Friday, August 6, 2010

Cliffhangers & Page-Turners

As a writer of literary fiction, I am alleged to be unconcerned with such things as hooking my reader and making my novels into "page turners." Fie upon such allegations, I say. To paraphrase literary great Salman Rushdie, you can do whatever you want in the way of digressions and word play and formal innovation as long as you hang it all on a good story. And a good story, in my opinion, keeps the reader turning the pages to see what happens next.

Now, some of that "page turning" quality has to do with the premise and the characters. Heck, most of it. But some of it has to do with pacing and structure, which are purely mechanics. That is to say, there are some tricks you can play on your reader to keep them turning the pages, reading "just one more chapter" when they should be getting to bed.

In my current book (and in the MS I finished before my current project) I have been experimenting with different ways to add suspense to the structure of the storytelling. Suspense refers to the reader wanting to know what happens, or how the questions they are forced (by you, the author) to ask about the story will be answered.

I add suspense on two levels: the story level, and the chapter level. At the story level, I throw out the big Story Question ("Will X manage to do Y before Z happens?") and then as I tell the story, I throw out questions to the reader in the form of mysterious statements. "Pity about your dog," A says to B, but nobody explains what that means. Add more references to the dog as the chapters go by and, if you do it right, the reader starts to really want to know WTF is up with the dog. (Bear in mind that this is entering into a contract with the reader: if the payoff--the relationship of the dog to the story--isn't very interesting when you get to it or if it makes no sense or isn't really part of the Story Question, you have cheated your reader. Don't.) Basically you tantalize the reader with little mysteries as you go along, the answers to those mysteries revealing the nature of the Story Question.

At the chapter level, I have been experimenting with cliffhanger endings. These are pretty easy to do, at least the way I've been working it. Suppose you have a scene or a sequence of scenes leading to a Very Exciting Climax. Let's visualize the movement of the scene/chapter/whatevs toward the climax like this:


There is likely a temptation to make this into a single chapter, with the end of the chapter coming after the climax. You might be tempted do all your chapters like this, ending them at the conclusion of some exciting action or reveal. Let's use an asterisk to represent the chapter breaks:

*-------CLIMAX!-> * -------CLIMAX!-> * --- et cet.

This sets up a regular rhythm where the action always falls off at the end of a chapter, and gives the reader a place to put the book down and go to sleep. In one book I wrote, half the chapters ended with the protagonist going to bed at the end of the day. This structure did not exactly catapult the reader into the following chapter. Catapulting the reading along is, however, just what we want to do.

What I'm doing now is ending the chapters IMMEDIATELY BEFORE the exciting climax, so that the reader hits the chapter break and wants to know what happened and maybe will keep reading. So the structure looks like this:

* -CLIMAX!->--- * -CLIMAX!->--- * -CLIMAX!->--- * et cet.

Three things happen here. First, each chapter begins with something exciting. Which is good in and of itself. Next, you move on from the climax of one dramatic arc to building the next dramatic arc, giving the reader another little mystery and another question of "what happens next?" You hook them into the next scene/sequence and pull them forward into the story by raising the tension and then WHAM you end the chapter again without resolving any of the tension you've just built up.

This might be cruel to your reader and you might want to put in some slow chapters and vary the pacing so it's not exhausting and all being pitched forward through action. If you want. But you should never end a chapter at a point of rest in the story. Ask a question, or throw a grenade, or kidnap a princess, and then run like hell to the next chapter. If you do it right, your reader will stay hot on your heels, trying to catch up with you.


  1. Very nice post Mr. Bailey. I may not have a superior climax at the end of the chapter but I always have a question of sorts, like your dog, to keep the reader wondering what will happen next.

  2. Good stuff here - thanks for the advice. I know I have several chapters that end with the protagonist going to bed - I plan on fixing it in rewrites.

  3. Good advice, as usual. Chapters are not individual short stories. They should not wrap up cleanly at the end.

    What I usually like to do is build tension, then answer a question/resolve a conflict only to have a more interesting question/worse conflict arise at the very end. Sometimes the incident/answer that resolves the first conflict is the basis of the next conflict, so they happen simultaneously in a sort of climax that relieves some tension but also raises a new problem.

    If there were no resolutions at all in each chapter, I'd feel like I was writing episodes of Lost instead of literature. It's probably a more common problem to have not enough conflict or tension in a story than too much, but just as a movie with incessant explosions can put me to sleep, it can also get boring to read a story of neverending mysteries and questions that lead into each other without any payout or sense of "progress" happening.

  4. Interesting post. I think it's important to have chapter endings that keep pulling the reader forward. I think it was Jack Bickham who said that endings should be unexpected but logical.

  5. Usually in my own writing I make a pledge to myself to not do this. I think that's a consequence of me being annoyed by television season finales that try to make me wait all summer to find out what happens. The result of the television shows is that I no longer bother to get hooked into any of them because I don't like the suspense. It's different with a book, considering you have the whole thing, because you have the ability to keep reading as much as you want.

    I think the technique works really well in some books. And, not surprisingly, I think it requires a lot of skill from the writer to do this in a way that's not annoying. I can't quite put my finger on what makes it annoying though. Maybe it's a matter of time? If it's organized the way you have it here at the end of the post, Scott, it would work for me because I get the missing climax relatively soon afterwards. I've read some books where that missing climax is hidden several chapters later and that just makes me mad.

    As to why I haven't done this in the past, I think it's because I somehow fell in love with the idea of emphasizing the middles of my stories. Writers who managed to create suspense even after telling me what was going to happen were always exciting to me. It is a different sort of cliffhanger, because the reader knows the beginning and the end and has to figure out how those two things connect.

  6. I should say thank you, because I never understood my decision-making process on this until now. It's good for me to write these things out.

  7. Apropos Davin's comment, I want to say that not every book needs to do this, and if done wrong it will just be annoying, and essentially I'm just saying be aware that you can use chapter breaks to propel the reader onward, and otherwise you write the story the way you would normally. This is merely a simple way of controlling pacing.

    Also, as a writer of literary fiction, my big climaxes tend to be things like, "Rose seemed to be lying to her husband" as opposed to "the demon hoarde lie dead at my feet and I plucked the Orb of Whosis from the hands of the biggest demon and then strode onward down the dark tunnel."

  8. I actually don't write in chapters...just one whole document most of the time (sometimes I'll break it into 2-4 parts during the first draft)but when I decide to add the chapter breaks, I do exactly what you are talking about.

    I place the break at a place where the reader just has to turn the page.


  9. Shelly: Yeah, that's just what I mean. I write in chapters, but really what I have is a list of events or emotional climaxes or whatever, and I write from one to the next of those, and I sort of stumble onto my chapter breaks while writing: "Ooh! I should end the chapter here, while the temperature's high!" and then finish the action on the first page or two of the next chapter.

    In a way this is sort of gimmicky, but--depending on what sort of story you write--sometimes readers want to be manipulated in just this manner.

  10. Great post, Scott. I agree with your process mostly, though I have to say I agree with what Davin's saying as well. There are a few times when this type of "chunking" doesn't work as well. For the most part though, what you're striving to do can be accomplished by how you're doing it. Nice job and thanks for breaking it down for us.

  11. With all this talk of climaxes, can the spambots be far behind?

    But excellent advice, good sir. I've never thought about chapter break usage like this, but it makes perfect sense. Well said!

    And yes, the rhythm needs to include SOME down-time, to ward off reader exhaustion. I heard one gal say she never finished Dan Brown's books because they were too much for her--just non-stop action until she lost interest.

  12. Davin: I cannot resist pointing out that Leo Tolstoy used exactly this technique all the time. Here is how Chapter Two of Anna Karenina ends:

    "Come, that'll do, you can go," said Stepan Arkadyevitch, blushing suddenly. "Well now, do dress me." He turned to Matvey and threw off his dressing-gown decisively.

    Matvey was already holding up the shirt like a horse's collar, and, blowing off some invisible speck, he slipped it with obvious pleasure over the well-groomed body of his master.

    We are stopped in the middle of a scene. Chapter Three begins with a continuation of that scene:

    When he was dressed, Stepan Arkadyevitch sprinkled some scent on himself, pulled down his shirt-cuffs, distributed into his pockets his cigarettes, pocketbook, matches, and watch with its double chain and seals, and shaking out his handkerchief, feeling himself clean, fragrant, healthy, and physically at ease, in spite of his unhappiness, he walked with a slight swing on each leg into the dining-room, where coffee was already waiting for him, and beside the coffee, letters and papers from the office.

    And so on, all through the novel.

  13. How dare you use Tolstoy for evil instead of good! Actually, honestly, that particular chapter break intrigued me for some time. I don't have the book with me at the moment, but I remember asking myself whether or not I liked it. I think the reason I decided it worked for me was because it seemed like the end of Arkadyevich's thought, in a way. He's not that stressed over what he has done, so their is no urgency for him. Or, the other possibility is that I don't understand this sort of tension. What is the thing that is propelling me from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3, my wanting to see how he deals with his wife? In a way that feels answered to me at the end of Chapter 2.

    And, what about the opening of Romeo and Juliet? What do you see as the purpose of the prologue?

    Two households, both alike in dignity,
    In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
    From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
    Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
    From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
    A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
    Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
    Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
    The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
    And the continuance of their parents' rage,
    Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
    Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
    The which if you with patient ears attend,
    What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

  14. Oh, and I also want to say that the example of throwing a grenade works for me because it does work as a climax of sorts. It shows that a decision was being made. So, maybe it's a matter of having two climaxes, one before and one that we have to wait for, like the decision to throw the grenade and then the aftermath in the next chapter. What might be less effective is if the chapter ended with the thrower holding the grenade and deciding. I know that sort of thing is done, and it does work to create suspense...but it's a different feel somehow, like what Jeannie was saying.

  15. Well, you know that Shakespeare opens in medias res at Act 1, Scene 1 in his plays, so sometimes (but not often) he has a prologue to tell you what the premise is. Especially in historical plays, or plays like "Romeo and Juliet" where the story is well-known (as it already was in his day). The first scene of the play, following the prologue, is a fight scene between the two warring families. It begins with a long series of puns that descend quickly into obscenity.

    Anyway, I don't think this prologue is at all similar to the kind of chapter breaks I'm talking about. Prologues=stinky, anyway.

    My opinion about Tolstoy's structure is that there is rising tension over many chapters. Sometimes he uses chapter breaks to switch from dramatized scenes to narrative summary, but in my opinion, his chapters end leaving the reader in discomfort, wanting more resolution that Tolstoy has supplied, and the story slides forward and continues the action at the beginning of the next chapter. Not in every single case, no. But a lot.

    There's also a sliding scale of tension and climax, depending on the type of story and the writer and all of that. My post is overly simplified in an attempt to be broadly applicable without actually talking about any specific story. Maybe that was a mistake.

  16. No, the prologues aren't similar to the chapter breaks. I'm saying they are opposite. I've been more drawn to the prologue style somehow. I like the way it plays with the suspense in a story. Maybe it's because it takes the pressure off of me. I don't feel like the climax has to be as big a deal if I already tell the reader what it is. Like in the cannibal story, you know the ending, so then I don't have to worry about building up to it. It allows me to move laterally instead of uphill if that makes any sense at all.

  17. Davin, I see what you mean. Those are different issues about suspense than I'm trying to get at here, but I do know what you mean. I've been thinking a lot this year about not holding anything back from the reader, just telling it all and relying on the power of the writing instead of ideas of suspense. That's why, in Cocke and Bull, I don't keep it a secret that Cocke isn't a real priest and I give it away in the first chapter. I think all of the murders that happen are foreshadowed and shouldn't come as any surprise. Any sort of information I hide from the reader in "Killing Hamlet" is because I need to present it in a certain order so that the dramatic irony is there, because the heart of the book is about assumptions people are making about themselves and how they're mistaken. Maybe this is why I want to write a mystery, so I can hide things and use that sort of suspense.

    On the other hand, I've been reading Borges lately, and the most remarkable things happen in his stories. He plays with unities of time and space and invokes Shakespeare and Poe and Greek myths and science fiction all at the same time. He's given me the impetus (or, maybe, the courage) to break through my own structures now and then. We'll see how that works out.

  18. @ scott and Davin.

    Interesting argument. I think, Davin, you are conflating mystery with suspense. Introducing a mystery is one way to create suspense, but no the only way. Sometimes telling the ending of the story is a better form of suspense. If you start a book saying, "Everyone involved died by Tuesday," and then begin the story on Monday, the reader will be in suspense. The question, "how does the beginning connect to the middle" is suspense.

    As to cliffhangers. I think what Davin objects to is the cheap way of creating cliffhangers, which, I have to say, was one of the first techniques I mastered. As Scott has pointed out, it's easy to do in fantasy. "And then the Carnivorous Green Oooze reared a thousand mouth-tipped tentacles from the water to devour them!" You can always find a monster around the corner in fantasy.

    It took me much longer to master the ability to leave the scene on an emotional cliffhanger, if indeed it can be said I have mastered it yet. I think that is more the kind of cliffhangers you are talking about, Scott.

  19. Opps, I meant "how does the beginning connect to the end"

  20. Tara: Thanks for the clarification about mystery versus suspense. I agree entirely.

    I'm talking about both sorts of cliffhangers here, as it happens. There's a wide spectrum of types of drama, depending on the type of story. I think that once you can write solid story arcs, be they emotional, thematic or plot-driven, the chapter break technique I'm talking about can add a sort of propulsion to the reading experience. If that's what you want. Like Genie says, chapters should not wrap up cleanly at the end, like short stories. Unless you're Elizabeth Strout, though even she puts long-term suspense into Olive Kitteridge, her collection of linked short stories.

    I also hope that Davin isn't assuming I'm saying that everyone should write like this all the time. It's a tool, no more. One of many many many we can use or ignore as suits our purposes.

  21. No assumptions. I was just talking about me. I feel like I was saying what Tara May was saying in the end of her first paragraph. I just take more words to do it, and I am less clear.

  22. I try to do this, end with a cliffhanger. It actually is much more difficult than it sounds! *sigh* I'm ready to edit my last WIP and I'll try again to make this work.


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