Tag Archives: climax

Elements of Suspense: The Cliffhanger

Once upon a time writers actually left their characters hanging from cliffs. In the early days of movies, when theaters ran serialized episodes of a story, a cliffhanger ending was a good way to ensure viewers would make the effort to come back next week. The same was true for serialized novels run in newspapers and magazines. Writers intentionally left characters hanging (not necessarily from a cliff) to entice readers to purchase the next installment.

Today’s readers and moviegoers may roll their eyes at Pauline hanging by her fingertips from a cliff, but the cliffhanger technique is still very much in use. If we change the definition of cliffhanger from:

a situation of imminent disaster usually occurring at the end of an episode of a serialized film

to the broader concept of:

a moment of unresolved danger or conflict

then a cliffhanger can happen anywhere a writer needs to crank up the tension. The key here is unresolved. Something is left hanging.

Consider the commercial breaks in a typical detective show. When do the breaks happen? Just after some new evidence is discovered that threatens to take the investigation in a whole new direction. Viewers are left hanging during the commercial, wondering what the hero will do with the new information.

In a similar vein, writers use the cliffhanger technique at the end of a chapter, scene, or beat to keep readers turning pages.

How to use the unresolved tension of a cliffhanger to increase suspense in your manuscript

  1. End a scene in the middle of danger. The tried and true cliffhanger ending—a bad thing has happened and the character is left some kind of danger at the end of a scene. You might switch to a different set of characters in the next scene and leave the poor hero hanging for a scene or two, or you might continue the action in the next scene. Either way, the reader must keep reading to find out how the situation is resolved.
  2. End a scene by hinting that a bad thing is about to happen. The doorknob turns… A shadowy figure appears in the window… The heroine hears the voice she’s been dreading for pages… This is similar to number one, except the danger is only implied, leaving the reader to imagine all sorts of horrible things that are about to ensue.
  3. End a scene by hinting that a bad thing might be about to happen. A subtler variation of number two. Instead of the heroine hearing a voice she recognizes and dreads, what if she hears a voice she doesn’t recognize? Is it a friend or a foe? The reader doesn’t know until they read on.
  4. End a scene on an ambiguous note. Instead of making it clear exactly what happened and how that affects the main character, try leaving things a little less clear. Sometimes a writer can accomplish this simply by backing up a few sentences. Instead of ending the scene with the sleuth deciding she needs to question the shop clerk, back up a few sentences and end with the information that could be interpreted to mean the clerk was guilty.

The cliffhanger technique isn’t just for the end of chapters or episodes, however. You can use subtle touches of cliffhanger anywhere in your story.

  1. End a conversation with a tantalizing bit of information. Imagine the sleuth is talking with an informant who tells him about a new clue that’s come to light. But instead of giving all the details right away, the informant says, “I found something in the wall of the garage. You’d better come take a look.” The sleuth will naturally ask for details, but the if informant refuses to give them, both sleuth and reader will be dying to find out what’s been unearthed. Ratchet up the tension further by forcing the sleuth to finish his current task before he can go take a look.
  2. Leave a character in a high emotional state. Tension is not only created by external danger. Sometimes the conflict is within a character.  Examples: The hero gets word his wife has cancer while in the middle of a meeting, or the heroine has an argument with her fiancé but has to break it off to interview a key suspect. These bits of unresolved life issues can add tension even when they have nothing to do with the main plot.

Bottom line: Look for places in your story where you can leave a situation unresolved, however briefly. Closure is important at the end of story, but unresolved tension is what keeps the reader turning page after page to get there.

By Lisa E. Betz
Source: almostanauthor.com

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8 Promises You’re Making to Readers—and Then Breaking

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8 Promises You’re Making to Readers—and Then Breaking

By K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

A book is a contract between reader and writer. The reader is promising to pay attention to the story and emotionally invest in the adventure. In return, the writer is promising to fulfill certain expectations about the fictional experience.

When we fail to fulfill this contract with our readers, we are, in essence, breaking our promises to them. These promises range from the big one at the top of the list (“I promise this will be a good read”) to a number of smaller ones along the way. Let’s take a look at eight common promises you may be making to your readers—and then breaking.

1. I promise every instance of conflict will end with an appropriate climax.

Conflict must always lead to a specific outcome. It can’t fizzle away into nothing. Characters can’t just say, “Whoops, guess we misunderstood each other,” shake hands, and walk away. Whenever you introduce a conflict, you also have to make sure you pay it off with some sort of confrontation, disaster, or triumph.

2. I promise my characters will always behave within the parameters of their established personalities.

We never want our characters acting out of character. This doesn’t mean characters can’t act in surprising or even shocking ways. But not only do their actions have to resonate within the personality we’ve established for them, their actions also have to result from appropriate and understandable motives.

3. I promise I will always pay off significant foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is present in our stories for two reasons: 1) to prepare readers for big events down the road and 2) to ratchet up the tension. If you use foreshadowing to raise your tension, only to have readers discover there was never really anything for them to be tense about, they’ll either feel you’ve cheated them—or you were too dumb to notice what you did.

4. I promise that characters who are important in the beginning of the story will not be forgotten about by the end.

Only Charles Dickens could get away with opening The Old Curiosity Shop with a first-person narrator who, without explanation, disappears from the story after a few chapters. If a character is introduced as important early on in your story, he either needs to play an important role throughout or, at the very least, his disappearance from the story later on needs to be appropriately explained.

5. I promise every cause will end in an appropriate effect—and vice versa.

Every action needs to be followed by an appropriate reaction. And every reaction needs to make sense in relation to some preceding action that caused it. One character can’t suddenly want to kill another without an appropriate reason, just as another character can’t realistically act with passivity toward the murder of his family.

6. I promise my protagonist(s) will play an appropriately active role in the climax.

At its heart, deus ex machina, the technique of resolving a conflict through some powerful outside means (such as the cavalry rushing in to save the wagon train), is a broken promise to readers. Your audience has followed your protagonist all the way to the end of your story. They want to see him take action to defeat the antagonist via means that have been foreshadowed through the story.

7. I promise not every scene will play out exactly as readers expect.

Readers like the element of surprise. Within the confines of certain expectations, they want you to shock their socks off. They open your book expecting you to take them to surprising places. When you fail to do that, they will grow bored with the stereotypes.

8. I promise to abide by genre conventions—within reason.

Ingenuity with genre is the lifeblood of innovative fiction. But you also have to realize that your genre itself will be promising readers certain things. If you fail to live up to those expectations, readers will be disappointed. In a romance, your leading couple better fall in love. In an action story, there better be explosions. In a historical, there better be history.
Always be aware of what you’re promising readers. If you’re falling short of any of these promises, then double your efforts to not just fulfill them, but to go above and beyond reader expectations.