Writing Cliffhangers, Part III: False Trails and Red Herrings
You can get quite a learning experience from studying texts about writing (and workshops and courses) from writers who are also-rans. And that includes reading their genre-specific fiction.
As Theodore Sturgeon points out, “90% of everything out their is crud.”
Further, the idea of “also-ran” comes from any race. There are first, second, and third placed runners. Everyone else also ran in that race.
When you study texts, find out if that author ever had a breakout book or several. Did you hear of that author before you found out they wrote a non-fiction book on how to write?
Like Stephen King’s “On Writing”.
Here’s some others I stumbled across:
- Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card
- Writing Popular Fiction, by Dean Koontx
- The Craft of Writing Fiction, by Ben Bova
- Writing to the Point, by Algis Budrys
- Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
And some essays:
- On the Writing of Speculative Fiction, by Robert A. Heinlein.
- How to Tell a Story, by Mark Twain
- Not That It Matters, by A. A. Milne (just the essays on writing.)
- Write It Right, by Ambrose Beirce
- The Power of Words and Composition, by Edgar Allen Poe
- The Pulp Fiction Formula, by Lester Dent
And some collections:
- On Writing Horror, by Mort Castle
- Writing Mysteries, by Sue Grafton
The point is that when someone had proven themselves beyond the scope of the rest who write in those genres, then they have a voice you want to hear. The reason for this is to weed out the 90% of dross so you can start your research.
Finding Real Research Nuggets
When you are researching to get to the bottom-core data, you are looking for just a few things:
- Commonalities – where multiple authors are coming up with the same breakthrough (not just re-hashing conventional wisdom)
- Systems – principles that mesh together to form a greater whole
- Outliers – data that doesn’t show up anywhere else, but works like wildfire in a dry forest.
I followed and devoured multiple authors, and weeded through 227 books all about writing. The result was that short list above.
Among the worst books were by people who taught courses and made a substantial part of their income from it. Not that they weren’t right in what they said, but that they mainly re-hashed other material out there.
Here’s the point about courses (and workshops and lecture series): Over 97% of the people who sign up for a course do so because they are clueless. And will pay big bucks to get someone to teach them about it in simple steps. Delivering a bunch of courses or workshops on writing or anything else just shows that the person is really tapping into a huge market of uninformed people who would rather pay someone than do their own research.
Worse the results are 1 in 10,000 –
- only 3% will finish the course,
- only 3% of those will actually apply what they learned to result,
- only 3% of those will become an exceptional success.
Courses are far more leveraged than books for income. And many authors turn to this instead of ever becoming a breakout author. It’s not the number of books an author has, and not the number of books that have hit the bestselling charts (not very unique in our Amazon days.) Those can both be accomplished by writers who specialize in genre-fiction.
The Limits to Genre Fiction – A False Trail
Authors like Dean Wesley Smith are prolific and also share their accumulated knowledge (for a price.) He’s undoubtedly prolific and this is how people follow him. He doesn’t particularly have a mailing list that I have found. But he does have a continuing set of workshops that are on semi-automatic, as well as a publishing company that cranks out his works and keeps selling them. (Much like L. Ron Hubbard’s Author Services and Bridge Publications Inc.)
And I studied and have referenced a great deal of DW Smith’s stuff (and separately analyzed and tore big holes in Hubbard’s scams.)
When I got to the end of Smith (after a couple thousand invested) I finally saw that I wasn’t learning any more. Practically, I was having to eliminate many individual datums I had learned as unworkable. I got to the point where I was thinking independently and no longer relying on Smith’s digested experience (and opinions.) In both of these pulp fiction writers, you have to distinguish between opinion and workable truths. Opinion stated as fact doesn’t make it so. An ancient principle is: Truth is as valuable as it is workable. And implies you should test everything. Once one of their opinions is disproved, then any built-up credibility is cracked. (The main reason I tell you to test everything I say, especially because I said it. I can’t and shouldn’t try to live your life for you.)
Mastering pulp fiction writing is being able to break through your own self-created barriers to production. Anyone can learn to write at pulp fiction volume, but very few will stick with it. Hubbard, for instance, turned away from making a very profitable penny-a-word writing to making most of his money from his corporate cult, that principally relies on counselling services and courses that teach counselling – according to his trademarked vernacular.
Smith is far more honest, but can only take you so far. Because he prefers to write genre-fiction instead of becoming a breakout author. And while Smith can name-drop authors who write in this style or that, who are examples of various genre-specific styles, Smith is actually just being a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. That he shares with you for a price.
As an author, he has retired into training people with courses while he also gets his writing published. Nothing wrong with that. But remember, he’s a genre-fiction writer. He produces tons of work in a year and uses his production volume to sell his courses as an authority.
It doesn’t really matter how many genre-fiction books a person has written. All that proves is that they were a success at genre-fiction. And just for that/those specific genre(s) in that specific lifetime.
Blockbuster Authors – Red Herrings
While I want to talk about breakout authors, we first have to go through “blockbuster” authors.
Blockbuster authors are cross-genre. They write fiction which has a certain main genre, but also include structures of other genres. And that is the next step toward being a true breakout author, regardless of what your main preferred genre is.
There are also prolific blockbuster authors. James Patterson is one. Nora Roberts and Clive Cussler are also-rans at this. They have a following that makes most of their books into million-dollar sales giants. And their books are built on patterns.
Few of these write texts on how to write better. Patterson did a series of videos, but they were more a vanity memoir than useful.
One text recommended by DW Smith is Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. Frankly the vast bulk of this book is crud. Way past 90%. The really useful key data is in the second chapter. Here he gives his short list of what he considers is in a blockbuster novel:
- high stakes: the individual at risk often represents not just himself, but a community, a city, an entire country
- larger-than-life characters: in big novels the main characters do extraordinary things
- a strong dramatic question: the ongoing central conflict around which its major characters interact, the main issue that drives and unites its myriad scenes
- a high concept/far-fetched plot premise: radical or even somewhat outlandish
- intense emotional involvement between several point-of-view characters
- an exotic and interesting setting
Those six points define the runaway blockbuster. You’ll see them in all the million-dollar-selling books.
But that doesn’t make a true breakout author. We want to examine is how a prolific genre-author becomes blockbuster author, and then becomes a true breakout author.
What This Has to Do With Cliffhangers – A SideBar
Just to cut to the chase of all this. I was on the butt end of a disappointing six-week auto-workshop from DW Smith (not my only one, but my last one.) The videos had been recorded years before. But he promised that he had actually studied cliffhangers and was going to lay it all out.
As I covered before, he only gave lists of lists.
And resolved for me that the real cliffhanger ran on interrupting major changes in action, character, or setting. Too simple to state, and takes a lot of practice to perfect.
Smith missed this as he’s a genre-fiction author. He isn’t a researcher who looks for systems of principles. And I also found no one else out there had worked this out, either. They knew how to write cliffhangers, but had no simple definition for them other than lists. Now you do. (See links above.)
One thing nagged at me, though. Smith mentioned a “theme cliffhanger” but then failed to describe it except in a few minutes of one video at the last week. Just tossed it off. Essentially, it consisted of interrupting the reader’s expectations for that specific genre. That really goes back to one of those three interruptions above, but would be genre-specific. Mystery-detective would be simple here. Like the sudden realization that the trail was a red herring specifically left by the antagonist/villain – right at the end of a chapter.
What you’ve actually got is a combination of a couple of elements at the same time, usually a pairing of action and character reaction. Those are more common as you look for them. The harder version is getting setting in there as well, which is probably a scene shift at the beginning of the next chapter (right at the point Holmes concludes his only action is to take Moriarty over Richenback Falls – the next scene is now back in their 221b flat in London where Watson is writing it all up, weeks later.)
If there is any sort of thematic cliffhanger, it would be where multiple combinations of the three elements are interrupted in the same scene ending. What would probably be more like this was to have a single scene (or several in sequence) where the three structural plots (action-adventure, romantic, mystery) all cross over close together or simultaneously. Typically, this is the crisis around the third act, just before the last set of commercials.
Meaning that there are four, five, or six cliffhangers to each TV production, depending on your script and shooting structure. But those are all short stories, including movies (which might rise to the length of a novella.) Novels can have cliffhangers at the end of each chapter and have a hundred chapters or more. Just those few principles gives you tons of study and practice to do. (You’re welcome.)
Genre-fiction writers and blockbuster writers aren’t generally known for teaching breakout-quality how-two books. Because they can’t teach better than they know.
And all I point out here is where the data points to. I’m still personally mastering genre-fiction myself. Your mileage will vary.
Teaching Yourself To Write Breakout Stories
A simple definition: Breakout stories are perennial-selling stories.
Take the top 100 of gutenberg.org downloads and you’ll find maybe 50 or 80 which are constantly downloaded. All their authors are long dead. Yet their books are downloaded regularly. Tens of thousands of copies every month (See List.)
Any author trains themselves by studying two types of books:
- The books they love to read and read again.
- Perennial classics that are always in demand.
To succeed in writing, an author has to read what they love, and love what they write. If you don’t like what you’re writing, then neither will your reader.
But your best writing will be found in the classics that keep being bought and read over and over. Even the well-proofread, but minimally styled books on Gutenberg.org.
That is the secret to becoming a breakout author.
This is the secret of Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, William Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, Louisa Alcott, Jane Austen, etc. Their books never go out of print. L’Amour was told this after he’d been writing for a decade – that his books are still in print. He and Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust) are still being printed today. As well as the other authors above.
L’Amour made a specific point of studying Shakespeare and the other classics in order to train himself how to write great fiction.
It’s not just getting your book onto Amazon as an ebook so it “never goes out of print.” Meaning we can refine this to mean that your book continues to sell well, being found by new readers, completely regardless of any marketing. (Ideally, tens of thousands every month, with no need to market…)
A tiny handful of authors have accomplished this. If you studied the top 100 books on Gutenberg, you’ll narrow it down to just the handful where you were thinking about those stories days after you finished the book. Now, if you take the Dorothea Brande (Becoming A Writer – book | course) method of analyzing them, then you’d be on your way to becoming a true breakout author. In your own lifetime.
A Study Prescription
Out of this we see a true training line-up:
- Train yourself as an author who writes and publishes regularly (See Heinlein’s 6 rules.)
- Train yourself to become a prolific author who writes and publishes routinely/daily.
- Train yourself to write and publish in the three physical plot structures. Then start combining these in your stories.
- Learn Endings and Beginnings (Cliffhangers) in action, character, settings, and in combination (thematic.)
- Incorporate the 6 blockbuster elements into your stories.
- Learn how the perennial-selling books were made by dissecting them.
Those steps, done consistently and over decades will ensure your success. Because like Dickens and L’Amour, it’s been done before and can be done again. Persistence is the trick.
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Also published on Medium.