Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Cliffhangers


Started today’s blog by automatically typing “How I Got . . .”

Oops.

Over the course of our NES, many of you dear BGs posted comments about wanting to discuss this or that once the “never” became an “ending.” Rather than go back through page after page of comments and try to glean them all, would you do me a favor and post some topics you’d like to see us cover?

Thanks for all of the comments yesterday as our story ended. I appreciated them muchly.

By the way, east coast Linda, who wonders when I get up in the morning. No it’s not 2:30, Pacific time. I will make a confession. I post between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. at night, and set the time for 6:00 the following morning. I do this specifically so the east-coasters can catch the blog early. Otherwise they’d be having to wait until noon or so. All right, now that I’ve admitted this publicly, how many of you late-night Pacific-timers caught on to this and read the next NES installment early? ’Fess up, now.

For today, here’s one comment/question I remember from the cliffhanger on Friday, May 27. This was the scene of my being in a prayer meeting with four women, and God telling me “one word” about one of them. Becky wrote: . . . think about it. None of us knows anything about this woman, so it isn't character (as important as that is to a story) that has us all on the edge of our seats and groaning--in my case, audibly. So, the question. This seems like a new way of creating suspense, or maybe a twist. Do you have a catalogue of techniques you use? Is this conscious or do you do it instinctively?

I found that an interesting question. Yes, at this point writing cliffhangers has become rather instinctive with me. So I had to pull back, re-look at what I wrote and think, hm, just what did I do?

Two things made this cliffhanger work, I’d say. (And by the way, to discuss this, we must put aside our empathy with the real gal in the story—since it was true—and look at this objectively, as if I’d written fiction.)

1. Becky’s right—readers had just been introduced to this character and didn’t know her enough to have built emotions about her. But you had hung with me for a long time through the NES. I remained the main character here, this gal a new introduction into the story. If this cliffhanger got you, it was because you were concerned for the effect of that “one word” on me, even though the word from God was directed toward this character.

I’d taken some time to build this scene up. (You might want to go back and read the post on May 27.) I’d told you for a day or two how stuck I was in trying to find a plot for Web of Lies, and how much I was praying about that. Then I mentioned that this scene kept coming to mind. That I now realized this scene was an answer to those prayers. In describing the scene, I used words such as “heart-tugging” and “wrenching.”

So there’s the set-up. Something I'm about to hear is going to hit me hard—even though it’s not about me.

Point to remember here for your writing—an event in a peripheral character’s life can be used as a cliffhanger if the outcome of that event will affect the protagonist in some major way.

2. When I began to near the cliffhanger point, I slowed the story down. This is done to heighten the impact. Here are the last three paragraphs:

I came to one of them, a young woman. This is the scene I will never forget. She was sitting, and I stood over her, placing my hands on her head. I asked God to show me whatever He would . . . and waited.


He answered, all right. One word hit me hard in the chest.

Just one word.

First paragraph, second sentence (This is the scene . . .) reminds you of something you already know—that what’s about the happen will impact me. Next line draws out the scene by injecting details—where she was, where I was. Next line is a line of action—asking God—then the use of ellipses to denote the passage of time. The sentence ends with the word “waited.” That’s a suspense-building word if you’ve got the readers, ’cause they’ll be waiting along with the character.

Next paragraph begins to tell you what happened, but draws it out some more, using two short sentences. (The languid rhythm of one long sentence would have lessened the impact.)

Last paragraph is a mere phrase that doesn’t even tell you anything new. It just restates what you're waiting for. It’s like someone already standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down, who then slips his/her toes over edge.

Technique #2 of slowing down is a good way to build suspense out of an otherwise nonsuspenseful scene. But to really make it work you need to set it up by a long series of events. Those of you who've read the NES since way back may remember the cliffhanger of my sitting in front of the fax machine, watching pages spit out, wondering if it’s my first novel contract. (March 29.) This slow-down technique was used then, also. Here is the ending to that post:

One day I was sitting at my computer. The fax clicked on. A page spewed out. Another and another. What was this? My pulse did this odd little quiver. Almost as if I knew . . .

I stared at the pages. Heard the whir of the machine. And froze. I could not reach out and pick up that first piece of paper. Absolutely could not.

So I sat, watching pages spit out. Click, whir, click, whir. My heart tumbled into a dull thud. You know how people say when you die, your years flash before you? Trapped in my chair, tense-muscled and sputter-breathing, I saw the past 9 ½ years flash through my head. The hope, the tears, the determination. Nights of writing until dawn. Watching the mail, trembling at phone calls. The scenes zipped before me in a kaleidoscope of emotion and will—

The fax machine fell silent. I stared at the pages, telling myself--hey, relax; so some solicitor got a little long winded. I remember managing a prayer. Not a long one. Something simple like, “Okay, God.”

Pulse scudding, I reached out, gathered up the pages . . . and turned them over.

In itself, there’s nothing suspenseful about watching a fax machine spew pages. But I had built up to this momentous event in post after post. In fact, I'd built up to it for so long that it deserved a slowing down as we finally aproached it. Anything faster would have left you unsatisfied. I used up time by alternating between action (sounds and sights of the working machine) and inner monologue. With these thoughts I reminded readers how much was at stake. Then at the very end, I slowed it down even more with the use of elipses. And left off with the final action that would answer the suspended question.

Another thing to point out is the sentence rhythm. Most of the sentences are short, many are only phrases. This is the subliminal ba-boom, ba-boom rhythm of an increasing heartbeat.

For all of you, no matter what genre you’re writing in, these techniques can be helpful, because a hook keeps readers turning pages in all kinds of fiction.

13 comments:

Linda said...

Whew, Brandilyn, sure am glad to know you don't write these things at two in the morning. Makes me think I'm not such a slacker after all. :o) On the other hand, maybe I am a little dense not to have figured it out. LOL

ValMarie said...

Wow, Brandilyn. I haven't come across anything that's clearly described how to create a cliffhanger like that. I'm definitely going to have to try those techniques out in my own writing...

C.J. Darlington said...

I'm one of those EST folks who's glad you post at night so I don't have to wait til lunch to read your post!

Regarding topics for future blog entries, I was hoping at some point you could discuss writing action/fight scenes. I know you covered some of this in your how-to book, but I'm always looking for ways to improve my action sequences.

Kelly Klepfer said...

We're all hooked. Every day, for the rest of our lives, we BG's will come looking for words of wisdom, how to, encouragement. I copied today's post and put it in my "best writing tips" notebook. I hope that's okay.

Evelyn said...

Okay, I confess! I've been reading the posts the night before (though I didn't last night...forgot).

Becky said...

I confess to knowing that you posted the night before, but I always wait--partly because looking forward to something makes it that much more satisfying (Aside: which is why I think publishers need to think about allowing for more time between books. Think Harry Potter) and partly because reading the Brandilyn Blog is a good way to start the day (motivating, informative, entertaining. It gets me thinking about writing).

I love this info on creating cliffhangers. Your point about "characters" makes total sense--you being the "protagonist" was the key reason to care what that one word was. And the idea of slowing down. I've read that action scenes should be played out near to real time. You added in specific techniques to do that. Thank you.

As to other topics. Since Mt. Hermon wasn't your first teaching experience, I'd be interested in how you came to speak and teach that very first time. What conference, what position? Was it something you sought out or were you approached a la Randy?

Seems like there was an agent question in there, too. Do you think having an agent is necessary, especially if a pre-published author does the work to meet with editors and is offered an unagented contract?

Cindy Q said...

Yep, I've read them the night before a couple of times . . . MST.

I'd like to know when you do your writing and do you do it in one chunk of time or go back to it several times a day.

Does blogging enhance your writing?

Looking forward to hearing from Chelsea . . . (it's so hard to wait, I wish I didn't know she was in the new book--talk about a cliffhanger!)

CQ

Grady Houger said...

Great info today Brandilyn!

A suggestion for a topic you might enlighten us on; I'm curious about the tight publishing deadlines you find yourself in. Does a time crunch hinder creativity and quality? Or do writing skills speed up to make the deadline?

D. Gudger said...

The piece on cliffhangers was awesome. I never thought of the clipped sentences/phrases as heart beats, but they sure do have that effect.

At the Colorado Christian Writers Conference in May (where I met Mr. Randy Ingermanson), an editor mentioned that he will toss any manuscripts with italics, underlined words, bold print, or even exclamation marks. His point was if you had to use a visual cue that stong emotion was being emmitted from a character's mouth, then your words are weak.

In some ways I understand, but in high action scenes, wouldn't someone be screaming, "PLEASE don't kill me!!" rather than, "Please don't kill me."

I know that's a lame example, but when writing fight scenes, or scence with some violence or even explosive dialogue, how do you avoid using !!'s, capitals or italics?

Domino said...

Great cliffhanger tips! I'm loving the hilarious scene of all the BGs on the edge of their seats watching a fax machine spit out paper. I'm the one in the back on my tiptoes leaning over to see if I can read the fax before you tell us what it says.

A rookie would miss that opportunity to turn a boring scene (not much action) into a nail-biter. I'm so glad you're such a great teacher.

I also figured out that you couldn't be posting in the morning and I'm a central timer.

Thanks!

Jason said...

Brandilyn,
I've spent about a month at work (shh, don't tell) catching up with your blog and NES. Well, since the NES is over, I thought I'd login and thank you for sharing all of that. I feel like I have been called to work on my writing recently, and when I look around it is easy to get discouraged. However, your story shows two things: it WILL take time, and I need to have a long term view of it, and most importantly, God is in control and will do things in His time.

Enjoy your summer in CdA! I am in southeast Idaho, where the desert winds blow, but it still is beautiful. :D
Jason Joyner

Becky said...

OK, I thought of another question--well, maybe two.

Jason's comment spurred the first one. You said in the NES (has changed to stand for Now Ended Story) that you didn't have the advantage of the internet community of writers when you started, and I get the impression that you would have done some things differently. If you were just starting out, what would you change? And what do you think has been the most helpful thing or things in learning your craft?

OK, that was already two, but the first one morphed, so now I have a third. In marketing your books, what do you think has been the most important aspect? If you could pick, oh, I don't know, say three things and only three to do to market a book, what would they be and why?

Lynette Sowell said...

You said someone asked, "This seems like a new way of creating suspense, or maybe a twist. Do you have a catalogue of techniques you use? Is this conscious or do you do it instinctively?"

This is where I think it's neat how we're wired as writers. Frustrating, but neat. Some techniques we use instinctively. It's just learning to capture those glimmers of brilliance (!) on purpose. Thanks for sharing how you do this! :)

I got my best friend hooked on the Hidden Faces series. She's looking forward to Web of Lies coming out, too! ~