Thoughts on Cliffhangers

Cliffhanger: A suspenseful situation occurring at the end of a chapter, scene, or episode (source).

For months I’ve been promising a post on cliffhangers. You’ve been waiting, eagerly, like a kitten ready to pounce… and now it has finally come. Did you anticipate it? Was it a good cliffhanger?

I apologise that it’s taken so long, and for the never-ending stream of Dad-jokes which I have floating around in my head. There’ll be more in future posts, undoubtedly (I can’t turn them off).

Logo_of_the_100I wanted to write about cliffhangers after (re)watching The 100 on Netflix. It’s a great dystopian series.

(Side note: I complained a while back about some flaws with The 100. One of the things I’ve come to realise recently is that nothing is perfect. A great TV show that runs for multiple seasons will have bad episodes. The 100 starts out really promising, but takes some mis-steps along the way. Nothing or nobody ever measures up in every aspect (including myself), so we just have to take the good with the bad. And so I’m learning to appreciate the bits that worked well and not be disappointed that it wasn’t perfect).

Background: The 100

The basic premise of The 100 is the remnant of humanity live on a space station called The Ark following a nuclear event on Earth. However, unbeknown to most, The Ark is running out of oxygen. In an attempt to give themselves longer to solve the problem, 100 incarcerated teenagers are sent down to Earth – which may or may not be survivable yet. The 100 is the story of the teenagers surviving Earth, and all it throws at them.

Full of Cliffhangers

(Spoilers). The 100 has episode-after-episode (especially in the first season) where you just have to keep watching. It nails the concept of cliff hangers.

  1. E01: the plucky teenagers cross a river en-route to a needed food supply. They’re happy to be on the planet and enjoying nature. (After all, they’ve only ever known a sterile space station). They cross a river ‘Tarzan-style’, cheering jubilantly that they made it across. There’s love in the air and excitement and then a spear comes hurtling out of the trees and skewers Jasper in the stomach.
  2. E02: The adults aboard The Ark watch as the teenager’s bio-wrist bands indicate they are dying en-mass. Belamy, the bully is exerting his control over the teenagers. In the last seconds of the episode we see the teenagers being watched by a savage (“Grounder”) in the trees.
  3. E03: The protagonist (Clarke) makes up with best friend Wells, who for years she thinks has betrayed her. In reality his lies have been protecting her from the truth. Wells is on guard duty when a young girl sits down next to him. They have a little chat and then Charlotte stabs him in the neck and hums to him as he bleeds-out.
  4. E04: Clarke and her new flame Finn “get together”, just as Finn’s girlfriend, Raven, is coming down from The Ark. It’s going to get pointy in a way that a love-triangle does, with 3 points to stab and 3 edges to cut.
  5. E05: The Ark’s oxygen supply is worse than expected. They plan to kill off more people in a “malfunction”, when the truth comes out. Volunteers step forward to die so that others may live and are suffocated when the oxygen is turned off. Shortly thereafter, they see a signal from the Earth, letting them know that Earth is survivable (and the people died unnecessarily).
  6. E06: Belamy has a fight with his (loved) sister Octavia, saying things we know he doesn’t mean.
  7. E07: Up on The Ark the ruling council announces (to their members) that while there are 2,237 people on The Ark there is only enough drop ships for 700 people.
  8. E08: The teenagers are getting guns to protect themselves from a Grounder attack. Meanwhile on The Ark it’s revealed the new Council member is the one who tried to have the Chancellor (President) killed in E1.
  9. E09: An effort at diplomacy with the Grounders ends in sparking off a war. The teenagers think help is on its way when a drop ship comes down early, until it crashes into the ground (presumably with Clarke’s mum aboard).
  10. E10: The traitor, Murphy, who  they let back into their midst has turned over a new leaf and is helping to heal the sick. Only it’s just a momentary change and he sneakily kills someone in the last seconds of the episode.
  11. E11: Clarke and Finn are captured by Grounders and Monty mysteriously disappears.
  12. E12: The adults aboard The Ark plan to send the satellite down to Earth knowing that 95% of the station won’t survive re-entry.
  13. E13: After winning a big battle with the Grounders, a strange new enemy they’ve only heart of “the Mountain Men” come and abduct all the teenagers. Clarke wakes up locked in a Quarantine Ward, seeing Monty across the hall.

As you can see from this list, almost every episode ends on a cliffhanger, but not all cliffhangers are the same. From this list I can see a few variants:

  • Shock factor – something shocks the audience (this could be a good or bad shock). We’re not expecting Jasper to get speared in episode 1, and it turns the moment of triumph into defeat. And now, having known the danger is “out there” we’re completely shocked when a young girl (one of “their own”) kills one of the strongest teenagers (episode 3). We suddenly realise – again – that there’s more danger than we recognised.
  • Impending danger – could be danger to a character, or danger which threatens the plot (what the character intends to do). The Grounder watching the teenagers from the treeline in episode 2 is menacing. The teenagers are busy partying, not knowing that an enemy is so close by. At this stage we know so little about the Grounders that our lack of knowledge intensifies that fear. When Murphy starts killing sick people we wonder if they’ll discover his duplicity, and who might die first (episode 10).
  • A sense of dread – something bad is about to happen, or has just happened and we wonder what their response is going to be. This can be something that happens in the plot, or with the characters. The love triangle emerging (episode 4) and the “we just killed lots of people needlessly” (episode 5) are both senses of dread.
  • Something amazing – a lot of those above are negative/bad, but we can also be encouraged to keep reading because of something amazing happening. For a bad example, “He picked up a sword, to discover that it was a Sword of Truth”. Now, I have no idea what a Sword of Truth actually is, but I’m sure if I was reading that story I’d be wanting to know.

Notice how the types of cliffhangers are alternated and some are character-based while others are plot-based?

See too how the threat is often escalating (but not always). I agree with the Writing Excuses podcasters that cliffhangers are an ‘occasional device’. If every chapter ends in a cliffhanger it can induce weariness in the reader.

The key point is that all cliffhangers should be executed well. A bad cliffhanger, where you over-build the scenario and then under-deliver is cheating the reader. These should be avoided at all costs. (It would severely aggravate me as a reader… If an author did it to me twice I’d probably put the book down).

 

Based on The 100 I think one of the best places for cliffhangers in a novel is the first few chapters. In doing so, the hook is nicely baited.

Cliffhangers can be internal (in the body of the book) and external (at the end of the book). Great care needs to be taken with external cliffhangers. If you’re using them to bait the reader toward the next book, you need to make sure they won’t have to be waiting too long for you to release the next book.

Got any other types of cliffhangers or examples of good ones to add?

Writing a Synopsis

I’ve written before about the amateur author’s pendulum, and the indecisiveness of which route to choose. The spectrum is vast, with traditional publisher at one end and self-publish, release-for-free at the other end.

I’ve decided that I’m going to submit Vengeance Will Come to a traditional publisher. First and foremost, I want the gatekeeper to say I’m allowed through. I don’t want to self publish and (accidentally) add to the slush pile. I know I’m not experienced enough to judge my own quality objectively.

I also know myself. I don’t want to have to worry about things like cover art, promotion and marketing. (I realise there could be elements of this, but I don’t want to ‘go it alone’. I’d rather leave it to the experts).

So now I’m trying to write my very first synopsis. Trying being the operative word.

It’s Hammer Time

In the beginning of Vengeance Will Come I have a made-up saying, a piece of wisdom:

A bar of steel is of limited use

But if it endures flaming trials

And is pounded upon by adversity

It can be shaped into many powerful things…

forge

Vengeance Will Come has been in the fires too long and I have too many other projects I want to progress. To continue the forge metaphor it’s time that some serious hammering occurs.

To that end I’m suspending all work on any other project until the current revision of Vengeance Will Come is complete. No other writing (excluding blog posts) and no programming, no matter how enticing the idea may be.

Ideally I’d like to finish by the end of July, but I’m not sure that’s realistic (based on past experience). In any case, I’m aiming to finish as soon as humanly possible.

And so, it’s hammer time! (Millennials won’t get the pun).

Audience-driven Short Story: Guardian (1)

The Experiment: An Audience-driven Short Story

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure genre? The reader would reach frequent decision points and choose what the point-of-view character did. These decisions altered the story line and possibly the eventual conclusion.

In a similar vein I’m going to try to write an audience-driven story. Periodically (weekly? fortnightly?) I’ll add a slab of text to the story and then present a choice for the readers. Based on votes (or suggestions they propose), I’ll then write the next installment of the story.

Obviously given the timeframe involved and my other writing projects, I can’t promise a highly polished story. (I also reserve the right to ignore suggestions if they’re obviously designed to ruin the story).

This might work out or it might fail, only time will tell. One thing is for sure: audience participation is required.


Guardian (Installment 1)

(Please note: this story is a work of fiction).

I’ve always had exceptional hearing, and ears appropriately sized for the task. I’m not sure if there is a hearing-equivalent of 20/20 vision, but if there is I’d ace it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not super-human, just well above the average. My ears got me into trouble a lot as a kid, with nicknames like Dumbo, Wingnut and Radar.

After I left childhood I thought my ears wouldn’t cause me any more trouble. When I heard the faint cry I should have let it be drowned out by the other ambient street noise, like it was for the dozens of other people around me.

The noise drew me into the alley between the shops. Just a few steps: I’m no fool. I wasn’t going to leave the safety of the road and all its witnesses. It was early afternoon and the alley was well lit, covered only by a few shadows at the back. I heard the cry again. My heart sunk. It was unmistakably a human cry so I couldn’t ignore it. I looked back to the street and the passers-by.

“Did you hear that?” I asked back toward the street. A young woman looked up from her phone. She shook her head but I doubt she even really heard me. Her electronic-possession reasserted itself and her attention returned to the phone as she walked off zombie-like.

There was another cry, a sad whimper. No one else seemed to hear it. Or maybe they just didn’t want to. But I’d heard it and had to investigate. The alley was empty except for two commercial bins on both walls part-way down. The cry must have come from behind a bin. I had no intention of putting myself in danger. Reality, however doesn’t consider intentions.

“Hello,” I called, hoping they’d show themselves, “is anyone down there? Do you need help?”

No movement. Nothing.

I hoped it was an abandoned baby or child and not some thug with an iPhone recording. No sooner had the thought occurred that I felt bad – why would I wish a child abandoned? I patted my pocket, annoyed to remember I’d left my phone at work.

I had to go down there.

I tried to loosen my shoulders and ready myself for anything even as my legs stiffened involuntarily. I tried to walk softly down the alley, one cautious step at a time. I glanced over my shoulder to reassure myself the people were still there, only a dozen or so metres away. If something bad did happen, they’d help me right? That’s what I told myself, but I knew in this day and age it was a 50/50 bet.

I looked around for a weapon, but there was none. My two flailing fists were all I had. They would flail if required…but given I’d never been in a fight, it was doubtful how effectively.

I was near the bins now, hoping that there was no one waiting inside of them ready to spring out on me. I heard the cry again and was relieved to see a child’s auburn-covered head behind the bin.

“Hi,” I said in a gentle tone as I walked around the bin, “what’s wrong?”

“Oh, crap!” I called out in surprise. Lying at the little girl’s feet was a huge African man, slumped against the wall. He was holding a wound in his chest, and there was a pool of blood growing around him. His face was covered in sweat, fixed in a grimace of pain and stubbornness.

“I’ll get help,” I promised.

“No,” the man said in a tired baritone voice, “just look after the girl.”

“Someone call 000, I need an ambulance. A man’s been stabbed,” I yelled at a passer-by. The rude woman pretended not to hear, but her pace increased.

“Look after the g–” he tried to say.

“You look after the girl,” I retorted, “we’ll get you help and you’ll be fine. She’s your daughter,” I said, before realising the only way this Caucasian child belonged to the dark African man was adoption.

“You can’t help me. Medicine won’t help–” the man grunted.

I tried to reassure him, like I’d seen them do in movies. “Don’t be silly, you’re not that far gone–”

“– me. I’m an Angel.”

It took a few seconds for what he’d said to register. And then a few more before I had any idea of how to respond.


What happens next? Post a comment below or send me an email to vote.

guardian-option1


Help over the fenceWant a beta-reader? I’ve been helped in my development process by other beta readers and now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. Each month I’ll read a chapter of someone’s story and comment on it. To be eligible, just comment on one of my posts with “*Review*” in the comment and you’re in the running.

Lab Rats Sought for Experiment

And by “Lab Rats” I mean generous, heroic, courageous individuals (of course). If that sounds like you, or embodies characteristics that you aspire to, read on…

I’m looking for approximately 10 helpful people who are willing to read up to the first 5 chapters of Vengeance Will Come, my first novel. 

All I’m looking for is an answer to 1-3 simple questions:

  • 1) “Did you make it?” Under normal circumstances (i.e. you just picked this book up of a shelf) would you continue reading, or did you put the book down in boredom before reaching the end of the 5th chapter?
  • If you didn’t make it to the end:
    • 2a) Where did you stop?
    • 2b) Any particular reason why?

Easy, right?

Ideally I’m looking for people who enjoy reading (adult level). In terms of genre, it’s a ‘light’ fantasy/scifi adventure. (* Previous beta readers exempted; I need fresh blood, and, hopefully, a consensus).

At an average reading pace I can tell that will be approximately 30 minute reading time. You could help me realise my dreams in spending a morning commute reading. I’d be very appreciative, especially if you’re willing to answer any follow up questions I might have (not required).

If you’re interested please contact me on [my-first-name].[my-last-name]@internode.on.net (after replacing the bracketed bits), or post a comment below with your contact details.

Naturally I’d request that you don’t send it onto anyone else. (Under Australian law the mere fact I wrote it makes it copyrighted, which is nice).

I’ll fire back an email, and then all you need is a cup of tea or coffee and somewhere comfy to sit…

A Reformation is Needed

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about creating a Story Bible – an in-world encyclopaedia to go with my novel.

It’s somewhat depressing to read in that post:

I am getting closer to finishing my first novel…

and be still talking about the same novel, two and a bit years later. Well, I guess technically any progress is moving closer… and (in some respects) I have finished it; now I’m just polishing.

I’m currently revising Vengeance Will Come, hopefully for the last time (pre-publication or pre-free-release), and I’ve noticed that only best intentions weren’t enough to keep my story bible well organised or up-to-date. If only I’d used best intentions and discipline it’d be in a better state.

The question is do I use valuable editing time to tidy up the story bible, ensuring it’s true to the current version of the story? The answer is yes. Vengeance Will Come is book 1 of a series, and so I need my source material to be easily accessible (and accurate) for when writing other books in the series.

I’ll however keep editing for a while longer while my brain is sharp. As the Writing Excuses podcast would say, “‘Smart Ben’ can edit. When ‘Dumb Ben’ subs-in later, he can work on the story bible.”

Jumping the Productivity Moat

Although revision on Vengeance Will Come has only just begun I’m reasonably happy with the progress so far.

Revision Work…

Here’s a summary of what I’m looking at:

  • I’m Cutting out superfluous words. Not just the occasional word in a sentence, but also entire sentences. For example, the following line of dialogue:

“Physical muscles are less important than mental strength and wisdom, neither of which is guaranteed by age.”

I originally wrote it as a subtle dig at a character that he was physically weak, to feed a sense of inadequacy. That reference is no longer required and its presence is now out-of-place. It adds no value and causes only distraction. The delete key fixed that.

  • Word choice. Sometimes I’m using the same word in quick succession and that is poor form. (Sidebar: A previous Writing Excuses podcast I listened to mentioned that there are some words you can only use once in a story).
  • Using contractions in dialogue. This, strangely doesn’t come naturally to me. Although I speak with them, for some reason I write long-form. My flow-of-consciousness dialogue tends to be formal and so feels scripted. It was something an earlier version alpha reader detected, and I was trying to fix this… obviously I missed a lot. I suspect the further into the story the less I detected.
  • being more descriptive about motion and emotion; trying to show in a more nuanced way, instead of telling the reader.
  • Evaluating the criticisms of my beta readers, and adjusting accordingly (more about that in another post).

…Meets Productivity Moat

But then my forward progress is halted, midway through chapter 2 (of 29). I’ve hit a piece of text that’s really slowing me down: a productivity moat that’s blocking my path.

I’m not happy with the paragraph of text and are indecisive about wording and positioning. Several times I have opened up the document and sat there looking at it, as though it were written in Swahili (which I can’t read). After an annoying ten minutes of staring, my enthusiasm begins to wane. Stupid moat. I’ve tried to skip it and move on, but it’s like I know it’s there like an enemy at my flank and it’s on my mind.

I have a new strategy. To be honest it’s not much different from my previous strategies, but often I’ve found writing is a mind game. So if my slightly modified strategy works – hooray. They say you need an edge over your enemy: not a whole new weapon, just an edge.

I’m going to:

  1. Highlight the paragraph, admit to myself that I currently lack the ability to solve it and I can’t allow it to slow me down.
  2. Write some extensive comments: what I think is wrong with it (why I am having difficulty) and any possible options I can see to fix it in the future. I’m going to try to be descriptive e.g. “Z might work but that would require Y (which I don’t have)”.
  3. I’m going to move on, having done everything I can currently.
  4. At a later date, either at the end or when the answer presents itself, I’ll go back and fix it.

The productivity moat may cause a change in strategy, but it won’t stop me.