August 16, 2012
Today, I'm honored to share a guest post by author Jennifer Griffith. She lives in Arizona with her husband and five kids. Her fourth novel, Big in Japan, the story of an accidental sumo wrestler, is available in bookstores nationwide and wherever books and ebooks are sold (and a PHENOMENAL read, I might add). She blogs about writing at authorjennifergriffith.com and is on Facebook and Twitter. Take it away, Jennifer!
Hanging off the Cliff to Save Our [Writing] Lives
My husband and kids have been watching a miniseries version of The Arabian Nights. Very loudly, I must add. So even if I didn’t want to watch it, I’d get to absorb it as it reverberates into my soul.
Meanwhile, I love how Scheherazade’s storytelling skill is what keeps her alive. Well, to be more exact it’s her ability to effectively use a cliffhanger that keeps the crazy sultan from killing her. She never quite finishes her story and he wants to hear it badly enough that he spares her life for the next installment.
There’s a pretty obvious lesson for us novelists in that idea. Our readers keep us “alive” by turning the pages and reading to the end of our stories. But we have to keep them turning pages, keep them caring about the story, keep them on wanting to know what happens next, or else they’ll set down the story and might not come back to it.
One great way is to place cliffhangers at the ends of chapters or scenes. Scheherazade was probably the first (and possibly still the best of all time) at this, but other more modern authors have mastered the technique. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code had itty bitty short chapters, but every one of them left readers anxious to turn the pages.
Three Ways to Employ Cliffhangers
One way to do this is to end the chapter before a critical piece of information is revealed. Another way is to leave it in the middle of tense dialogue, with a question hanging on a character’s lips. Another way is to reveal a new piece of information to the plot, but not explain fully its relevance.
Dream Weaver, I Believe You Can Get Me Through the Book
Another way I’ve seen employed that intensifies that page-turning urge for the reader is to plop down a cliffhanger and then when the next chapter starts, flip to a different subplot rather than answering the question foremost in the reader’s mind immediately. This happens all the time in soap operas (and makes daytime TV an addiction), and I think JK Rowling did this weaving together of different subplots very well. There’s no reason why we can’t master this technique and make our writing as addictive as Days of Our Lives.
Big in Japan
When I was writing my latest novel, Big in Japan, I read a bunch of great how-to tomes to learn how to write commercial fiction. Over and over, the experts recommended ending chapters with moments that left the reader breathless. To be honest, I wrote the novel all the way through (probably twice) and then went back and adjusted chapter breaks to make them more of page-turners. It’s been pretty fun to hear back from readers who (finally! After three years’ work!) have it in their hands and hearing them say they read it straight through in just a couple of days.
Meanwhile, we’ve got another installment of Arabian Nights to watch around here. I hope that pretty Scheherazade girl can stay alive!