Writing Fiction: Learning Cliffhangers from Louis L’Amour
All this was on a back-burner. Until it wasn’t.
Ever flip ahead to find out how a chapter is going to end? Then it doesn’t?
This is the point any author has to learn in order to start turning his standalone short stories into serials. And curiosity (as in cats) got me to do the research to bring you this…
Tapping this cliffhanger riddle was started with a comment by Dean Wesley Smith in one of his many lectures where he said he practiced his endings for something like two years through his writing. He knew he had mastered the area when he started getting reviews that said, “…couldn’t put it down.”
Louis L’Amour has long been the prime example of a writer who mastered cliffhangers. The only way to read a L’Amour book is to quit in the middle of a chapter when the story action hits a rest point. Otherwise, you won’t get any sleep that night. He was a past master of the cliffhanger. And you didn’t care (other than missing sleep.)
Of course, he mastered openings as well. And action sequences, and pacing, etc. He wrote blockbuster books and became a known brand. Just what every author wants. His books were no longer genre fiction, as they became known by the author rather than whatever he wanted to write about. It didn’t matter. When he wrote it, it would sell – millions.
To understand how he accomplished this, you have to look back at how he trained himself as a pulp fiction writer.
Cliffhangers came from the old (1800’s) pulp fiction, And people must have loved them, as they became the popular format. You even see them built into Campbell’s “Heroes Journey”, the 7-Point System, “Save the Cat” and others. In pulp fiction, the most commonly referred to model is Lester Dent’s.
L’Amour started out writing for the pulps in the 30’s. After the war, he returned to them and shifted gears to paperbacks. His real production as an author started after he turned 40.
And his publishers simply could not keep up with his output. Most limited their authors to two books a year in those days. L’Amour was cranking out and selling one short story a month and 3-4 novels a year. He had contracts with both Bantam and Gold Medal at the same time.
He wrote as a pantzer. He didn’t outline, but just followed the character. Of course, the pulp model was trained into his mind by then, so it’s natural by then. Wikipedia quoted him as saying just before his death, “I never rework a book. I’d rather use what I’ve learned on the next one, and make it a little bit better. The worst of it is that I’m no longer a kid and I’m just now getting to be a good writer. Just now.”
As covered elsewhere, the idea of multiple drafts is a more recent “model” that publishers and English professors have foisted off on becoming writers. Look up the top-paid authors and you’ll find they don’t work in drafts. Multiple reviews and edits, sure. Rewrite? Never.
Wikipedia also held that he wrote over a 100 novels and over 250 short stories during his life. Other counts vary, usually larger. A few days before his death (1988) he was told that his books had passed the 200 million sold mark. By 2010, it was past 320 million sold.
Again, we see that he was trained in writing action short stories (Lester Dent model) in the pulps first. Then later started writing longer novels. Interestingly, before WWII, he was writing adventure stories, but after returning to his writing, those markets had dried up. Westerns were popular and so he switched genres. When the paperback boom started, he was able to ramp up his writing into novels.
This is the point of learning the basic plot structures (adventure, mystery, romance) and working in the high demand/low supply genres to master their peculiarities. Then cross into other related genres. Exactly what L’Amour did.
In his 60’s he discovered, after some twenty years of writing, that his novels had never gone out of print.
A Habit of Lifelong Reading and Learning
Here is the recurring scene that D. W. Smith talks about – the true professional author never quits improving at his craft. The whole point of “Education of a Wandering Man” was that learning from what you read is a continuous process. This was the autobiographical book L’Amour was just finishing as he passed on.
It fits that the mind is continually active, and seems in need of constant feeding. While the habits you develop as a writer turn instinctual, any tool needs to be kept sharp.
I have never had to strive to graduate, never to earn a degree. The only degrees I have are honorary, and I am proud to have them. I studied purely for the love of learning, wanting to know and understand. For a writer, of course, everything is grist for the mill, and a writer cannot know too much. Sooner or later everything he does know will find its uses.
A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.
I have studied a thousand things I never expected to find use in a story, yet every once in a while these things will find a place.
L’Amour probably read more non-fiction than fiction. His home had over 10,000 books in it,, organized by subject and included a room full of maps, including a complete topological set of the United States.
His point in all this reading was to utilize it to feed his inspiration.
We simply must free the mind from its fetters and permit it to function without restraint. Many of us have learned to supply ourselves with the raw materials and then allow the subconscious to take over. This is what creativity is. One must condition oneself for the process and then let it proceed.
What About the Art of Writing Cliffhangers?
In this research (to date) I’ve failed to find any L’Amour quotes or writing about cliffhangers.
(Of course, I still have a stack of around 270 books by qualified authors to read, dissect, and report – or discard. So stay tuned to this series…)
A cliffhanger is named after the trope of having the chapter end up with the hero hanging off a cliff, literally. And the next chapter says how he solves it. So you read on.
But otherwise, I’ve assembled these notes:
At that site, several examples of the various types of cliffhangers are taken from popular books.
A cliffhanger is when the writer ends a chapter or scene at a tense moment to encourage the reader to continue on to the next chapter.
In the 1800s, “penny dreadful” books became popular—and so did cliffhangers. Published in weekly parts, the books were cheap and exciting and often ended in the middle of a thrilling scene to encourage people to buy the next week’s installment.
This site names 6 types of cliffhangers:
Character in Physical Danger
This is probably the most successful type of cliff-hanger. If you put the character in immediate danger, the reader will almost always read on.
Character Heading Into Danger or Mystery
When the characters are going into a dangerous place or possibly into a risky situation.
An important piece of information, a person. or anything that shows up unexpectedly.
Emotional tension comes when there’s a conflict between characters.
The Announcement of a Daring Plan or a Decision About Future Action
This type of cliffhanger revs up the story and the reader’s interest because it promises that something new and exciting will happen very soon.
Something Bizarre or Confusing or Out of Character
A puzzling occurrence or comment that surprises both the characters and the readers and seems to have no explanation.
Karen Woodward (http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/04/cliffhangers.html) has her own list pulled (via Anne M. Leone) from “Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell (who called them read-on prompts):
- Impending disaster
- Dangerous emotions
- Mysterious dialogue
- Secret revealed
- Major decision / vow
- Announcement of a shattering event
- Reversal / surprise
- Question left in the air
In Leone’s article, she reviewed her favorite books for examples.
Note: one old idea is to have a third person (omniscient) narrator start to tell something is going to happen. This is difficult to pull off, probably always has been. With the modern stories starting up in the middle of the action, having the character reveal the setting through his actions and dialog, you probably won’t be having a narrator telling the story. Very rare. So you can’t easily use someone climbing onto the stage and telling about what is going to happen. Use the stories you like to read as your examples. Dissect them. If they can pull off such a narrator trick, then figure out how they used it. Otherwise…
Again, all this will take practice. Read and write a lot. Only read what you really like. Dissect all your best-loved books, even if you read them years ago. Read them again and see if you still like them now. Dissect them like Dorothea Brande lays out in her book (and course.)
To learn cliffhangers, work out carefully how every chapter in your favorite stories end. You read and dissect to improve your endings and make them hook the reader into the next. Chapter endings have the cliffhangers, and these are different from book endings. (And give you a clue to writing short stories as serials.) They have to fit within the reality of that story you have your hands on. They have to meet reader expectations. Or that reader will put down your book for no known reason for them, and won’t probably pick up another book by that pen name.
(Which is again why you should practice and publish under multiple pen names across various genres.)
The other approach is to watch the long-running serials and see how they do it. Most of this is figuring out how the characters are going to resolve an over-arcing problem. And you have the character arcs versus the individual story arcs and the longer-running arcs. The 10-year (and 3 spin-offs, plus three movies) run of StarGate can tell you a lot of how cliffhangers work. There are other series, in full-feature films that also do this. Die Hard is one. Another is the Dark Knight trilogy with Christian Bales. Of course, Star Wars (however flawed some of them) and of course Star Trek (the original series, and the spin-off’s you liked.)
Remember, half-hour shows are the equivalent of short stories, full hour shows are novellas, and multi-part hour shows or feature-length movies get close to novel length (corporate published novels, that is.) That’s why the biggest classics have to be abridged to make it into film, because a 100-page romance would have to be told over five movies, maybe three if they were feature length. And the stories aren’t written like that. Dickens stories, the ones he serialized, would be the exceptions. Keep that in mind as you study these stories and their movie counterparts..
What L’Amour Confirms As An Author Model
- Read and write daily. It’s said that he wrote 7 days a week and averaged 10 pages of text each day. When he finished a story, he would start the next with a fresh sheet rolled into his typewriter. One report said that he wrote first thing in the am. Another said that he would read classics out loud to his wife and children after breakfast, and then research (by reading) in the afternoon.
- Write short stories to begin with, then graduate to novels.
- Study and apply Lester Dent (pulp fiction) model to story writing.
- Find and use multiple outlets for your writing. Don’t let their limitations hold you back. In our days, this is using self-publishing in addition to anything you can get corporate publishers to accept. And use multiple pen-names to keep up with your prolific output.
- Write genre-fiction to begin with, and then graduate to blockbuster status. You graduate by earning your following. This is done by writing damn good stories. And that means constantly honing your craft.
- Follow your inspiration as it knows how to tell stories. Your job is to write them down as fast and as best you can. You don’t second guess. You don’t re-write. Heinlein’s rules apply.
The above article was pulled from these links:
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