Writing Cliffhangers, Part II: Where The Author Resolves All
Well, you know the rest – or probably assume you do.
Just finished a too-long course in Cliffhangers from WD Smith. Had to wait six weeks for the punchline. And since the assignements were just looking up the various types, I skipped them. And waited until the videos were done so I could binge watch and take the notes. So I could boil it down to make the best sense of it.
It turned out that all the studies of cliffhangers I could find were just lists. Or lists of lists.
And in cross-comparing his with other notes on the Internet, it was again all just lists of things. Lists.
There were no principles or systems anywhere in this. Smith had it best, and most comprehensive, but completely missed what was obvious, even with his four decades of writing experience. Just lists of lists, and some examples along the way.
Basics to Cliffhangers – Learn These or Face Imminent Doom
(Yes, these headings will probably be tongue-in-cheek all the way down.)
There are certain basics that you are going to need to know:
- Aldis Budrys Plot Skeleton
- Lester Dent Story Formula
- Plotto Theme Elements
- The Three Physical Plot Structures
- Vonnegut’s Story Shapes
These are all linked so you can do homework if you are unfamiliar with these, otherwise, we’ll just plow ahead. (You’ve been warned…)
Now, we are going to add one more: Orson Scott Card’s MICE.
I really dislike this acronym, as it starts out with a word no one ever uses. In his “Characters & Viewpoints” Card figures that stories build emphasizing a central factor. It isn’t all just plot, it isn’t all just characters. As Card says:
The four factors are milieu, idea, character, and event.
- The milieu is the world surrounding the characters — the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures the characters emerge from and react to; everything from weather to traffic laws.
- The idea is the information that the reader is meant to discover or learn during the process of the story.
- Character is the nature of one or more of the people in the story — what they do and why they do it. It usually leads to or arises from a conclusion about human nature in general.
- The events of the story are everything that happens and why.
He goes on to say that some stories are heavy on world building (science fiction and fantasy), idea (fables, children’s stories, mystery-detective), character (most romances), events (action-adventure, thrillers.) This doesn’t say you can’t have cross-genre/sub-genre mashups – a romantic fantasy would be one example.
The point here is that depending on what your book leans heavily on, you can use the basic definition of cliffhanger to construct them through world building or idea in addition to the most common cliffhangers that have to do with events or character emotion.
A Simple Cliffhanger Definition
“Interrupting the change of character/setting/problem with built-in suspense.”
And that means that you aren’t ending things where they should. You’re purposely ending them with a teaser that is completed or answered in a later (not necessarily the next) chapter or episode. It’s the suspense that keeps you turning the page to find out what happens next or how it turned out.
Just hold those two ideas while we build up to how you can use them.
Macbeth’s Three Witches Still Haunt Every Story
Probably the best hook I’ve seen was Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That hook of three witches set the entire play up. The next scene was seeing a ghost. Great stuff. A tragic murder mystery.
In every story you have to introduce three elements in the first act, just as fast and deeply as you can:
That’s the first step of Budrys Framework. Most people refer to “conflict” when they are talking about plotting, but it’s a limited term. Go back to William Wallace Cook’s Plotto and you’ll see the principle point the character is trying to resolve is “a goal opposed.” And that is one of the definitions of problem. It’s also describes conflict.
Through any story, the characters have emotional changes as they learn and adapt (or tragically fail.) Settings will change as background and as the result of actions. The problems can (and usually do) get worse before they are solves.
Within this, you can have multiple characters that wind up changing by interacting with each other.
Back to Budrys Structure Again.
Once you set up these three, then your character(s) set out to attempt to solve their problem(s). These are called try/fail cycles. Our most popular fiction has these in sets of three: try/fail, try/fail, try/succeed.
In each of these cycles you have character reaction to what just happened. So the formula becomes try| fail/succeed | react.
Interrupting any of these can be a cliffhanger.
The places where you interrupt is at the high or low points of their story shape. Vonnegut was mainly talking about emotional highs and lows that a character goes through in a story. The cliffhanger interrupts the story right at the peak or the valley in that story.
Of course, which one to choose depends on how long the story is and what part you are one (and whether it’s a serial, a series, or an epic novel.)
Every story has four parts, as laid out by the Lester Dent Formula. (You split the second act in two, basically.) At each of these splits, you’re supposed to have a plot-shift or plot-twist (Dan Wells’ seven point system held that these occur on the cusp of each act change – see a thorough discussion in Feeding the Beast Appendix.)
All through the story, in our modern Western plots, the tension is building as everything goes along. Lester Dent describes this well. But you also need to take into account the story shapes. Based on Vonnegut’s story shapes, some scientists did a computational study of the emotional content of our most popular stories. They determined that three shapes were most popular, in a set sequence:
In particular, the team says the most popular are stories involving two sequential man-in-hole arcs and a Cinderella arc followed by a tragedy.
(See also the Atlantic story for a better definition of these three shapes.)
Chart out the emotional content of your story, then interrupt a peak or valley while building suspense in the reader.
Simple to describe, but it takes every writer practice to perfect.
Writing Stories From The Ends Toward the Middles
This starts laying out how and where to write your stories. You want to quit ending things where they are expected. Instead of Start-Middle-End, you’re going to have your resolution end somewhere in the early part or middle of your chapter, along with some breathing space, and then you start ramping it up (or down) again and again leave the reader hanging.
Doesn’t make logical sense. But once you get the habit of it, then you’ll have it. You could even take up stories of your own that you’ve abandoned for some reason, and then study them again to add or subtract and split at the real stress-filled points. Publish and then write some more.
This probably means a study of books that were successfully serialized and are still selling/downloaded today.
Louis L’Amour is famous for never going out of print, and so are Lester Dent’s “Doc Savage” stories. Mostly, the best stories do this one way or another – so the ones that keep you riveted are the ones you need to dissect. The ones you drop are the ones you can forget about.
Read, dissect, practice.
Non-Fiction Cliffhangers Exist – Just Look For Them
Strangely, this is exactly the same approach used in the best non-fiction to keep people reading. Mostly where people are telling interesting narratives as examples. A lot of non-fiction like this are the “Big Idea” books like Malcolm Gladwell’s. The Idea format of Card’s MICE acronym then comes in. Gladwell is telling a story in each chapter, but in wrapping it up, he pulls back into his core idea and asks the next question to push forward the research route he’s on. And you’re hooked to find out what’s next.
Where Gladwell fails (in several of his books) is in his ending, his conclusions. He’s a great story teller, but he interprets his facts (like everyone) according to his own prejudices. And his logic falls apart. Like a Romance where you follow two characters through the whole story only to find out that she marries the gardener, a minor character. So while she has her Happily Ever After, the main hero is tragic. So the story is unsatisfactory (unless you like star-crossed lovers.)
A non-fiction book that you can’t put to actual use is one of these. “Tipping Point” turned into a gun control argument, instead of a system to apply to either use in marketing or disaster prevention. “Outliers” had the basic question of “if these guys are so smart, how come they aren’t rich?” While the main point he missed was how people don’t have to constantly follow other “thought leaders” or “societal norms” to achieve whatever makes and keeps them happy. What’s good for Gates or Buffett or Zuckerberg or Bezos won’t cut it for everyone else. “Anyone could become a happy outlier – and here’s how…” would have made a better approach.
Most non-fiction books are cheap crap as they don’t even attempt to tell stories. So they never engage the reader. Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” is filled with stories and examples or every principle he brings up. While it’s archaic at points, it’s still has huge demand. Unlike Gladwell, he’s building a prescriptive recipe through the whole book and you wind up with one at the end. (And also while Hill had other “bestsellers” in their day, most of them aren’t known now – because the ideas weren’t as clearly edited into shape as that particular book. Once they quit being promoted, they dropped off anyone’s list. It’s the perennial-selling books you can learn the most from.)
If you write and edit your non-fiction book with the reader experience in mind, it can take on a life of its own.
And like fiction, you are aiming to write-publish a perennial-selling book, not a one-time Amazon/NYT/USA Today bestseller.
That is where your real residual passive income comes from – not having to constantly run Facebook Ads to keep your sales up.
Beginnings and Endings Have to Match, Or Else….
Cliffhangers just involve mainly cutting right before everything finishes. But then you have to start again.
Now, there are shifts, particularly when you’re telling the story from more than one viewpoint. so you could leave the hero in peril, and then go back to the ranch where the heroine is in her own difficulty. That’s a setting shift as well, so make sure you remind your reader with tags from when you’ve been there before – or give the reader a thorough grounding so they are sucked right into the story again.
Smith brought up another point, where the hero simply blacks out. (Knocked unconscious, etc.) And he tells of a story where a guy wakes up 7 years later as he’s been in a coma the entire time. So there can be time shifts as well. Again, you’ll have to bring the reader up to speed.
The straight-ahead Lester Dent story would leave the hero in a jam and then pick up the next section or chapter by getting the hero out of that jam. One point of caution here is that you can’t assume your reader didn’t put the book down. So your opening has to be the best of both worlds. You see this on TV where there are “Earlier on [TV Series Name]…” clips from whatever tells the viewer that is coming up referenced in earlier episodes.
TV series, particularly told over several seasons, are currently some of the best current examples of cliffhangers. Not only do they cut it so you will return after a commercial break, but so you will be waiting pensively for the series to start up again in their next season.
Multiple character story arcs can complicate the endings and openings. The Matrix movie is pretty good about showing how the various major and minor characters all have their own story arcs, which peak and valley at different places. You have three hero-type characters: Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and two villain-type characters: Agent Smith and Cypher. There are four main story arcs to this as well.
In the (now-missing) slides of Dan Wells’ talk, he lays out the interaction of these 5 characters and their four story arcs in a grid: Keep this to hand (print it out) when you watch the Matrix movie and you’ll have more clarity and detail to the cliffhangers they use.
But Wait… The Larger Story is Like the Episode
The format of each cliffhanger is similar to the overall story. In serials, you have a hook, three acts and a teaser. Hookis sunk to get them into the story. Teaser is to get them into the next installment. A lot of TV shows work this way. 3-5 minutes of action before the credits. Then the main show in four parts. The last part then will either leave you with an action incomplete, or spend a little time on a minor arc, like the unfulfilled love interest.
An excerpt from an upcoming book is often used this way, although most are clumsy and disjointed.
A practice work, especially a story that hasn’t sold well, would be to break that up into serials. Take the chapter breaks out. Now split the book right in the middle of an action, emotional, or scene shift. Each type of resolution is left incomplete somehow. Then you’ll start seeing if it can be improved with a cliffhanger.
Don’t forget that a resolved scene for a main character might leave a minor character unfulfilled. Such as two main characters in a surprise warm embrace, while a third character arrives with flowers and a box of chocolate. Mouth opens and eyebrows signal disappointment…
Lots to work with here.
If you don’t have one of your own, you can always re-write a classic from a long dead author, or do a mashup between two stories.
Best is simply to write a new story and look for inventive ways to keep it moving for the reader.
Read. Dissect. Write
One point is to never let your book become predictable. If the reader knows you’re going to leave them hanging, they may resent it. So you can change around your types of cliffhangers until you are able to use any of them easily. And do so.
This is a different way of looking at writing, and looking at life.
Now you’ll see and write your stories from the inspiring world around you with new interest and new possibilities. And if you do, your readers will. So they’ll come back for your next book and the one after that…
Suggested Books of Interest
- The Complete Plotto
- Plotto Genie: the Endless Story
- Mastering Plotto
- Plotto Genie: For Pulp Fiction and Romantic Dramas
- Plotting the Short Story
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Also published on Medium.