book reviews, writing technique

Dirty Dangling

I was introduced to suspense by our headmaster at primary school. Every afternoon, he read us a chapter from a book, and the one that’s stuck in my mind is Wingless Victory, the story of RAF pilot Sir Basil Embry’s two-month trek through occupied France after being shot down in May 1940. In my memory, every chapter ended with the promise of some dramatic, perilous event to come. A cliff-hanger. The whole class was hooked.

When I wrote my first crime novel, I naturally wanted suspense to be an ingredient. I’m not big on breathless pace for the sake of it, but there was a gradual build-up of tension till two-thirds through, the main character is upstairs in her house investigating the cause of a strange sound when the lights go out. The following chapter moved to a different character’s point of view, and what happened next in the house wasn’t described till sixty pages later.

Much hesitation preceded that choice. Do I do this or not? Will readers be annoyed? In the end I went for it. Sixty pages, I thought, is fair enough; they won’t be dangling for too long. It’s not as if they have to wait till the next book in the series.

The upshot? It earned me a stern rebuke from a certain Elderberry, who in a very well-written review on Amazon downgraded what was to be five stars to three. Crudely manipulative, she said, and I took her point to heart so much that I revised the book, removing both POV switch and cliff-hanger. But the damage was done, and there her review has sat ever since, at the top of the product page, putting people off.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve cooled on cliff-hangers since then. Which doesn’t mean they’re a bad thing entirely, but only, I think, if the resolution comes in the following chapter, or at most the next but one. Not sixty pages later, and never ever in the next book in the series – that’s like the dirty trick in The Walking Dead where fans had to wait a whole year to see who was clubbed to death.

But I do put a lot of thought into chapter endings. An unexpected development, a bit of tension or surprise – surely that can only be good? A few of the more climactic ones from Perfume Island, book number three in the series:

She read the sentence several times, leant back in her chair, clasped her hands together on top of her head. What the hell does that mean? She was raped?

‘And if that’s so,’ said Magali, ‘it means he came over with a specific purpose in mind. To kill Yann.’

‘I just got news from the Border Police. They fished Hafiz Chanfi out of the water an hour ago. What was left of him, anyway.’

He’d been in the lay-by or somewhere close, had sex with Youma and beaten her. But what if his propensity to rape was not the half of it? What if he was also guilty of incest?

Not exactly cliff-hangers, perhaps, but hopefully with enough drama to have the reader wanting to know more. Manipulation, sure, but don’t we manipulate with every word we write?

If you’re bent on cliff-hangers yourself, below are some tips I found on the MasterClass website (the full article is here).

  1. Withhold key information from a reader. Try narrating from the point of view of a character who doesn’t know all the information.
  2. Stay grounded in a protagonist’s sensory experience. Let the audience experience the cliffhanger the same way the character does. The character’s point of view will invariably provide a heightened sense of urgency..
  3. Keep each chapter ending concise and cut out superfluous descriptions. A great cliffhanger can be watered down by detail that would fit better somewhere else in the chapter. The end of the chapter should be taut.
  4. Make your cliffhanger scenes focus on your main character. A reader is more likely to push past the end of a chapter if a plot twist or suspenseful shift in the storyline focuses on the protagonist rather than an antagonist or ancillary character.
  5. Keep your plotlines distinct. End chapters with a cliffhanger for one particular plotline, and address other plot lines elsewhere.
  6. Remember that a cliffhanger is not a spoiler. As you develop your writing craft, take care to write chapter endings that offer foreshadowing and build suspense, but do not spoil any information that would be better saved for the very end—whether that’s a final scene, final confrontation, or, in the case of television, a season finale.
  7. Use a flashback as a cliffhanger. Flashbacks can make good cliffhangers if they reveal new information that affects the present-day action of the story. As such, a properly constructed chapter-ending flashback can fit the definition of cliffhanger.
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16 thoughts on “Dirty Dangling

  1. This was a fun, informative read! Lotta helpful tips re: how to successfully execute the page-turning particulars of plot and sustain reading tension without the reader feeling cheated by authorial cheap tricks. I chuckled over that stand-out phrase you highlighted in Elderberry’s Amazon review of an earlier version of your novel: “crudely manipulative”. Heh! If only you’d been smoothly manipulative, eh? Anyway, it seems you decided that that particular criticism of Elderberry’s was both apt and appropriate so revised your book accordingly. Good for you! Shows great maturity, professionalism and sober judgment on your part as a writer.

    Something novice writers will learn quickly (or not at all): Constructive criticism can sting. The only valid question for the writer pondering revision of their text is: Do I agree with this criticism? If (A) I do not agree; then the writer’s emotional reaction to the criticism is irrelevant, or (B) I do agree; in which case the writer’s emotional reaction to the criticism is . . . wait for it . . . also irrelevant.

    There’s a lesson in here, somewhere. . . .

    Liked by 8 people

    • Good summary there of how to react to criticism, Carl. I’ve had a couple of much worse, one-star reviews which anger me for two minutes and are then forgotten, all the more easily as they usually consist in two lines with three spelling mistakes in each. But the review which led me to revise the book was very articulate and cogent, and collected a few ‘helpful’ votes, all of which gave me cause to analyse it dispassionately. One advantage of self-publishing is that it’s easier to amend a book after publication, should one feel the need to do so.

      Liked by 5 people

      • Yes, it’s hard to take seriously reviews such as (random example) “this book it is written in very poor styles and nothing happens for too long and then confusion breaks out. Slow plot is all over the place and especally bad is the ending which I read immediatelly in order to discover if the book is worth reading which the answer is obviously not.”

        BTW: If you Google “hilariously bad Amazon reviews” you’ll entertain yourself for a bit.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. victoracquista says:

    Perhaps the best craft book I’ve read on creating and sustaining tension in a suspense novel is “Conflict and Suspense” by James Bell. He describes many ways to create and sustain tension including chapter endings with cliff hangers and other techniques to keep the reader engaged. I used many of his suggestions in both writing and scene editing my most recent suspense novel (due to be published next year). By my own critical self evaluation, reading through the novel, I found myself much more engaged and caught up in the flow of tension and suspense. Will have to wait for readers to share their impressions.

    Thanks, Curtis, for giving us some helpful tips, including how to use the reader’s experience, as reflected in a review, to improve our writing.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thanks for that reference there, Carl – no doubt worth checking out before I embark on my next, which will aim for more suspense than the current WIP. One can also glean a lot from reading in the genre, which I’ll need to do both before starting and during, as I tend to sacrifice pace and suspense in favour of character. There’s a time for both but a pure suspense novel rarely has deep characterisation.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. My goal at the end of each chapter is to draw the reader into the next chapter. As I skim my trilogy, I see several ways I do this besides cliffhangers:
    – A surprising twist away from the preceding action
    – A question that has to be answered
    – A promise or hint about what’s coming next
    – A clever statement by one of the characters that draws on some prior action
    – A hint or foreboding of something bad to come
    Also, I name my chapters, and names are chosen to draw readers in.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Nice list there, Mike – thanks. I quite agree that the full cliffhanger isn’t needed for every chapter – and would be pretty difficult to pull off – but those little twists and questions can do just as good a job.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Curtis, Victor and Mike have all mentioned some great techniques they use to sustain reader tension and interest. One of the principles I try to keep in mind when I write (in addition to everything they have mentioned) is: Don’t spell everything out; let the reader do some work. How does adhering to such a principle sustain reader interest? By giving the reader time and space to probe subtext while they read. If done correctly, the text (and the actively reading brain) will work on multiple levels. Since the intelligent reader is constantly probing the text for meaning and coherence, not sledge-hammering him or her with every little quotidian detail of po-faced specificity will allow the reader to engage with the writer in a more satisfying act of shared experience.

    It’s a subtle thing, true, but consider: Why are adverb tags oftentimes unneeded when writing dialogue? Because they irritatingly jam the reader’s nose into your ham-fisted playwright’s signaling of character emotion: See? Right here? The character is angry! Or happy! Or terribly, terribly sad! (To which the internally sighing reader responds: Uh, I know—kinda got that from everything the character just did and said before I encountered your superfluous speech tag. Does the writer think I’m an idiot? Have a little more faith—in me and you.) Tension is lost; the reader is now aware an incremental upward tick in noise-to-signal has crept into your text.

    Or consider what we mean by crafting “the telling detail” when writing passages of narrative description. Why shouldn’t the writer—if he or she desires—ramble on for pages if they wish, battering the reader under an avalanche of dense descriptive paragraphs? Because the reader is impatient to get back to story. They desire only enough description to trigger effective world-building in their own minds and to share in a viewpoint character’s sensory experience; anything else “piled on” risks introducing an element of ennui-inducing irritation into your tale. If you bog the reader down in treacle-like dense descriptive passages tension dissipates. Hence again, reader interest wanes or is entirely lost.

    Also, reflect on this trick: crafting shorter, sharper, more direct sentences (and sentence fragments) when writing action scenes. Why is this oftentimes the correct choice for the cunning fictioneer? Again, it all comes back to sustaining reader tension and involvement with your tale: The reader, impatient to know what happens next (or dreading to find out what happens next) reads on in a state of heightened excitement and alertness. Shorter, sharper sentences rat-a-tat-tat out this desired/dreaded information in a manner all but guaranteed to raise your reader’s pulse and emotional involvement with story.

    The three techniques enumerated above work, I believe, every bit as effectively to sustain reader tension as more blatant, “manipulative” ways of ensuring reader engagement with a text.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for those tips, Carl – all excellent advice. I’ve recently finished Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections – very well written, droll and entertaining, but packed with so much detail that no ‘telling’ detail emerges from the welter of information served up. But it’s a different aim and a different genre, and I guess it all depends on what you’re trying to do.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    I’ll comment briefly, because I’m still in bad shape and unable to sit at the computer for more than about fifteen minutes at a time. (I’m having a really bad attack of sciatica.)

    Every novel has, or should have, a rhythm to it. I tell my story and when I feel a chapter is complete, that’s my end. I don’t worry about a device to lure a reader on. I trust to the strength of the story to accomplish that.

    In the next chapter I may look at the material from another angle, but not from the perspective of another character. I’ve read a few novels that do that and it does not appeal to me.

    Cliff-hanger endings are, to my mind, suitable for serials, published monthly, or whatever. For an in-one-go novel, I say, write your story as it tumbles out of you, and let the chapters conclude as they may.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Glad you’re at least able to move, Mimi – a slight improvement which I hope will continue. ‘The strength of the story’ – yes, utimately that’s what counts the most. A weak story or poor writing won’t be saved by a few cliffhangers. But those end-of-chapter teaser techniques are still a useful part of the arsenal, I think. Somewhat intrigued that you don’t like novels with POV changes – surely multiple POVs are a staple of the writer’s stock in trade?

      Liked by 4 people

      • mimispeike says:

        I think I phrased that badly. What I meant was, once, in a first person novel, I didn’t care for a new section told in the first person by another character. can’t tell you the title of the book, I only remember that I didn’t care for the technique.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m currently reading a book (*The Anatomy of Peace* by the Arbinger Institute) with chapters that are short, have names, and often end in ways that urge the reader to continue.  Without necessarily being cliffhangers, those endings are in that spirit and are hard to resist.

    Have not finished the book yet.  (Willpower at chapter endings!)  So far, it’s a good read despite being authored by an institute.

    Liked by 4 people

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