Sunday, 5 April 2009


Cliff tires of the hangers.

What do you call a man with a seagull on his head?

I gotta exorcise this once and for all because it's been bugging me for years, like some ticking wristwatch left behind by a surgeon.
The mechanics of the cliff-hanger.

Here's one I've read several times in 'how to' books:
The elephant charges.
End of chapter.

Here, Michael Legat suggests that we might want to move elsewhere for a time before returning to the elephant peril. In this way, the reader is left hanging, with suspense sown into his soul.

If we lose the break (the chapter end, and the shift elsewhere), we get this:
The elephant charges and the protagonist rolls out of its path and goes off elsewhere and everything is fine again.

The peril is still there right? but it lasts only for a tiny measure of time.
So, mechanically, the chapter end is designed to distend the threat, and any time spent elsewhere in the narrative is also time spent dangling the reader.

This is, I presume, why many 'how to' books advise us 'what's going on? where am I?' authors to end a chapter with a cliffhanger.
And it looks to me as if there are two types of cliffhanger:
The MacGuffin, in which the threat is nullified;
Chekhov's Gun, in which the threat comes to fruition.

N.B. I'm using these terms, perhaps, in an uncommon sense. Suffice to say, though, that a MacGuffin is a plot device which serves a purpose but is ultimately insignificant, whereas Chekhov's Gun would have significant ramifications simply because it is fired. There are probably better ways to distinguish between these two types of cliffhangers, and I elaborate in a moment. *

Hold up! This is where the alarm on that wristwatch buried amongst my internal organs goes off.
We develop stuff and then provide a resolution, and then go off on some other development or resolution.

Question: Where's the best place to suspend the reader?

In the charging elephant example, given that the resolution culls the suspense, the best place to suspend the reader would naturally be at the point where the threat is at its peak.

Let's swap the MacGuffin for a CG and see what happens.

The elephant speaks to the protagonist:
'Hey, I'm an elephant and my name is Biggles and you have the ability to understand animal speak.'
Another good place to hang the reader. But now we have what is probably a major plot development which is going to spread its ripples through the entire novel (and sounds rather like an inciting incident to me!).

In this way, we can see how moot the charging is:
The elephant charges, but stops beside the protag to reveal that the protag has a special gift.

I'll 'fess up: The MacGuffin still troubles me. Tick tock, brrrrrring.
I think it's because I find more power in a CG than a MacGuffin; I think it's because a MacGuffin seems to me like a weak substitute for a CG.
If I have enough material, then I shouldn't need to resort to a MacGuffin right?
If my story is a tapestry of cunning sub-plots, each feeding into the hero's quest as and when I choose, I shouldn't have need for a charging elephant that misses? - a device tailored for suspense which has no punchline and leads into a hollow abyss.

I think the distinction I'm making is this *:
Development > Resolution
Development > Bigger Development (multiplied by x) > Resolution

If we look at suspense as a development which is understood to have potentially serious ramifications, we can easily see the benefits of holding the reader at arm's length. And we know that the reader enjoys wallowing in suspense, and that we should be bathing him in suspense for a good proportion of the novel.
And, I acknowledge that these 'how to' books also suggest that we are careful to always have something open - to never close everything.
I also acknowledge that these 'how to' books don't explicitly suggest that the only place to create a cliffhanger is at the end of a chapter: The chapter end provides a natural break in the narrative and becomes an ideal place to present the reader with something to consider and to fret about, for sure, but we can create breaks at the drop of a hat, anywhere in the narrative we choose.

I just tire of charging elephants. They serve their purpose, but I think a clever author can find enough material to keep the reader engaged with a stream of open-ended developments and 'shocking revelations' (wikipedia) and the like. Maybe I'm making a distinction between pop-fic and lit-fic? Maybe I'm lost?


R1X said...

Much thought, you are providing to me, yes?

This is the opening to my final project - and it's what I've been struggling over - how much do I hold back? How long can I keep the protag and antag's history in a haze when it's exactly their history that's moving the plot along?

Am watching lots of The Wire at the moment - very good.

solv said...

Ah, Michael Legat answers your very questions when he says that there are no rules to plotting!

Sounds to me that you DO NOT want to keep it in haze: by the end of the ms, you want it all out there right?
So figure a way of spreading the histories across the ms in a series of developments. How you order them is still a mystery to me, but I'd guess that you want to consider the emotional topography and, most importantly, you want to always give the reader something to coerce him into traversing the spaces between developments. Which means that you need to show the reader that you are moving inexorably towards some other gift, all the way through to the limbo at the end.

That's me out of ideas. :0/

solv said...

I just want to augment my comment because it might seem contentious of me to observe that you do not want to keep the histories in a haze.
The point I was attempting to make, and I think MG made a similar comment recently too, is that, in your chosen genre, you need to be developing stuff (the histories?) from the very first chapter.
If you imagine the haze as a chocolate bar, you should be taking regular mouthfuls from the beginning through to the end.
Michael Legat observes that the 'Classics' are more pondorous affairs: they tend to devote at least two lengthy opening chapters to set-ups and exposition. He continues by explaining that today's audiences aren't so patient. I think there are more than enough excellent lit-fics of recent years to disprove this theory, and that your typical reader of lit-fic has enough patience with the author to recognise that there is more to good writing than suspense.
However, you've chosen YA and need to be developing very quickly, and very frequently.
Wouldn't you agree?
Just measure your chocolate bar at the end of each chapter to be sure that it is diminishing.