Friday, September 10, 2010

Cliffhanger Cheats

Yes, we're still talking about cliffhangers (I love them so much!) But there are some I don't love—the cheats. These can do more harm than good.

Cheat cliffhangers come in two flavors. The first involves a fake or misleading cliffhanger moment. I remember reading an older book about a certain famous girl detective. She and her friends were investigating mysterious happenings in an old castle. In one chapter, they were standing on a cliff, looking at the castle. Suddenly a storm blows up! Lightning hits the tree next to them! A branch falls!

…. And at the start of the next chapter, they leaped out of the way, then go about their business. The storm had nothing to do with the plot, and wasn't even set up. This kind of random, forced cliffhanger is more likely to leave the reader feeling baffled than excited.

The lesson here: Cliffhangers should fit naturally into the plot. If you don't have a cliffhanger moment, revise your plot to add one, rather than trying to force one in. (It can be fun to occasionally have tense moments that turns silly, such as a vicious-looking dog that leaps toward your main character, only to cover her face with slobbery kisses. This builds tension, then releases it with comic relief. Don't use these so often that your readers come to expect them, though, or they won’t believe in the danger.)

The second kind of weak cliffhanger is the "If I had known" ending. You see it far too often -- everything seems to be going well, but the narrator says, "If I had known then what would happen, I never would have gone," or something similar. These endings pull me out of the story. I was right there with the narrator, in the present. But wait, now she's talking from future knowledge? When is now? It’s even more clunky when it's a third person narrator. Don't jump through time to give us insight that the character doesn't have yet. It's lazy, and feels like the author is saying, "I know it's not exciting right now, but just wait! It gets better!" Don't tell me it will be exciting, make it exciting now.

So what do you do if you have to end a chapter when things are going well? Even in good times, you can still have foreboding. In the (not yet published) fourth Haunted book, I had a moment where everything seemed under control, but I ended the chapter like this:

     I still had a bad feeling. I tried to shake it off. What did I think I was, psychic?
     But I didn't have to be psychic to know that nothing comes easily, or without a price.

This keeps us in the moment, in Jon's head, but because he feels uneasy, the reader gets the sense that things aren't so great after all. (See my post two weeks ago for more on how to end a chapter in a quiet moment, and still have a sense that the story is driving forward.)

But what if you want your character to mistakenly believe that everything is fine, with no sense of danger ahead? This can lead to even greater drama, when the character’s expectations are cruelly disappointed. Here's a neat little trick. From our experiences in reading, we expect reversals. When we hear "Nothing could possibly go wrong now," what do we expect?  Yes, we expect chaos and destruction to follow. In literature, the sense that everything is perfect actually leads us to expect the opposite (except at the very end of the book). Note that this works for middle grade through adult readers, but not for younger readers, who don't have the story experience to expect reversals.

Next week—cliffhangers in picture books!

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Little Change for A Lot More Tension

If you've been following this blog, you know I'm a fan of cliffhanger chapter endings, whether that means pausing in the middle of an action scene, or simply ending in a quieter moment that still looks forward. So once you've chosen your cliffhanger moment, how do you make the most of it?

Sometimes you may need to add a little new material -- new thoughts, new dialogue, or even a twist in the action -- in order to build a proper cliffhanger moment. As a bonus, this may take your story in new and interesting directions.


In Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs, I had a scene where the kids call their father. He is a scientist who does not believe in ghosts, so they are trying to get advice on how he would research ghosts, without letting him know what's going on. To add more tension—and a cliffhanger ending—I had Mom walk in during the conversation and get upset over what she heard and misunderstood. That's much more powerful than just having the kids say goodbye to Dad and hang up. Plus, it adds a twist to the story as Mom, feeling guilty about neglecting her kids, decides to spend the whole next day with them, interfering with their plans.

In Haunted: The Riverboat Phantom, I didn’t have this ploy of Tania’s in the original outline, but needed to end the chapter with something more than just having the kids walk off.

      “I wish we could do something about Madame Natasha,” Tania said. “She makes Mom unhappy, and she’s poking in our business. We’ve just got to get rid of her.”
      I rubbed my hands over my face and yawned. I still felt kind of weak after my ghost encounter. “One thing at a time, OK? Let’s deal with Henry O’Brien [the ghost] first.”
      Tania got that look in her eyes. The one that means trouble ahead. “But maybe they’re not separate problems. Mr. O’Brien seems ready to believe the worst of everybody. And if there’s one person who deserves it, it’s Madame Natasha!”
       “You want to sic Henry O’Brien on her?”
       “Why not? It’s about time a ghost did us a favor.”

This encourages the reader to turn the page, to find out just how they sic the ghost on the fake psychic, and whether it works.

Exercise: Look over your chapter endings and see if a minor tweak to the action could create a more powerful cliffhanger. (See my June posts on cliffhangers for more help.)

Next week -- keeping your cliffhangers honest.