Hanging By A Thread

The giveaway this week relates to cliffhangers, those little bits of prose at the ends of things that keep us turning the page or buying the next book. Not only are they an essential piece to suspense/thriller writing, I believe it’s what makes for good story-telling in general.

When one thinks of cliffhangers, the typical scene that may come to mind is the hero/heroine of the story poised on the brink of catastrophe. We get a build up over time, climbing that slope of anticipation until we reach a precipice and then…stop. What will happen next? Oh, my god, I must find out! Good story-telling in any genre is effective with this, whether it’s physical danger like in a horror or suspense story, or in emotionally driven stories like romance. Yes, even romance uses this device to keep readers turning the page. In many cases, emotional cliffhangers are more compelling than physical ones. An emotionally invested reader will want to turn the page and read the next book.

Structurally, it’s pretty simple. You build conflict to the point where the story will take a drastic turn, for better or worse, and then pause. Much like climbing that first big hill of the rollercoaster or driving that winding road up to the fork. What will happen next? If you’ve done your job well as a story-teller, the reader has to know, feels compelled even, to find out what happens. Every chapter, ideally will end on a cliffhanger of some kind. And every chapter will build toward a climatic cliffhanger. You have cliffhangers within your cliffhangers.

In Deadworld, which is at its heart, a suspense story, I have three cliffhanger threads that I try to build throughout. There’s the “will they catch the villain or die trying” thread. This drives the main, physical action of the story. There’s the heroine’s own internal struggles, “will the heroine’s internal issues be her downfall”? And finally there’s the romantic thread, “will the hero/heroine be able to get together in spite of the villain and the emotional turmoil?” The advantage of having more than one cliffhanging thread, is that you have built in cliffhangers, because you can jump off of one thread at a key moment and continue climbing up another. If I’ve done my job well, each moment will leave the reader both excited and frustrated, but in a good way. They will want to keep climbing one thread but can’t wait to get back to the others and see what happens.

At the end, the threads should all tie together in one neat knot of a conclusion, unless of course you’re writing a series. In this case, you don’t want all threads to tie together at the end. The only one that needs to is the thread driving the main action of the story. The others, should be left dangling, leaving the reader wanting to see how those threads will continue and weave themselves together, and more importantly, wanting to know how they all tie together in the end. The cliffhanger only truly works if the reader cares about what happens next. If they don’t, then you’ve failed somewhere along the way to get them invested, which of course is a whole other post and discussion.

Happy reading/writing everyone, and don’t forget to put in your own or favorite cliffhanger for a shot at winning an arc of Deadworld and Patricia Wrede’s, Across the Great Barrier.

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