Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Jane at Dear Author has a post about cliffhangers up today, with a survey asking whether people like them or hate them or don't care. She's talking about cliffhangers at the ends of books, which have issues of their own, and I left a comment there.

What really annoys me, though, are fake cliffhangers used at the ends of chapters. Something like, "Mary answers the door, then gasps in horror and draws back with her arms curled protectively across her face!" End of chapter. Reader goes "Ack!" and quickly turns the page, imagining that Ivor Evil the Villain is there with a flamethrower or something, only to find that the UPS guy's on the other side of the door with a stack of packages that almost tipped over. He apologizes, hands her the one or two that belong to her, gets her signature and heads off to the next apartment, at which point the conversation Mary and her sister were having before the doorbell rang toward the end of the previous chapter is picked up and the story goes on. The cliffhanger was nothing, meant nothing, and was inserted only to be a cliffhanger.

That kind of a cliffhanger is completely bogus. First, there's no reason to break a chapter there -- there's no change of time, location, POV, or even significant activity. Second, the tension fostered in the reader was a complete fake, with nothing behind it. It's the writer saying, "Haha! I fooled you!"

Then they do it over and over.

I've gotten into discussions about this particular device in the past, and writers who do this sort of thing have indignantly explained that it's "to get the reader to turn the page."

I have two comments for that. One, a writer who pulls this stunt might keep me turning pages through this one book, but I'll never buy anything with their name on it again. And two, if they think they have to resort to these kinds of fake-outs to get their readers to keep reading, they must not have any faith at all in their plot or characters.

Cheap trick. Doesn't impress anybody. Don't do it.


PS -- usual caveats, you can make this work, especially if you're writing melodrama-style humor, etc. Doing it with a straight face, though? Yuck.


Charles Gramlich said...

I love a good cliffhanger in the middle of a book, not at the end, but it has to be done right. I really have come to deplore those fakehangers.

Bernita said...

Fake cliff-hangers? This is an excellent point, Angie! One expects something exciting - or at least interesting - after that sort of chapter ending.
I hope to God I've never pulled that stunt - it's a cheat.
Unless I have in my grubby little hands the next book in a series, I deplore them at the end of a book.

Angie said...

Charles -- I like "fakehangers" and will remember that term. :) And yes, it's fine in the middle of a book, if they're real cliffhangers, done right.

Bernita -- exactly, there needs to be some significant payoff after a cliffhanger. A writer who pulls fakes and then thumbs his/her nose at readers isn't going to have readers for long.


writtenwyrdd said...

I loathe cliff hangar endings. Absolute loathing. I think it's a cheat on the author's part. A book is supposed to be complete in and of itself; the main plot/main character cannot end on a cliff hanger or you haven't done what the novel promised by being a novel. However, of course sub plots or secondary characters can have threads left hanging; those are part of the fun of a series.

I can't recall any examples of chapter endings that work that way, which means that either they don't bother me much there, or I've been lucky in my book choices! :)

Angie said...

WW -- I can give writers sort of a pass on cliffhanger endings (although I'll still grumble) if it's clear that this is a single-arc series, where the "series" is actually all one story being published in multiple volumes. There's the danger of the series never being finished, though, whether it's the author's fault or the publisher's, and then you have a riot among the readers -- and rightly so.

When it's actually the ending, though, then I agree with you a hundred percent. I remember one historical romance I read as a teenager, where the book ended with the Guy sailing off in his ship, and the Girl left on the beach watching him sail away with a smile on her face as the Redcoats captured her, The End.

WTF?? And fifteen or so years later, the author finally got around to writing a sequel, with an Author's Note at the beginning expressing how SURPRISED and gratified she was that so many of her readers had written her to say they were interested in reading more about these characters. Well hell, lady, what the bleep did you expect?? IMO she was either playing ingenuous for all she was worth, or she was unquestionably stupid, one of the two. :/