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Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Writing Wednesday: The Cliffhanger -- How Much is Too Much?

(Sidenote: this is my 44th post! Yes, really! Where has all the time gone...)

Ahh, cliffhangers. My love/hate relationship with this technique burns stronger with every book that ends with poor old Bob hanging grimly for dear life. Figuratively speaking. Of course, cliffhangers are a sure-fire way to ensure the reader will stick around for books 2, 3, 4, etc. of your series. However:

1. It's annoying. Very. And you don't want to annoy your reader (well, only a little). Remember, every page of your story has to convince them they should stick around for another. Living in a world where people can get e-books for $0.99, authors, both traditionally- and self-published alike, have to try harder than ever before to make the reader believe that, yes, just one more chapter is worth it, even though they have a chemistry exam tomorrow they haven't revised for and it's already one in the morning. Or convince the frazzled, the sleep-deprived mother of newborn twins to read instead of taking her well-deserved nap when cute little Aidan and Nadia are (finally) sound asleep. Twenty years ago, as a writer, your job was to sell a book to each reader once. Now you have to keep selling it over and over again, because in times like these, people aren't going to stick around to finish a so-so book they invested less than a dollar in. Sorry to be so blunt, but that's a fact.

2. It's a breach of the unofficial author-reader contract. (Thank you, Augustus Waters. This is in your honour.) I don't know why this one is so hard. When you buy a book, you expect a complete story, no? Yes, yes you do. So when a book ends at what feels like halfway through the climax, I think I have a right to be ticked off. I don't want to wait a year to find out what happens to Bob! I don't even want to wait a day! And that's good, by the way. If I get so mad at this contract breach, it must mean Bob is a good character, because I care about him, and I don't want him to go tumbling into the sea. Now don't get me wrong here: you are allowed to use cliffhangers. In fact, the cliffhanger is quite probably the best reader-torture technique, second only perhaps to BRUTALLY AND HEARTLESSLY MURDERING THE SWEETEST, DO-NO-WRONG character that everyone is in love with. (That one is basically guaranteed to get you hate, though. Just a warning.) But, the cliffhanger's strength is also it's downfall. Let me explain. We read books for the emotional journey, it's true, but unless all your readers are masochists, they are going to be displeased if all you ever throw at them is cliffhanger after relentless cliffhanger. And reader's don't forgive easily. We may be more empathetic than average Joe no-books, but that doesn't mean we're not exceptional at holding grudges. I can quote, word for word, the exact line that ruined my life. I wasn't even reading this series as they came out. I had the next book on my shelf, and I still had a meltdown when I read those ten horrible, horrible italicised words. It was horrible. Traumatic, even. My metaphorical heart had been ripped out of my chest, stomped on, put through a blender and then handed back, bloody and broken, all in just ten words. Call me a drama queen if you must, but can't you see how good at characterisation this author was? By inflicting this atrocious deed upon the fictional love of my life, she ensured another £6.99 from me because I would just have to buy the next book. And I did. BUT, I will probably never read that author again. Ever. Because I can't go through that kind of emotional trauma again. I won't do it.

3. It's somewhat unoriginal, and downright tiresome. I say "somewhat" because, let's face it: you'd be hard pressed to write a suspenseful book that doesn't include a single cliffhanger. Almost every YA trilogy these days follows this formula: Book 1, ending that can be continued, but is still tied off; Book 2, evil cliffhanger; Book 3, varying degrees of happy ending. Predictable, don't you think? Still, my point is not that cliffhangers shouldn't be used, my point is that they must be used sparingly. If you have a whole book full of cliffhangers, each one packs a smaller punch than it would on it's own. They barely feel like cliffhangers any more. The reader becomes desensitised. Your book, your baby that you spent years planning, poured blood, sweat and tears into, becomes a cheap and predictable story. Kind of like how when you drink chocolate milk while eating cookies, the chocolate milk doesn't taste as sweet, because the cookies are sweeter, so the milk's sweetness is lost. Sad, isn't it? Because chocolate milk would be deliciously sweet if you didn't have the cookies too. So save your chocolate milk for one book, and your cookies for another.

So once again, as with all other aspects of writing (and life in general, too), the trick is finding a balance. I feel bad, because I told you that last fortnight, about setting, but balance really is what you must strive for. Also as with setting, how much suspense you include and how much trauma you inflict upon your innocent reader is decided by your personal style and the genre(s) you write in. Beta readers and critique partners will help you cut down on extraneous cliffhangers, or add a bit more spice to a bland and boring book. Don't forget the plot twists!

And I just thought I'd leave you with the knowledge that I have my own personal alliterate, hilarious name for the "disease" in which a writer uses too many cliffhangers, but I can't share it here as it involves a specific name and I don't want to a) offend that person or b) get sued. But I encourage you to think up your own! :)