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Writing a Good Cliffhanger

Discussion in 'Original Fiction Discussion' started by DsRaider, Feb 10, 2016.

  1. DsRaider

    DsRaider Squib

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    So I write some original fiction, and I was wondering if anyone here has any thoughts on writing good cliffhangers.

    So far what I try and do is:
    1.Do the unexpected. Don't let the readers see the cliffhanger coming.
    2. Threaten something/someone the readers hold dear. That way they get worked up.
    3. Add a sense of hopelessness.

    Am I missing anything? How do you write a good cliffhanger?
     
  2. Paradise

    Paradise Seventh Year DLP Supporter

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    One point most people will forget is the matter of having the reader care. I can't tell you how many times I have read a fic and not cared about the cliff hanger.

    Cliffhangers are only as good as how long you leave them hanging the more suspense the better. Maybe a interlude chapter in between or change in POV.

    You can also tackle it with a lot of build up. Cliff hang your cliff hanger if you will. This one works if the reader already knows something will happen but doesn't know when.

    i.e The fic A Cadmean Victory, the title eludes to a victory through great loss. Harry in the fic has already lost a close friend so every one thought that would be the great loss but in the latest chapter the author completely blindsided most of us with a huge development.

    Don't leave your reader hanging for too long or else they will just skip the parts until they learn whats happening. So don't write unless you think they will read it.

    Thats all I got for now.
     
  3. Agayek

    Agayek Heir

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    As a general rule of thumb, I'd recommend staying away from cliffhangers, honestly. It's a cheap trick that, while moderately successful as a sequel hook, more often than not just ends up being annoying and unsatisfying.

    That said, there's a few things you can do to mitigate those problems and employ the device properly. In my mind, there's three elements required for an effective cliffhanger: the build-up, the question, and the answer.

    1) The build-up: This is simultaneously the simplest element and the one easiest to fuck up. You have to very carefully build the atmosphere leading up to the event, drag the reader kicking and screaming into your pace. If you do it right, the reader will be swept up into the flow of words and not sparing a thought for all the little details and hints of the left turn you're about to drop on everything. It's a delicate act to pull off, and requires a decently high mastery of language to pull off, but it's necessary to really sink the hook and keep the reader engaged and satisfied.

    2) The question: This part is the easiest to do. In essence, it's "what is the reader thinking?". You have to keep this in mind and shape the event to get the reader asking the right question. Whether it's whether or not a character is dead or what else is about to go wrong or what the protagonist will do now, you have to have some framework in mind to guide the reader toward.

    3) The answer: This part is the one that's most often forgotten, and the primary reason for my aforementioned distaste for cliffhangers. Every cliffhanger has a question, but the good ones have answers as well. You don't have to (and really shouldn't) give the game away, but there needs to be something for the audience to work with, to speculate and theorize about. This ties partly into #1, and why I mentioned hints and details there. There needs to be something in the work to get the audience speculating, and further, to be invested in finding the answer. The way to do this is to provide hints, several and often contradictory, during the build-up. The goal is to get people to construct their theories as to what happens next, while acknowledging that alternate theories might also be correct, and in doing so, get them invested in finding out how right they were.

    That's my 2c on the topic, take it how you will.
     
  4. LittleChicago

    LittleChicago Death Eater DLP Supporter

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    Cliffhangers are easy. Here's how you do them:









    _
     
  5. Agayek

    Agayek Heir

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    2/10 would not fall off again. You're slipping Jim
     
  6. ScottPress

    ScottPress The Horny Sovereign Prestige

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    I love cliffhangers. Have done a few myself. I think they even worked.

    This sounds like a copout, but cliffhangers are one of those things... Like, there's a word that you know and you know what it means and when it's appropriate to use it, but if you were asked to define that word, you'd be at a loss. This is how I am with cliffhangers.

    Other postershave the right of it, I think. Possibly the most important thing is what Paradise said:

    There. You have a lot of freedom in writing, but the best writer's tools will be for nothing if the readers don't give a damn. If they do, you can go to town.

    Cliffhangers specifically, when I do them, I usually do it by building up to one thing and then pull out something unexpected.
     
  7. Oddball8

    Oddball8 First Year

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    When I'm writing I often feel that sometimes the best idea is to go and look at things that other people have done that were similar to what you want to do. TVtropes is a great website for doing that sort of thing!

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CliffHanger

    There's a link to the cliffhanger page on tvtropes and it has not only a definition but a lot lot lot of examples of cliffhangers from different kinds of media like television, and books, and movies, and mangas, and so on. But not only that, there are different kinds of cliffhangers, and different ways to set up cliffhangers, and all sorts of variables.

    So I'm saying that it's not quite as simple as just saying I have three checkboxes to check off when I make a cliffhanger. I think there's usually going to be exceptions to rules like that depending on your story, but I also think that maybe cliffhangers are sometimes just natural breaks in your prose or narrative that you don'y really have to plan for because they'll happen and it's more up to you to do your break (chapter, book, episode, season, whatever) such that that's where it ends.

    But sometimes seeing it coming can be pretty fun! I agree with you as a sort of general rule in that cliffhangers tend to catch you off-guard, but it's not because you don't know it's going to happen so much as it sneaks up on you. Like if suspense is building and building and building and BUILDING and you're all excited and you just know that this chapter is going to end right at that point where something happens... BAM, the suspense makes it more fun, in a sense. But the reverse is true too because sometimes cliffhangers catch you off guard... like the suspense isn't building too strong, and you're just doing your thing, making eggs in your kitchen, waiting on your wife to come home...

    You flip the omelette onto your plate with a deft flick of your wrist, then reach for the butter to make a second one for your wife. She'll be home soon, and you want everything to be perfect for your Anniversary.

    A knife buries itself into your kidney. "I don't think so," purrs your ex-wife's voice.


    Bam! I mean I just totally made that up, but that's a good example of the unexpected part I think. If you imagine that he was just chilling out making omelettes and then shit comes out of nowhere, you know?

    ...But what if this was a Dean Koontz novel or something and there's an evil smart monkey dog thing running around stalking you, and you're making omelettes, but there's suspense all up in the freaking place, and then there's scratching on the windows, and scrabbling at the door, and damnit you have to make that omelette because this is probably your last night alive and...

    You flip the omelette and it lands halfway off the plate, ejecting a mushroom to roll across the floor. You reach out to grab it, but your hands are shaking too hard. Can't afford to lose any food, every morsel is precious.

    A boom echoes through the kitchen, and you twitch. Gods, if only there was a way to kill the monster before it got to you or your wife. Speaking of your wife, she should be back by now.

    "Honey?" you ask, looking away from the stove. "Are you okay?"

    "No," a voice rasps right at your ear. "She's not."


    And see that's like... I mean, if you were reading that, and you knew that say, there were only TWO PAGES left in the book when you start reading this crazy scene, and you're expecting a cliffhanger, and you're expecting it to be good, and you're expecting it to drive you up the wall. So I think that maybe that can work sometimes too.

    But maybe not, because if you wanted to really badly you could make the argument that in both cases they were unexpected, because even if you knew that all the loose ends wouldn't be tied up you could still make the point that the reader didn't expect the exact point at which it would end.

    I was going to talk about the other two points as well but I'm tired of typing at the moment but I might come back.

    This is really great though! I'm super into the idea of writing and writing original fiction which is kind of why I ended back up in fanfiction because my writing really sucks but it's hard to get feedback on my writing but it's easier to get feedback on fanfiction and even if it's not the exact same thing it can still be really useful for sorting out how to do things like... CLIFFHANGERS!
     
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2016
  8. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast Prestige DLP Supporter

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    The hardest part about writing a cliffhanger is not the cliffhanger itself, but rather the bit after the cliffhanger. It's very hard to pick up the narrative after you've left something hanging like that, for two main reasons:

    1. When you leave something hanging, often it leaves various pieces of narrative work unfinished. You have to figure out the sheer logistics of the thing. Because you wanted the drama of a sharp cut-off, you haven't done all the necessary logistical work to fully set-up the next scene.

    2. It's hard to hit the right tone. The cliffhanger will have been ultra-dramatic and it's hard to simultaneously answer the promise of the cliffhanger in terms of level of drama while simultaneously returning the story to a more normal narrative tone.

    The worst outcome here is that you have an uber-dramatic cliffhanger and the next chapter starts not with a satisfying ramping up of the drama but rather with sorting out logistical matters.
     
  9. ScottPress

    ScottPress The Horny Sovereign Prestige

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    Taure, I think there are, let's call it, degrees of a cliffhanger. The higher you go, true, the tougher it is to keep up the same pressure after the cliffhanger.

    I find it important to have the logistics of the whole sequence worked out in advance. You cliffhang in the middle of some sequence of events, sometimes the cliffhanger steers the events in a completely different direction. If you know where you want things to go, a cliffhanger can be a great tool for switching from one plot to another to shake things up. Planning also lets you decide where you actually want to place your cliffhanger.

    Fanfic cliffhangers are kind of like TV cliffhangers, there's time for the reader to calm down and contemplate before the next update resolves the cliffhanger. It's sort of a cheat, if you think about it. It's much harder to satisfyingly resolve a cliffhanger in a book, where you have the whole thing available at once, and especially hard when it's a single POV book, where the resolution pretty much has to come immediately unless you use something like "20 minutes" earlier device.

    Basically, a cliffhanger should come out of good planning. I insert cliffhangers into my plot when I already have the plot. Building events around a cliffhanger is working backwards.
     
  10. Menace

    Menace Lonely White Boy

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    Cliffhangers aren't something you should be actively trying to write, in my opinion. It's like sitting down to write a scene and telling yourself you'll include at least one adverb in every sentence. It can be done well with proper planning, but there's no real reason to. Good cliffhangers are organic. If you find yourself coming to the end of a scene, a chapter, or even a book, and the natural conclusion of things is rooted in suspense, that's fine. That means the reader's experience will be just as natural.

    Telling yourself at the beginning of a scene, chapter, or book that you're going to leave your readers hanging with this particular scenario, involving those particular characters, and that particular threat- that's unnecessary work. Let your story tell itself. If it's good, there shouldn't be any need to bolster it with false drama.
     
  11. DsRaider

    DsRaider Squib

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    Lots of good advice here. Thanks for all the great replies, everyone!

    For those of you wondering how I use them I usually try and end a chapter in a cliffhanger every once and awhile. I find it's just a great way to introduce some real atmosphere and emotion into a story. It allows me to hook the reader, even if it's only until they flip to the next chapter.
     
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