Cliff-Hangers: Learning from the Masters

Harold Lloyd, cliff-hangerLast Friday’s quick tips about writing cliff-hangers can help keep your reader immersed in your story. Today, here’s some of what we can learn from the masters. (Sources listed below). The Victorian novelists who published serials—like Charles Dickens—had to create chapter endings that would bring readers back the next week or month. The successful ones became experts at it.

  • Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar (her infant child) within her arms, the (dying) mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world. Not: “She was dead.” By referencing the common fate of mankind, Dickens allies readers with the dying mother. Even in death, there is action; she is clinging and drifting.
  • And there, with an aching void in his young heart, and all outside so cold, and bare, and strange, Paul sat as if he had taken life unfurnished, and the upholsterer were never coming. Not: “What in the world was he going to do now?” Dickens gives Paul’s common dilemma an engaging and memorable treatment through a specific visual image, a metaphor for loneliness.
  • The Judge, whose eyes had gone in the general direction, recalled them, leaned back in his seat, and looked steadily at the man whose life was in his hand, as Mr. Attorney-General rose to spin the rope, grind the axe, and hammer the nails into the scaffold. Not: “Pronouncing a death sentence was never easy for him.” Dickens injects images of action, albeit fanciful—spinning, grinding, and hammering—into the reader’s mind. He doesn’t just describe the Judge’s passive mental activities: “pondering, contemplating, assessing.”
  • I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more. Not: “Pip tossed and turned all night.” Dickens lets you know something about Pip’s future here, but again, it is not all in his head, it’s tied to the physical reality of the light and the bed. It’s saying goodbye to childhood.

These are moments of high drama and great resonance with the reader. They are integral to the tale, not tacked-on contrivances. Note how specific they are. They contain physical actions, not just thoughts and feelings. And paradoxically, by being so specific, they achieve universality.

Modern writers don’t employ Dickens’s florid language, but they still can achieve an organic approach to cliff-hangers. By organic, I mean an ending that grows out of the story and gives it somewhere to go.

  • They respected him, stopped watching him all the time. But he never stopped watching them. (This plants a seed of menace and tells readers something important about the character.)
  • Ma snorted, her nose and chin almost meeting as she screwed up her face. “How can you sit there and look Ruth in the eye and say you searched the dale? You’ve not been near the old lead mine workings.” (Up next: lead mine workings.)
  • “You’re not a monster. Well, except when you wake up with a hangover. It’ll be fine, George,” Anne soothed him. “It’s not as if the past holds any surprises, is it?” (An almost painful foreshadowing.)

There’s a vast difference between this last example and the weak one cited previously (“she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered”). In the negative example, the author is simply reports a conclusion—head-work—of the protagonist. If readers have been paying attention to the story, they’ve already reached this same conclusion. And, if not, well, there are bigger problems . . .

By contrast, McDermid’s characters are engaged in conversation (action, not reflection). Their statements propel the story forward; readers know what the characters next will do (explore the lead mine workings) or be (surprised). They react with an Aha! Or even Uh-oh.

Don’t destroy your cliff-hanger’s value of by using it to tell readers what they already know. Let them run on out ahead of you. That’s what makes reading fun.

Sources:

The Dickens quotes, in order are from: Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 1, Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 11, A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, end Chapter 2, and Great Expectations, Chapter 18.

The modern quotes, are from: Bill Beverly, Dodgers, end Chapter 18; Val McDermid, A Place of Execution, Part 1, end Chapter 13; Ibid., Book 2, Part 1, end Chapter 3.

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