Cliffhangers….

I am addicted to stories. I LOVE stories. I LOVE reading stories. What I love most is really good stories. When I lived in Florida it was not uncommon to have the occasional hurricane blow through. With the loss of power there’s no TV and nothing to do but ride out the storm, alone, in the dark. But wait! With a flashlight you can read! And red wine does not need to be refrigerated so… Yes, during a hurricane by the power of a flashlight (and a bottle of cab) I read an entire book. I wanted to go to sleep after the storm passed but the book was so darn good. What book? Airframe by Michael Crichton. The story itself is compelling enough but not overly remarkable. What made it an absolute page-turner I could not put down was two things. One, the chapters were really short. Like 1-2 pages short. And two, each chapter ended with a cliffhanger. I had to know what happened next. So I kept turning the pages and reading. And eventually the book was done, the flashlight batteries had died, and I could catch a few winks before the sun came up.

In the past couple of years I have discovered the “binge watch.” I will record an entire series and in a matter of a few weeks watch all of them. I did it with Downton Abbey, the first two seasons of Game of Thrones (caught up to where they were and now watch the seasons as they air), Black Sails, The Tudors, and The Borgias. I prefer to do it this way because of the cliffhangers. Patience is not one of my virtues and so waiting nine months for the season to begin again does not make me happy. When I binge-watch, I can go straight into the next season. Like tuning a page to the next chapter.

That’s the key really. Keeping the audience (readers or watchers) turning the page. And most readers will give the author a chance to hook them. About 40 pages is the average (from my experience). So, how do you hook them? Brian Klems’ blog, The Writer’s Dig, has a list of 10 things you should do and he uses examples from an essay he wrote. Here’s the list:

  1. Begin at a pivotal moment
  2. Add an unusual situation
  3. Add an intriguing character
  4. Conflict
  5. Add an antagonist
  6. Change emotion
  7. Irony and surprise
  8. Make People Wonder
  9. Dread Factor
  10. Keep narrative voice compelling

This is an excellent list for writers to keep in mind while writing and editing. It is also good to keep for outlining and structuring. Because to keep the pages turning, you really need to keep these ten items going in each chapter culminating in the cliffhanger, or dread factor, or wonder, or surprise, depending on the action of the storyline.

As a writer, I’m horrible. I’m a pantser. I sit and I type and I hope the story will have some sort of cohesive theme and direction. As an editor, I stress to my authors the need for structure (not just sentence and grammar) and pacing. I need to heed my own advice and I’m almost ready to change from a pantser to a plotter. Yes, we need to let the story take us where it will but the key is to keep the reader turning pages and we need to strategically place our cliffs.

We are accepting submissions to our May/June issue. The theme is Three Wishes. I wish for a… well, let me think about it. What do you wish for?

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