Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Do You Hang Off Cliffs?



At BEA a few weeks ago, R.L. Stein (the ever-so-famous author of the crazy popular Goosebumps books) attributed some of the success of his novels to his use of cliffhangers—those suspenseful situations at the end of a scene or chapter.

Photo by ajenyon
I am a huge fan of cliffhangers at the end of chapters, unless, of course, it’s 2 am, I’ve just reached the end of a chapter where the characters I care about are in some sort of grave danger or about to make a momentous decision, which will be revealed in the next chapter, yet I’ve got to haul my exhausted carcass out of bed at 6 am. In that case, I’m frustrated because I must know what happens next in the novel, yet I anticipate being bleary eyed the next day. I dwell on how much caffeine I will need to come to life after too little snooze time. If you’re an avid reader, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here. Cliffhangers build suspense, tension, and create an emotional response in readers that often makes them sacrifice sleep in order to find out what happens next in a story.

If you’re a writer, you probably itch to torment your readers in this way. I'm guessing you’d love to make them sacrifice good sense and well being for the sake of turning the pages of your story. But how? Some authors accomplish this by revealing a key piece of information that the reader needs to know at the end of a chapter, or a tease that this piece of information will appear in the next chapter. An author might also reveal some twist or important plot development as a cliffhanger. Or, a writer might push the main character into an ugly and sticky situation to be resolved pages later. I just finished a chapter in which the heroine was facing some serious danger when she passed out—at the end of the chapter. Since I care about this character, I had to know whether she’d be descended upon by the evil or if she’d be saved.

Also, cliffhangers work especially well when each one is bigger than the last. This kind of makes sense given that the novel is building toward a climax, right?

What do you think about cliffhangers? Do you like to hang off cliffs or are you afraid of heights? If you are pro-cliffhanger, do you have a favorite? One that kept you reading against your better judgment?


55 comments:

  1. I adore the Terry Pratchett's later style of writing - there are no chapters and I end up reading as much of the book as I am able to because the story just pushes along at breakneck speed and I really really really really want to know how it all ends!

    Take care
    x

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    1. Kitty, I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't read much of Terry Pratchett's work, but now you've inspired me. Thanks!

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  2. I enjoy cliffhangers at chapter ends, but I hate series books that have cliffhangers at the end of the book. One such book ended mid-scene! I didn't read the rest of the series. I should clarify that I don't mean the series books can't leave us wanting to know more, but they should feel like a complete segment of the story, not like a chapter ending. My two cents...

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    1. I agree with your two cents, Tricia! Ending a book mid-scene might make me crazy. A chapter ending is a different animal.

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  3. I would love to hear R.L. Stein speak about his writing. Lord knows I have all of his Fear Street novels!

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    1. He was a great speaker--funny with kind of a dry wit, which I love. A very impressive guy.

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  4. I once went to a workshop given by Terry Brooks, in which he said to end every chapter with a cliffhanger. At the time I thought it was cliche, but now I see the wisdom of it.
    Sometimes the next chapter continues that very scene. Other times it will show other characters doing something else, which ends with its own cliffhanger. Wash, repeat.

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    1. Exactly, Mark. Thanks for the great comment.

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  5. I enjoy a good cliffhanger, so long as the "hanging" part is resolved soon. I don't like to be left "hanging" for long! :)

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    1. Good point, Emily. Tension has a way of morphing into frustration.

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  6. Great post.

    I write using cliff-hangers, but like to call them page-turners in the more romantic sense.

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  7. Interesting, Loree. "Page-turners" definitely sounds more romantic.

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  8. I'm good with cliffhangers in the middle of the book. Use them myself. I hate when they do that at the end of the book and you have to wait a year (at least) for the next installment. That kind of thing makes me wait for the entire series to be done to read anymore.

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    1. I agree, Donna. Sometimes I get annoyed enough that I won't even wait for the entire series.

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  9. Like you, I'm into them, but I also think about what I'll get done the next day if I keep reading way into the night. If I'm writing straight suspense then I'll go for that more often than not, but for other kinds of books, it can get a bit exhausting to have cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. It's a delicate balance, I think, between keeping the reader interested and making him exhausted from start to finish.

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    1. You make a great point, Joy. Too many cliffhangers (like, at the end of every chapter) could get exhausting and predictable). As in all things writing--balance.

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  10. Cliffhangers are ace! They score every time no matter where in the book they are.

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  11. I love them and try to use them whenever I can. I know the insomnia and exhaustion of which you speak! I love when writers use them. I like to do the ones where something crazy has just happened and just leave it at that--make the reader go "Holy *&@$, how are they going to deal with THAT?!"

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  12. I love them. Even if they do keep me awake :)

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  13. I like them to a certain extent. But if every chapter is a cliff-hanger it can be over-kill to me.

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    1. Joy just made a similar point. And I can see how there could be over-kill. Thanks, Bish.

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  14. I love cliff-hanger endings, unless, like you, I need to go to bed and they won't let me. Then I just wait long enough into the next scene and stop reading. :)

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    1. Ahh, once things calm down in the story. Smart, Stina.

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  15. Oh yes! I love them of course. ;D My favorite is when I'm reading, with the intention of stopping at the next chapter break only to realize it came two pages ago... Divergent was the last book I read like that.

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  16. Yes, Divergent is a great example. Great novel.

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  17. I like cliffnahngers! The real ones, that is. I used to write "fake" cliffhangers, where there wasn't any true danger behind the tension. Those are let downs, I think.

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    1. I had not thought about fake cliffhangers, Lydia. Great point!

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  18. Cynthia - I love cliffhangers - both as a reader and as a writer. I do attempt to end each of my chapters with a cliffhanger - some are more successful than others. Great post!

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  19. I'm a big fan of the cliffhanger if it's beating with the pulse of the story. I wanted to scream at the end of Knife of Never Letting Go the cliffhanger grabbed me so hard. Thank goodness the rest of the trilogy was already out so I could dive right in.

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    1. I'm glad you mentioned that, Leslie--I keep meaning to read that trilogy. : )

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  20. I'll admit this is not one of my strengths. I've been working on it though, and getting better at end of chapter hooks.

    One of the best 'hooks' I ever saw was when an author changed chapters right in the middle of an intense scene--just stuck a chapter break in there. I was thinking, 'Wait...no! I want to know what happens! You can do this to me!!!' I was so worried she was going to switch to a scene with some other characters (usually that's what happens when she cuts mid-scene), but she didn't. The scene continued and got even better. Some might think that was odd, but it got me to turn the page and sink into another chapter. ;)

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    1. Great comment, Melissa! I like almost any technique that gets me turning pages.

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  21. I like cliffhangers, and I tend to use them. As a reader, I know that a combination of short chapters and cliffhangers will pull me right through a book. ("One more! I can read one more! Just one more!")

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  22. I'm a big fan of cliffhangers. I try to end my chapters with cliffhangers that'll hopefully keep the readers wanting to read on :)
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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  23. Cliffhangers are great, I agree. And like anything in good writing, they're best when the author makes them seem effortless.

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  24. Chapter cliffhangers create great page turners. I love them!

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  25. I love cliff hangers...but if you have one at the end of each chapter it gets a bit predictable. I think you have to have some chapters giving closure. (That way the reader can go to bed eventually.)

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  26. You got to go to BEA? LUCKY! I could be better at this part of our craft. I love reading them -- but have a hard time writing them authentically. It's harder than it seems!

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  27. They ARE harder than they seem, Tess. I struggle with them more times than not. And yes, BEA was fun. I was lucky! ; )

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  28. I definitely like to build in cliffhangers at the end of chapters. The only time I don't like them is at the end of a book.

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  29. I love cliffhangers. When I think about my favorite books, the authors used them in a wonderful, even subtle way that propelled me to turn the pages. I love not being able to put a book down after I finish reading a chapter. I might still go to bed, but I can't wait to get back to the book after work the next day.

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  30. I think every chapter needs to at least end on an interesting note so that the reader is propelled forward. Maybe it's the threat of danger, or a hint that a girl's first kiss is just around the corner, but if I care about the character then I'm inclined to see what happens next.

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  31. Maybe I don't like cliff hangers... I'm not that good at writing them. hmmm

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  32. Thanks for the wonderful comments, everyone!

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