Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cliffhangers; or Did It Just Get Angsty In Here?

Cliffhangers. When done well, they draw your reader into your story.

It's easy to see them in action. All you have to do is turn on your television set.

Every week, when I tune in to watch my show -- Supernatural -- I inevitably catch the last few minutes of The Vampyre Diaries. And every week, at the end of The Vampyre Diaries, there's angst aplenty. Teenagers being sucked dry by vampires, teenagers' hearts breaking due to unrequited love, teenagers betraying one another, all set to dramatic music, embellished with special effects.

And all designed to make sure the mostly-teenaged audience is back next week, tuned in and dying to find out how the crisis resolves itself.

Cliffhangers aren't anything new, of course. Scheherezade figured it out when the sultan was piling up his body count. The original Buck Rodgers left 'em hangin' once a week back in 1939. And does anyone remember what a fuss it caused when, on the last Dallas episode of the season, someone shot J.R. Ewing?

So as authors, how can we more effectively use cliffhangers to keep our readers reading?

A lot of people suggest that every chapter should end on a minor cliffhanger. I still haven't quite gotten the hang of this, however. I can certainly recognize it on the rare occasion when I do it, but I don't know how to make it happen every time. I'm not even sure I want it to happen every time. I'm firmly in the school of thought that says that giving your reader a chance to run to the bathroom or to even close the book and come back later is not a bad idea. The trick is in making sure they come back. And that trick is one I'm not sure I've mastered yet.

Do other folks try to end chapters on cliffhangers? Or do you just stick in a chapter break when it seems like there's a logical pause in the action?


Samantha said...

I don't purposely try to write end of the chapter hooks. However, if I get to place where something happens that feels like a hook, I might mark it as a chapter break.