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?

Ticia Isom February 28, 2009 at 4:02 pm

That’s like asking if someone likes sweets. In the right situation, yes. All the time, probably not. If it suits your writing style, I’m all for it. If it’s an addition, to “hook” me, I’m going to know it. Be true to yourself. I can’t be sucked into a story if I feel the hands pushing me around.

Suw February 28, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Ticia, yes, good point. In a way it’s a stupid question, but in another way it’s not, because sometimes it’s hard from the inside to know what it is that a story needs. And sometimes the easiest treatment for a story is not what it really needs. So I’m trying to figure out if I’m shying away from working on cliffhangers because it’s easier that way, or because it’s what the story needs.

steph February 28, 2009 at 6:10 pm

If you’re familiar with the work of Haruki Murakami, he doesn’t use cliffhangers the traditional way that we may be used to in an English novel, yet there’s something about his stories that suck you in and propel you forwards, and what’s amazing is, his stories are not often very complicated. He has intriguing characters that make you want to follow them like a shadow throughout pages that you can’t turn fast enough. This is despite many of his works are continuous reworking of themes and storylines he’s written in the past. And yet, his “Wild Sheep Chase” has one of the tightest plots I’ve ever read in a book.

On the same token, I’ve read some technically precise detective novels that just don’t do anything for me, cliffhangers or not. So I really don’t think cliffhangers are required. It’s about whether you can make your reader settle into your story and then it’s for you to take them where you want to. 🙂

Dan Wilson March 1, 2009 at 12:48 am

What is a cliffhanger? A ‘what will happen next?’ moment with a bus full of gold hanging over a cliff? Or a situation that is unresolved in some way?

As a child of Doctor Who, the cliffhanger is what (almost quite literally) kept me hanging on from week to week waiting for the next episode. In fact, it still does. But in literature it’s tricky and often overused.

In a written story, rather more than on TV or a film, you maintain interest not with moments of peril and great drama that require a resolution but with emotional interest. And I don’t mean that tediously. In a written story it’s easier to hang the story on internal turmoil or decision making and that can be more compelling and equally cliffhangery.

In print, I find dramatic cliffhangers (esp from chapter to chapter) often quite trite and mechanical, and the tool of a formulaic author: this is the end of the chapter, we must have a desperate situation that needs sorting. I think that provoking a reader to wonder ‘I must read on to find out how this will turn out?’ is more than adequate. I’m suspicious of authors who stoke up too much anxiety, even if I do sometimes find it immensely enjoyable. ;o)

Vincent March 1, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Hmm. And… hmm.

Cliffhangers are not necessary, no. A reader is always driven by a desire to know what happens next. As long as the story has an unresolved question that the reader wants answering, ending a chapter or scene on an explicit ‘oh lord, the hero’s car has just driven off the cliff, how can she possibly survive?’ isn’t necessary. It fact, it doesn’t work unless the reader cares about the hero and, equally, it doesn’t ensure a compelling plot.

The example I’d use of a story that doesn’t feature oodles of tension, conflict and drama, yet manages to be utterly captivating… well, it’s illustrated by this clip better than I can explain it:

However, I’m not sure if the ‘get in early, leave late’ method ever really works. For a first draft, yes, but it becomes incredibly hard to justify the padding when you come back for a re-write 🙂

Cat March 1, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Cliffhangers… a difficult question. I don’t think they’re ever necessary, per se. They can be useful… or irritating. If I’m just finishing up a chapter before I go to bed, and it ends with, as one poster said, the bus full of gold hanging off the cliff (“Hang on, lads, I’ve got an idea!”), I’ll likely grind my teeth in frustration because dammit, I need my sleep! And some of the most compelling books I’ve read never had a single cliffhanger like that. (The Remains of the Day comes to mind.) It depends more on the characters than the situation, really. If the characters themselves are compelling, the reader is going to want to find out what happens. I’m reading Mansfield Park at the moment, and even though I suspect something horrible (in a quietly Austenish way) is going to happen to poor Fanny, I need to know. (And I’m saying this of the one character in Austen that most people would say is the least compelling of all of her heroines!)

So what I’m saying is, no. You don’t need cliffhangers. If they evolve naturally, so be it. But don’t force them into your story. Focus on your characters. Let them tell you what needs to be there.

Rob Myers March 2, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Use cliffhangers if they create the structure and experience you want from the book.

Chapters mark a structural break in the narrative. The break is usually there to indicate a transition. That transition may start and end before or after the break.

Cory doesn’t always use cliffhangers in Little Brother but he sets up your curiosity about what will happen next, and the chapter breaks mark that you are going to have your curiosity sated a bit and see the action move on.

Stuart Ian Burns March 3, 2009 at 9:49 am

It also depends on whether you’re using chapters. Not everyone does. One book I read recently simply had two looooong sections of about two hundred words each. There was a cliffhanger in the middle but it wasn’t resolved exactly. There was a time gap between the two in which said cliffhanger was resolved off-page (so to speak).

The problem with cliffhangers is that unless you’re careful you’ll find yourself working the story around them. That happened a lot in Doctor Who and still does in 24. The storytelling is motoring along perfectly fine but then the close of the episode comes along and everyone essentially takes a detour for the cliffhanger which is then resolved inconsequentially the following week and then the storytelling gets back on track.

giles March 3, 2009 at 2:22 pm

As others have said, use with caution. But use when necessary. I’m working on some fiction for kids the same age as my son (6-8 year-olds), and I know from practice stories on him that mild cliffhangers – moments of great mystery or peril – can generate enormous excitement. But then they don’t want to hang around to find out what happens next, they want the answer RIGHT AWAY. So it’s good for creating “unputdownability” (I hope).

Suw March 8, 2009 at 8:51 pm

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

I think the most interesting thing has been the feeling that I really already knew the answer to my question. 😉 And whilst I’m not great at cliffhangers, I’m even worse at chapters! My main building blocks are scenes, and if splitting it up like that doesn’t work I’ll have to learn how to think in chapters!

Lee March 18, 2009 at 6:16 pm

I wish I could agree with you about Little Brother, but I thought it badly written, simplistic, and altogether one of the weakest YA novels published last year.

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