In my last blog, “The Room Was Filled with Naked Blondes,” I discussed the importance of starting a story or a novel with an intriguing hook that will pull readers in so they keep turning the pages. This time around, I want to explore a different but at the same time similar hook that will boost readers’ interest and make them read the next section in a story, the next chapter in a novel, or the next sequel in a novel series.
That other hook is called a cliffhanger.
When I was a kid, I loved to go to the local Colony theater for the next episode in a 12 or 15 part action series. Remember them? They featured Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, et al. Each episode lasted ten/fifteen minutes or so, and left the kids in the audience begging for more. We had to come back to see how the Good Guy survived and how the Evil Villain was foiled once again. We usually knew justice would prevail, but we had to know how the hero survived, since survival—let alone victory—seemed impossible. For seven days we twisted and turned in our beds, unable to sleep. Saturday morning couldn’t come soon enough.
Those movie cliffhangers usually weren’t very sophisticated, but baby, did they work. They brought us back and back and back. In fiction, too, cliffhangers can bring us back, make us read to three am in the morning or later and not put the book down until we finish it. Sometimes, like hooks at the beginning of a story or novel, cliffhangers are blatant and manipulative, while at other times they are subtle and work subliminally on our sensibilities. Whatever the case, like opening hooks, they can facilitate a writer’s basic, number-one purpose, which I defined last time, thanks to John Irving’s The World According to Garp, as the need to make readers read on to find out what will happen next.
I’d like to present three or four cliffhangers as examples of how to keep the reader absorbed in your story. The first one comes from Dean Koontz’s The Taking, which I recently read. Chapter 1 starts with the pronouncement that “A few minutes past one o’clock in the morning, a hard rain fell without warning. No thunder preceded the deluge, no wind.” Obviously, the rain is different, even unnatural, and throughout the chapter, Koontz begins to make clear how different and unnatural the rain really is. Then comes the Cliffhanger. Vaguely troubled by the “silver” and “luminescent” rain, Molly Sloan looks out the window at the porch and finds a surprise:
The porch swarmed with wolves. Slinking out of the storm, up the steps, onto the pegged-pine floor, they gathered under the shelter of the roof, as though this were not a house but an ark that would soon be set safely afloat by the rising waters of a cataclysmic flood.
The Taking is not Koontz’s most successful novel, but by the time I read the cliffhanger at the end of chapter one, I was hooked. Combined with the chapter’s opening hook and the rising discomfort the reader feels throughout the chapter, the cliffhanger seals the deal. We have the sense of unknown menace, of hostile, perhaps “cataclysmic” forces hostile to man. Instead of hostile, vicious wolves, subdued, frightened ones appear to view Molly’s house as a refuge. A refuge—from what? By referring to the “ark” and using the word “cataclysmic,” Koontz’s suggests a potential disaster of biblical and worldwide proportions.
To find out exactly what disaster looms, I read for four hundred more pages. And I bet other readers have too.
Cliffhangers can also be found in short stories, and humorous ones too. They don’t always promise gloom and doom or The End of Life As We Know It, but they do have to be interesting and enticing. To mention one example, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s four-page tale, “A Dozen of Everything,” opens with a bride-to-be who receives a wedding gift which disappoints her but intrigues the reader. “Here I am, being married in four days, and without a rag to wear, and Aunt Hepsibah sends me perfume!”
“A Dozen of Everything” is a piece of light-hearted fluff. Still, clever humor is tough to write, and you have to keep the reader entertained. Breaking the stopper in the bottle, Marcie discovers that she’s summoned a djinn who grants her a wish. Marcie, who’s rather poor, foolishly asks for “a dozen of everything” in her bedroom. The first section ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger: “‘Did I dream the whole thing?’ she asked herself dizzily.” Well, did she or didn’t she? Readers think they know but turn the page to find out.
Later, at the end of another section, we have a second cliffhanger. Marcie returns home, wondering if the djinn has delivered on his promise to give her a dozen of everything. She tells herself “It’s all nonsense.” Then: “She shut her eyes and opened the door. She walked in . . .”
As you might guess, Marcie made a common error in stories of this kind. She didn’t phrase her wish wisely, and she will have to face the consequences of her disastrous semantic mistake. If you want to know what the kicker is, look up the story, which ends with another cliffhanger, a humorous twist that leaves Marcie’s future up to your imagination and will make you wonder what the heck she’s going to do.
I said I’d like to present three or four cliffhangers, but that was a bit of a fib because it’s Plug Time. One of my SF action-adventure novels, Beyond Those Distant Stars, was just published for the second time by a new publisher (look for it soon in some brick and mortar stores, on Amazon, etc., and available now at www.mundaniapress.com.) I thought I’d use the novel to present several examples of cliffhangers. Please note: you need to vary your cliffhangers. It’s generally not wise to have them all basically the same, whether it’s the smash-boom-kaplooey!!! of “My God, unless we do something fast, the Earth’s doomed in less than ten seconds!”, or subtle, such as, “He was a bit troubled by the approaching meteor’s effect on certain Earth flora.” When crafting cliffhangers, writers should strive for variety, though a certain kind (e.g., hard or soft, nail-biting or subtle) may predominate.
I start off Beyond Those Distant Stars with a one-word hook: Emergency! Stella McMasters is in charge of a nuclear facility and it’s about to explode – that is, have a meltdown. In coping with this emergency, Stella saves a life, but is drenched in radioactive iodine. The Prologue ends, “The last thing Stella remembered before she lost consciousness was a voice calling her name.”
What happens to Stella? Does she die? In the first chapter, we find that scientists had to remove nearly two-thirds of her body, and she’s been turned into a superhuman cyborg AND as a reward for her sacrifice, given her first command of a ship, the Spaceranger. Early on, the reader senses that because of her promotion and reassignment, Stella will play a key role in saving humanity from those pesky, vicious aliens who invaded the galaxy a few years before and who have brought humanity to the brink of annihilation. First, though, Stella begins to become interested in Jason, the jump pilot, whose disembodied brain is interfaced with the ship. Stella hasn’t even met the guy yet, but the computer translation of his voice stirs her. The first chapter ends, Oh God, she thought, what a voice! I wonder what he looks like.
Except for the exclamation point, this is a relatively subtle cliffhanger. It suggests a future involvement between Stella and Jason, a relationship the reader already senses is doomed because Stella is mostly synthetic, more machine than woman. Also, she is adjusting to her first, supremely crucial command and should avoid all distractions, especially romantic ones.
Later, Stella and her crew confront an alien ship, which does something unprecedented: it extends a boarding tube. Despite opposition, Stella sends soldiers into the ship and . . . you guessed it, the soldiers get creamed. Only a few of the alien Scaleys perish. This result only replicates what has happened time and time again. The score is aliens 5001; humans NOTHING. The aliens have won every single battle by a lopsided score.
What does Stella decide to do? Unable to escape the alien craft, she decides to lead a contingent of soldiers herself into the alien craft. Remember: humans know virtually nothing about the aliens, that always self-destruct and decompose when captured. Also, humans know ZERO about what an alien spaceship is like – how it works, what’s inside, etc. All they know is that aliens have vastly superior technology that renders the five-year contest analogous to a war between ants and androids. In this boarding scene, I try to use a hard, nail-biting cliffhanger as opposed to a subtle one by combining the Mysterious Unknown with the expectation of Certain Slaughter for all humans. The last sentence of chapter five reads (drum roll please):
Teeth clenched, Stella closed and sealed her faceplate. Then she turned and led her followers into the alien ship.
What happens? Does she win or lose? Are her troops toast or triumphant? The questions matter because if she loses, humanity is kaput and soon to be extinct. The rest of Beyond Those Distant Stars explores what happens.
One last note: since I plan a sequel, in the Epilogue all is not Wine and Roses. New threats loom on the horizon to challenge and threaten Stella. Hopefully, the reader will buy the next installment in the series, and the next. . . .
And there you have it, potential Cliffhanger fans. To keep folks reading, consider providing an incentive, a subtle/over-the-top/or someplace in between Cliffhanger. It’s a method that’s as old as the hills, and a crucial part of your story’s momentum.