Saturday, February 28, 2009

Are cliffhangers necessary?

by Suw on February 28, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about my style of writing, and about what’s missing from my current draft of The Revenge of the Books of Hay. I read Cory Doctorow‘s Little Brother recently. It is quite probably the best thing that Cory has ever written and definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It’s utterly gripping, and I found it incredibly difficult to put down. I was reading it on Stanza on my iPhone, which meant I was reading it at the gym, on the bus, on the tube, in bed… pretty much anywhere I could find a moment to read. I haven’t been that drawn into a book in ages; although now that Kevin and I read to each other most nights, so I rarely read book on my own now and reading together is a very different thing to reading solo.

Anyway, I’ve been mulling over the question of cliffhangers. Vince is pretty good at creating cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that make you want to keep reading, and of course, plenty of other authors are too. Cory has a really big one at the beginning of Little Brother than nagged at me the whole way through, as I was dying to find out what happened. I’m not really all that great at cliffhangers. In script writing, we learn to “get in late and get out early”, to make scenes tight and concise and to try and keep a sense of tension going. But in my prose, my scenes tend towards the opposite: I get in early and get out late. I let the whole thing unfold slowly, and the end of the scene has a comfortable “closed” feeling to it.

I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I had been operating on the assumption that I’ll have to go back and try to imbue some of my scenes with at least a hint of tension, but when I was talking with a friend of mine last week, she asked a really insightful question: Why? Er, um, yeah…

I guess it really comes down to the fear that what I’m writing will be, when all is said and done, a bit dull. I don’t mind if people think it’s silly, or daft, or strange, or awkward. Or even if people don’t understand it at all. But I would be gutted if they thought it was dull. Maybe I’m being premature, though, as I’ve still a lot to write and rewrite before the thing even reaches the “in first draft” stage.

Either way, I’d like to know what people think about cliffhangers. Like them? Hate them? Prefer books without them? See them as a trite trope, overused and difficult to execute well? Or are they essential to retaining a sense of tension and suspense?

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