to giggle when I read this blog Karen.

After I joined RWA and started learning about the craft of writing I found out why I stay up all night reading a book and can't seem to put it down no matter how many times I promise myself that THIS CHAPTER IS THE LAST CHAPTER FOR THE NIGHT! LOL

I had no idea that writers had that naughty little trick of leaving a cliff hanger at the end of each chapter so they could keep you addicted like a druggy to their books! Sneaky little brats!

This was a great blog topic and I love the examples you've all given.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Alice, I forgot to mention that I HATE those falls hooks as well. Fastest way to lose me as a reader is to build me up and then let me down.

wavybrains said...

Great blog Karen! I love cliffhangers, and I like adding them to my chapters--it was a major aha! moment for me when I felt that I understood them.

As a reader, I have a pet peeve with cliffhangers that are too obvious--a break from the usual voice or pace or just feels forced---it reminds me of old time TV commercial announcements.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Did I say "falls"? Holy cow...FALSE.

Just ignore me.

Genene said...

Love your cliffhanger, Karen! And yours, Alice! And Eli's!

However, you're all too serious! Here's a chapter ending from my WIP:

Zach drifted with the caress of Lauren's fingertips against his chest, loosening one button after another down to his belly, exposing--
"Zach, what's this?"
Cold reality burst through Zach's half sleeping state. He sat up abruptly and clutched the edges of his shirt together. "I can do this. I don't need help."
"You're wearing a --" Lauren stared at Zach's midsection. "A girdle."

Now, back to work I go!

Paty Jager said...

LOL- Love your ending, Genene! Great blog, Karen. Page turning cliff hangers everyone!

Here's mine:

“Ma, that man had kind eyes,” Shayla said, breaking into her thoughts.
“Aye, you noticed that too.” She smiled at her daughter. The child had a knack for seeing the good in everyone. And they in return showed her they were worthy of her trust.
“He was a big man.” The warning in her son’s voice sent shivers down her spine.
“Aye, he was.” Mr. Miller had been nearer her size and had beat her unconscious more than once. She’d never let a man do that to her again. And to think what kind of damage a man with the hands the size of Mr. Halsey… she shuddered. “We won’t have to be worrying, Colin. I don’t plan to let any man hurt our family again.”

Paty Jager said...

My two day total for words is 2626.