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Cliffhanger Theory

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The "Cliffhanger" is something that is largely only relevant to serialised work. It doesn't make a lot of sense for a story where the reader (or viewer, in the case of movies/TV shows) can just skip to the next installment.

Now, I've read stories where every chapter ends in a cliffhanger. It's great for building tension, but I find it becomes incredibly annoying, especially if chapters take time to be published.

Graeme's Theory on Cliffhangers:

1. Used early on in the story, they help bring the reader in until the story gets well established.

2. Used late in the story, they help build the tension before the story conclusion.

3. Don't over use in the middle section of the story. It's a case of overdoing anything can be bad (eg. too much water can kill you -- it's known as drowning). Moderation is important.



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Guest rusticmonk86

I agree with Graeme.

And I know I do it a lot. Or, at least, it feels like I do.

I've seen stories, serialiZed stories ( ;) ), that leave you hanging off a cliff after every chapter.

I'm not a very picky reader when it comes to some things.

So cliffhangers aren't really a problem for me. Even if they are used a bit too much.

Unfortunatly, publishing chapter-by-chapter takes me, as a writer, on a very windy road. This road follows mountains, and swerves along ridges. So it is not hard for me to imagine why someone would continually use cliff-hangers to keep their audience.

The other reasons could have something to do with insecurity, or the simple fact that someone things people will keep reading if they keep using cliff-hangers as a "gimmick". Which is different from simply keeping an audience. And, it is a lot of work to get a cliff-hanger out of every chapter, while still maintaining a reasonable suspension of disbelief.

That gimmick thing, though. Those people should be take out and shot.

So, if you want to use cliff-hangers, go for it. But don't over do it. If you're going to end a chapter on a cliff-hanger, you'd better write the next chapter in the same sitting. Or, at least start it. Because, if you don't, you'll never recapture the same energy again.

And let me tell you, ENERGY and TONE are what continuity is all about.

Find me three birds that speak the same language. Then give me two pieces of ice cream. And it doesn't matter what I say next, really, just as long as it sounds the same.

Get it?

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Thanks, Gabe and Bill for the comments.

Yes, Gabe, you are correct. I think it is the "cliffhanger" as a gimmick that I probably find most objectional. When it fits the story, I don't have a problem with it.

Bill, thank you very much for your comments. I didn't raise this issue because of any concerns about my writing, but simply to see what other people thought on the subject. Different authors have different styles, and different stories lead themselves to different treatment.

I can remember a number of times where a chapter in a printed novel ends on a cliff hanger, and it can be quite effective -- especially when the author starts the next chapter on a different subplot and the reader has to keep waiting to find out how it is resolved. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series has this occuring more often than not. So this is a technique that CAN be applied to completed novels as well.

Thanks again for the comments, guys!


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Cliffhanger or Story Element ? A Matter of Perspective

Graeme, I think your topic ? the issue of using or not using a Cliffhanger ? is quite salient. It?s certainly one of those story elements (along with plot, and character development) that can add or distract from a work. It is something authors of serialized pieces need to seriously address when writing a multiple installment story that will be posted over a period of weeks or months. But I also feel that in some instances the term ?Cliffhanger? is in the eye of the beholder.

I think WBMS's post in this thread where he states he purposely wrote only 2 cliffhanger chapters, yet many readers thought he had produced quite a few more is a rather telling point.

Like you, I have read serialized fiction where every chapter ends in a peril, or crisis and in some of those instances it often seems to me the author takes particular delight in torturing the reader. And also like you, I have found that when every chapter falls into the cliffhanger category I can certainly find it annoying ? especially when the author isn?t posting with regular frequently or it seems like he thinks he is being clever or "cute" in the presentation of the story by constantly churning out yet one more cliffhanger chapter. ::YAWN::

Like most things in life moderation in all things is usually best. Overuse of anything in writing can quickly turn a piece dull, boring, and uninteresting ? or in the case of the cliffhanger, frustrating for the reader ? elements any serious and conscientious writer seeks to avoid. (psst?. that?s just one more reason to have a good editor.)

But having said that, I must return to WBMS's post and say I feel that what?s sometimes one man?s cliffhanger is another?s story element. I think most people have heard of the term ?page turner? indicating that a book is so interesting and fascinating the reader is driven to keep turning the page until they reach the end. I?m guessing most of us who like to write also like to read and have sacrificed sleep or some other activity because we simply couldn?t put the book down. Most serious writers strive to create a work that is gripping, inspiring, fun, exciting etc. If we succeed or fail is another story, but every writer wants to produce a work that others enjoy reading.

When I write anything from a story to a novel I try to encompass the big picture ? namely the plot, characters, action, and so forth. I see the work I am writing as a whole, stretching out before me. I don?t know if my style is similar or dissimilar to other writers, but I never start a piece without some idea of how it will end (even if later that ending may change). Because I look at the piece I am writing as a whole, I don?t think of it as serialized. I genuinely see it as a finished work that someone can pick up off the shelf and begin reading, making their way to the end at their ? not my ? pace.

Agreeing with WBMS?s observations, I must say that when I come to the end of a chapter I try to end it in what I feel is a logical conclusion. I take into consideration what I have just written, along with what has gone before in previous chapters and what will come after in chapters yet to be.

In some cases it may mean that what I have presented for the reader to consider or ponder will not be resolved in the very next chapter. In fact it may not get resolved in the chapter after that or even the next ? they may have to wait many pages later.

The way I see it is that if I end a particular chapter with something unresolved or even with anticipation, it will in the end be dealt with and resolved. If the chapter in question was part of a completed novel, the reader would simply turn the page and continue if they wished.

Because I?m currently writing in a serialized fashion some readers may look at the way I conclude a chapter from time to time and accuse me of ending in a cliffhanger, when in fact I purposely don't make a concerted effort to end in cliffhangers ? it?s not my style and I don?t find it fun or ?amusing? to frustrate a reader.

Again agreeing with WBMS?s point, I write to what I feel is the logical conclusion for the chapter. When the day finally comes and I finish TSOI for example, anyone who has never read it will be able to begin reading and reach the end. There really won?t be any cliffhangers since they will have the ability to turn the page and continue if they wish. (Hopefully they will like what they read and will keep turning those pages.)

I think if any author does something simply as a ?gimmick? it has a better chance of failing then succeeding, and if that writer keeps using the same gimmick over and over their work becomes tedious and unimaginative.

I also think that what some people call a cliffhanger isn?t always a cliffhanger. Like all things it?s not necessarily black and white. Concluding a chapter with a sudden gun shot, and having the main character fall to the ground is definitely a cliffhanger. But I?ve ended chapters where nothing even near that dramatic has happened, yet have had readers mention that I ended the chapter in a cliffhanger, when in fact the way I ended the chapter was simply what I felt was it?s logical conclusion. What the reader took for a cliffhanger I attributed to as their eagerness and impatience with being disappointed that the chapter had simply ended and they wanted more! That?s not a bad way to end a chapter with the reader wanting more. Some readers in their impatience to get still more of the story consider that anticipation a cliffhanger ? I don?t.

When I go to the gym and do my workout, I always take along my MP3 loaded with a book or two. (I belong to Audible.com and highly recommend it.) At the conclusion of my workout I always find myself regretfully turning off the player in order to change, shower, and continue on with my day when in fact I just want to sit down and keep listening. In effect I create my own cliffhangers (as we all do when we read a book and have to stop for various reasons at the end of the chapter). But that?s the fun and anticipation of reading a good book.

As an author one has to balance one?s own feelings and convictions with those of the readers. Interestingly Graeme, just as you started this thread, I concluded (I think) a chapter that I would definitely say has a cliffhanger element to it ? and a rather dramatic one at that. I agonized about ending the chapter the way I did (since it?s shorter then the ones I usually write and because I thought people would think I purposely wanted to be cute and end in a cliffhanger ? I didn?t!). But after lots of thought I had to conclude that for ME it was the logical way to end the chapter. I wanted the conclusion to be dramatic although not necessarily a cliffhanger

Now I?m very much aware the consequences in pulling a stunt like that on the reader so I feel in this case have 3 options: 1. Don?t conclude the chapter the way it?s currently written (write more and resolve it), 2. Keep it the way it is, knowing that since I post regularly it will be resolved the very next week, 3. Try something different.

I?m leaning to the ?try something different approach.?

Since I feel so strongly about ending the chapter where it currently ends ? and I really do! I will launch into the next chapter and bring the situation to a rapid conclusion ? something I planned to do anyway. Then I will post both chapters simultaneously so that the reader can read the first shorter chapter ? come to the cliffhanger and simply ?turn the page,? to see how things turn out. I feel this allows me to remain true to myself and my convictions that the chapter I have just concluded should end as it does, but I also won?t penalize the reader in making them wait to see the resolution. Sound fair? I think so.

Remember writing?s an art not a science. A lot of what we do depends on how we ?feel? and on what seems ?right? to us in the telling of our tale. I think if we don?t cultivate or pay attention to that, our writing just becomes so many words on a page devoid of any real meaning.



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Now, I've read stories where every chapter ends in a cliffhanger. It's great for building tension, but I find it becomes incredibly annoying, especially if chapters take time to be published.

Because I've worked in TV for so long, I tend to think of stories as being divided up by commercials (or at least places where commercials would be).

Granted, this makes the work episodic by nature, but I don't think it necessarily detracts from the entertainment. I just finished reading the new Harry Potter book, and it used similar cliffhangers throughout to keep the interest going. I have no problem with that, as long as it's not used to excess.

Generally, what I've tried to do is end chapters at a resolution of an event. That way, it doesn't so much end at a cliffhanger, but instead ends when the problem (or situation) is resolved. In a TV situation, you'd obviously move the commercial position earlier, to force viewers to stay tuned to find out what happens.

Bottom line, I don't think a cliffhanger distracts from the work at all, as long as the climax of each chapter has a point, and it doesn't come across as being forced or obvious. If the cliffhanger prevents the story from being boring, even better.

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