Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cliffhangers

by Alan Orloff
Author of Killer Routine

Let’s talk about cliffhangers. You know, those teasing, tantalizing endings of scenes, chapters, books, TV shows, and movies that leave something—something vitally important—up in the air. Love ’em or hate ’em, they are an oft-used technique of storytelling.

Cliffhangers probably started back with the cave people. “Hey, Og. Your cave wall painting don’t show what finally happen in hunter versus mastodon fight.” “Well, Grog, you have to come back next month to see how it turn out.”

I remember cliffhangers from my youth (no, I never did any cave drawings). On the Batman TV show, the part I episodes would always end with Batman and Robin in some dire predicament— locked in an airless chamber or tied down on a conveyor belt heading for a buzz saw. Then the deep-voiced announcer would implore us to come back next week, “same bat time, same bat station.” I always used to tease my little brother that this time (this time, for real!), Batman and Robin would not survive (sorry, bro!). 

Then there was the famous Dallas episode that had the whole country asking, "Who shot JR?" (Larry Hagman even graced the cover of Time.) You can bet I tuned in the following season to find out! (And I was sure bummed it was that pretty little Kristin—I kind of liked her.)

What about cliffhangers in novels? I’ll admit, I’m a proponent of using cliffhanger chapter endings. I don’t want my readers to close the book at the end of a chapter; I want them to keep turning pages as fast as their fingers can. Of course, cliffhangers have to be used judiciously. I wouldn’t want to be accused of being too manipulative. (Even if my kids say otherwise!)

However, I draw the line at the end-of-book cliffhanger. It’s one thing to compel a reader to turn the pages of a book in front of him or her. In my opinion, though, it’s something else entirely to “force” a reader to acquire another book to find out what’s going to happen. One recent example springs to mind. For the record, I’m a huge fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. But in 61 Hours, he ends the book with Reacher in big trouble, and you have to wait until the next book to find out what transpires. I would have been happier if the book were titled 62 Hours, and the situation was resolved in the end. I haven’t read the next book in the series yet, Worth Dying For, (so no spoilers, please), but I’m guessing by the time I do, the suspense I felt at the time will have waned considerably.

What do you think, dear blog reader? Are you a fan of chapter cliffhangers? How about novel-ending ones?

Thanks for inviting me to guest blog, Daughters—it was a pleasure!

The first book in Alan Orloff’s Last Laff Mystery series, Killer Routine, is now available, at your favorite booksellers. His debut mystery, Diamonds for the Dead, came out last April and was a finalist for the Best First Novel Agatha Award. For more information about Alan and his books, please visit  www.alanorloff.com.

26 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

I think cliffhangers should be used in moderation, like salt. I understand why they're desirable, but not at the end of every chapter. For some reason I keep thinking of The DaVinci Code--I thought Dan Brown overdid it.

Please don't do it at the end of the book! Given the uncertainties of the publishing business these days, it could be a year or more before the next book comes along.

Sandra Parshall said...

I love end-of-chapter cliffhangers when they're done well -- but I tend to grind my teeth when I encounter something like, "If she had known what dangers lay ahead, she wouldn't have been so eager to explore that ramshackle old house." And major end-of-book cliffhangers?

Thanks for joining us this weekend, Alan!

Joni langevoort said...

I'll chime in as a reader rather than a writer. I'm in complete agreement with you here, Alan, from "same bat time, same bat channel" (hated that when I was little!) to the ending of 61 Hours (could have strangled Lee Child — but I did buy Worth Dying For the day it came out, so his ploy worked on me). I do like an occasional end of the chapter cliffhanger, but not one every chapter. I do have to sleep...

Donnell said...

Absolutely. :)

LJ Roberts said...

Cliffhangers/portents are such a hot button for me.

As a reader, I despise them. They are unnecessary and add nothing to the story. In fact, they often reduce the tension.

As a review, only once have I rated a book as "excellent" that contained cliffhangers. To me, they show a lack of confidence in the writing.

As a reader/reviewer, if a plot is compelling, trust me, I will turn the page. If its not, no cliffhanger will save it.

But that's just my opinion.

Julia Buckley said...

I used to love cliffhangers in my soap operas; they were invigorating, and I wasn't too upset, because soap operas were daily shows.

But in a novel I only like chapter cliffhangers, not book-ending ones. Too much tension, too little resolution. They are a cheat, really.

E. B. Davis said...

Are cliff-hanger endings a cheat? I'm contemplating one in my WIP, but I intend to solve one of the murders, one that puts my mc in peril, and bring the characters to the next level, which will enable them to solve the second murder in the next book. I am hoping (ha,ha) to write the second book before the first one is published so that readers don't have to wait forever. What do you all think?

Alan Orloff said...

Sheila - Yes, a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter would be tedious, for sure. I like the salt analogy!

Sandy - I'm not a fan of those POV-breaking ominiscient "warnings" either.

Joni - Just once, I would have liked to see Batman get seriously injured.

Donnell - :)

LJ - I agree that cliffhangers shouldn't be used as a substitute for a compelling plot. They just add a little spice (or salt).

Julia - Waiting for another book to come out in order to find the resolution does seem a little like a...

Alan Orloff said...

...cheat, doesn't it?

(that was a comment cliffhanger)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

For chapter endings, I'd say I use punch lines as often as cliffhangers. One drawback of book cliffhangers is that in today's publishing climate, who knows if readers will ever get an opportunity to read the next book? In SF/fantasy, they've managed to achieve the convention of trilogies. Maybe these come with three-book contracts? These days, there's no guarantee that even popular series will continue.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I meant to say "mystery series." :)

Terry Odell said...

Long ago, I learned that if I needed to get to sleep, to stop reading mid page rather than at the end of a scene. I think every scene or chapter needs to end on a page-turner, but it doesn't need to be a cliff hanger. Just a question that the reader wants answered. Then again, according to Donald Maass, every paragraph ought to have some sort of 'tension' that will get the reader engaged.

As for Sandra's comment -- I absolutely despise the use of omniscient POV to try to create tension.

Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Kaye George said...

I've seen much better writers than I use them much more blatantly than I ever would. But they do keep a book moving, and they keep me reading. I agree with Sheila, not EVERY chapter end, but some, for sure--for me.

As far as the end of the book, a cliffhanger's not fair, IMHO. But a story arc question that leads you into the next book, isn't that standard? I think every series uses those.

My husband is not a writer at all, but he didn't like 61 Hours and thinks Child was redeemed with Worth Dying For. Hubby doesn't say why, but I'll bet that's it. It left him unsatisfied. So maybe the ending of 61 Hours wasn't such a good idea. He nearly lost one reader in our house.

LJ Roberts said...

Don't forget the extremely tragic case of Ariana Frankin (Diana Norman) who ended her fourth book with a major cliffhanger and then passed away. We will never know what happened to the major characters.

Deb Salisbury said...

I love chapter cliffhangers, but I detest book-ending cliffhangers so much I give away the book and refuse to buy any more of that author's work.

Well, at least until I've forgotten why I'm mad at him/her. ;-)

Alan Orloff said...

E.B. - I think there's a difference between a cliff-hangar and a natural situation that isn't solved in the first book (of, say, a trilogy). My advice? Tread carefully!

Liz - Of course, there's no real definition of a cliffhanger. I guess it's a continuum. Maybe punch line is at one end?

Terry - "Page-turner" might also lie on that continuum. And yes, whatever it is that keeps people turning pages doesn't have to be "major." Micro-tension works, too.

Kaye - I think a continuing story arc is good practice in a series, absolutely. Gives it depth.

LJ - Yes. Worse than an end-of-book cliffhanger is a one that NEVER gets resolved.

Deb - Not even a peek at the next book? You're a stronger person than I!

E. B. Davis said...

Yes, a natural situation. That's a great way to describe it, Alan. I intend to give emotional closure, but (and if the comments on this list are any indication) I will tread lightly. Thanks!

Sandra Parshall said...

I like what Liz said about using a "punch line" at the end of a chapter.

Giving the reader a startling revelation is every bit as effective as a cliffhanger -- maybe more so, because a revelation that changes the direction of the plot or casts a character in a new light will absolutely force the reader to read on. Crime novels need those twists and turns. You certainly can't keep the story on an even keel all the way through unless you want to put the reader to sleep. A combination of surprises and cliffhangers works well to increase tension.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I say yes to the chapter ending ones and no to the novel ending ones! Or maybe not exactly a cliffhanger for all chapter endings...maybe just stopping halfway through an interesting piece of dialogue or something. Or having a subplot take a cool turn at the end of a chapter. Love that kind of stuff...

June Shaw said...

I like cliffhangers as long as they aren't done at the end of a book. And I don't like to wait too long to read what will happen next.

Alan Orloff said...

E.B. - Yes, emotional closure. I like that way of thinking!

Sandy - Unlike in sailing, an even keel is no good when talking suspense.

Elizabeth - I agree, something unexpected at the end of the chapter will make me want to keep reading. Space alien invasion, perhaps?

June - I'm with ya! Boo on those bookending cliffhangers!

jenny milchman said...

Love 'em myself, though I agree with you about not having one at the ending. And they have to be fair--I hate turning the page from, "There was a loud, rattling knock at the door," to, "The pizza delivery guy stood on the porch." Annie Wilkes in MISERY said it best: "He didn't get out of the cockadoodie car."

Alan Orloff said...

Jenny - I like any line that contains the word cockadoodie.

Daughters - Thanks for inviting me to guest blog. It was fun--you've got a great bunch of blog readers!

morganalyx said...

I agree with you, Alan. If a book ends with a cliffhanger, I get very upset. I've actually refused to read the next book in a series because of that.

The only time that didn't bother me was when Stephen King first published The Green Mile. He intended it to come out in serial form, so I knew what I was getting into. I did feel like I was left hanging for the next installment, but his writing was so amazing that I didn't care.

Alan Orloff said...

Morganalyx - Expectations do play a part. If I pick up the first in a trilogy, I expect there to be some unresolved issues. But I know that going in so it doesn't bother me (usually!).

Barry Ergang said...

As one who grew up watching old movie serials on television and in movie theaters as a child, and loving them despite the frustration factor, I don't have a problem with cliffhangers in novels.

61 HOURS is the first Reacher novel I've read, and though I don't know the details of his survival yet, I know he survives.

Ian Fleming gave us a cliffhanger at the end of FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE.