Tag: craft

How to Write a Satisfying Cliffhanger

We’ve all had the experience of sitting raptly through a book or movie, only for it to end with a character hanging from a cliff, her fate uncertain. It’s usually a metaphorical cliff, although often the character’s life is in jeopardy, but it’s rarely satisfying. Indeed, since the point of a cliffhanger ending is to make the reader or viewer desperate for the next installment, you could argue that satisfaction isn’t even the goal.

KissOfDeceptionBut I’m here to assure you that a satisfying cliffhanger is possible! Mary Pearson wrote what might be my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time, The Remnant Chronicles. If you like YA fantasy and haven’t read these, please stop what you’re doing and go read them. (Obviously, since I’m discussing the endings, there will be considerable spoilers, so I really urge you to read them first!) I’ll also be discussing her follow-up series and how it didn’t quite live up to the first one, in my opinion.

(WARNING! Spoilers! Last chance to turn back! Seriously, I would rather you read her books than my blog post. You can jump down to the numbered lists for the takeaways.)

How to Do It: Resolve the Important Question

The Kiss of Deception begins with Lia, a princess of Morrighan, running away from an arranged marriage to an older man that she assumes would be loveless. At the end, she’s been kidnapped and dragged across the continent as a prisoner of war. Her true love risks his life and country to pursue her and catches up with her just as she’s about to cross into the enemy’s country. In one of the swooniest* moments I’ve ever read, he walks fearlessly through a battalion of soldiers to lie his way into the country so that she won’t be alone in hostile territory.

* It’s officially a word now

HeartOfBetrayalTalk about a cliffhanger! I was so anxious to find out what happened that I couldn’t even wait until the next day to get book 2 from the library; I bought the ebook that night.

In The Heart of Betrayal, Lia and her love pretend they hate each other to survive while plotting their escape from the brutal main antagonist of the series. It created almost more tension than I could bear—I seriously experienced physical anxiety about these fictional characters’ well-being. At the end of the book, she’s unconscious and wounded and they’ve lost track of their friends in a blinding snowstorm—but they’ve escaped from Venda.

At the end of both books, the characters’ lives, not to mention the safety of their countries, are still very much in jeopardy—true cliffhangers. But the books are still highly satisfying because:

  1. The characters were together and knew they loved each other.
  2. The main question raised by the beginning of each book had been answered (“Will Lia find true love?” and “Will Lia survive and escape from Venda?”).

How Not to Do It: Throw in a New Conflict

DanceOfThievesPearson’s next book didn’t tie up as neatly at the end, in my opinion. I know publishers want authors to keep their readers hooked, but I think she could’ve just let the reader think everything was fine until the next book came out. The problem is that the main characters in Dance of Thieves resolve their romantic tension at the end of the book, and the identity of the sequel’s antagonist is hidden, so there’s no remaining problem for us to wonder about. Her solution was to give us a scene outside of both main characters’ points of view, introducing a new conflict so that we know everything has fallen apart at home while they’ve been gone.

This tactic is a common method of creating a cliffhanger (besides just stopping at an arbitrary moment). To me, it’s less satisfying because the book doesn’t end on a note of emotional resolution—which, as we’ve seen, is possible even for a cliffhanger. More specifically:

  1. The last scene happens after the “real” ending; it’s literally just the beginning of the next book.
  2. Of necessity, introducing a new question means new information the reader couldn’t possibly have known beforehand, so it doesn’t feel connected to the rest of the book that came before.

While it’s incredibly hard to come up with an ending that both hits a note of resolution and makes the reader desperate for the next book, it’s something I will strive for if I ever write a series. If you know of any series that have satisfying cliffhangers, do let me know!

You can learn a lot from writing one short story

Especially if you spend 7 days working on it! *nervous laughter*

Write Often

I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s “Portraits and Dreams” workshop in February, which was amazing. One piece of advice she gave was to write a lot of short stories, and write them often. (She gave similar advice two years ago at her “Seven Sentences” workshop, but I was apparently not ready to take it then yet. In other news, take as many of Maggie’s workshops as you can.)

After all, she said, the hardest part of writing is translating the beautiful abstract story from your head into words on the page. Nothing can help you get faster except lots and lots of practice. Completing a whole story arc over and over, which short stories allow you to do, helps you get faster at the translation part. She and two of her author friends committed to doing one story a week each, and they found the practice really helpful. You can read some results and about the process in The Curiosities.

Do the Pre-Work

Having just rewritten a 1,500-word story at least five times in seven days, I can confirm that translation is hard. For me, I had trouble even figuring out what I meant to say, but that might just be another way of saying “translating the feeling and impression in my head onto words is hard.” I did at least write the end first, advice I got from Jonathan Maberry (who credits it to someone I’ve forgotten), but then I changed the ending.

I find that my prose “sets up” (like concrete) a lot faster in a short story. Writing longhand first would help me be less precious about the words. Because I was writing for a contest with a low-ish word count limit, I kept worrying about that. Do not do this. Instead, get everything down first and then trimming and eliminating. I hope Future Me will remember this.

Rewrite Blind

Another technique Maggie suggested was the “blind rewrite,” or I might call it the “fresh start rewrite.” After you’ve analyzed your story and figured out what’s wrong, start with a completely blank page and rewrite from scratch. It’s doesn’t take me more than 90 minutes to write 1,500 words if I’m not too focused on getting the “right” words down. I found myself longing for clever turns of phrase from the previous draft, but you can always go back and grab them. I found that sometimes I had come up with even cleverer ways to phrase things by remembering only the impression that I had.

As I got to later revisions, I only wrote the new snippets from scratch, but I did them before diving back into the existing prose. That kept me from being too in love with old words to truly write the new words I wanted.

Find the Contrast

Maggie says the most interesting bits of writing are the points of greatest contrast. Even/especially for novels, she likes to think up the pivotal moment and work backwards, to make sure the reader has been properly set up for it. The beauty and difficulty of a short story is that you don’t have much room to fit in a whole character arc, but it can be done! Some short stories are more like tone poems, but if you can build to a dramatic crescendo, why not?

Practice Practicing

Photo by Omar Tursić on Unsplash

The down side is that I spent 7 workdays on this short story instead of working on my novel. Now, I need the practice, I like the result even if it doesn’t win the contest, and it’s good to get away from my novel once in a while. But I do hope that the practice helps me get faster, because I spent an average of like 40 seconds per word on this thing.

But in honor of finishing, enjoy this teaser from the short story. 🙂

Getting readers hooked (and stringing them along)

City of Bones by Cassandra ClareTrying to unstick myself while drafting my current work-in-progress, I was drawing a timeline of my story (an adaptation of the idea in this post). My main plot is a question that’s (hopefully) raised in the reader’s mind on almost the first page and that doesn’t get resolved until almost the last page—the main dramatic question. Along the way there are many other questions that get raised and answered at various points in the story.

To help myself understand the technique, I started thinking about a book I’d reread recently (City of Bones) and the example in the article (The Hunger Games).

I realized something about the “hook” of a story that I’d never thought of before—about how you not only hook readers at the beginning of a novel but reel them in. (Links go to my favorite site about story structure.) In the latter post, you’ll read that you have to hook readers just long enough to get them to the next hook. But how?

I thought of two ways to do it. The first is illustrated by City of Bones. Its first chapter is summarized in the back-cover blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. And she’s more than a little startled when the body disappears into thin air.

What a hook! However, most of the explanations for the questions raised by the blurb are revealed throughout the first four chapters. So what keeps us reading? By the time all those questions are answered, Clary’s apartment has been ransacked, her mother is missing, a demon attacks her (the Inciting Event), and one of the teenage “murderers” (actually, of course, demon-killers) rescues her. By then, we’ve been plunged into the main plot of not just this book but the whole series, as Clary tries to rescue her mother and comes to grips with a magical world she never knew about. The questions raised in the first chapter overlapped the questions raised by subsequent events just long enough to get us hooked! And of course, like any good plot, the early questions are all tightly linked to the main antagonist.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe second way that keeps readers interested I noticed in The Hunger Games. The story opens on Katniss waking, finding her sister not there, and worrying about her. The questions are raised and answered in quick succession, so quickly that we might not even notice them, but each answer produces another question.

“Where’s Prim? With our mother. Why? She had a bad dream. Why? Today is the Reaping. What’s a Reaping?” That question sustains us for a few more pages, when the answer immediately makes us wonder, “Will Katniss be chosen?” The answer turns out to be no, but only because it’s her sister, Prim, who must face death (the Inciting Event). Given how much we now know Katniss cares for Prim, we can’t learn that it’s Prim without asking, “What will Katniss do?” When she immediately volunteers to be Tribute, we then land on the dramatic question that will occupy most of the rest of the book, which is, “Will Katniss survive?” (Because readers might know that the book has a sequel and guess that Katniss will have to survive, even if learning how she survives would be an interesting question in itself, the clever author quickly makes us care about another question with a far less certain answer: “Will Peeta survive?”)

So there you have it: overlapping questions and answers that are also (or that immediately produce) questions, two different ways to hook your reader and string them along until they care enough about the characters to want to find the answer to the main dramatic question.

Writing Active Setting (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

(I’ll be doing a series of posts with the highlights of what I learned from various sessions at the 2015 PNWA Conference. This is the first!)

The very first session I attended was “Writing Active Setting,” presented by Mary Buckham. She said many writers have one of two issues with setting in their story:

  1. They have none, so the reader is lost; or
  2. They have too much, and it stops the flow of the story.

“Active setting,” then, is using your description of setting to do double or even triple duty—not just to describe time and place, but also to show character, emotion, or backstory; to evoke emotion; or to orient the reader. (I don’t want to steal all her thunder; she has a series of short books that might soon become one longer book about active setting: http://marybuckham.com/writing-craft/.) Know when readers accept having more setting and utilize that (at the beginning of the story, scene or chapter).

Mary has a great, dry sense of humor, and her workshop was packed with great examples. Here are a few:

  • Do you say, “It was dark. She was scared about meeting the vampires,” or “The grapevines along the side of the road hung like dead men on their trellises”? (I might not be remembering the exact words, because in my notes I only jotted down phrases, but I think you get the intent.)
  • Do you say, “They drove as quickly as traffic would allow” or “Blasting north on the 101”? (The latter gives you insight into the driver’s character, orients you in space, and gives you the hint that we’re on a big freeway — even if you’re not from California, you know that something called just “the 101” is probably not a country back road.)
  • Evoke your character’s mood: “bruise-colored clouds trudging” vs. “cotton clouds waltzing”.