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Author Topic: I couldn't put it down...
Elan
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On Jan. 30, 2007 author Sidney Sheldon died. He wrote "The Other Side of Midnight" and "Rage of Angels," along with many other titles. (He also created and wrote TV series, such as "The Patty Duke Show" and "I Dream of Jeannie). He hit the tidy mark of over 300 million books in print by the time he died and Guinness Book of World Records tagged him as the Most Translated Author in the World.

In reading his obituary, I noticed a comment he made about a device he used in his books. He said he always made sure he ended a chapter with a cliffhanger, so the reader was forced to turn one more page to find out what was going to happen.

This "page turner" device was also used by Dan Brown in "The Da Vinci Code." The one comment I've heard over and over by people who read DVC was "I couldn't put it down." (Please don't digress into a DVC bashing... there are other threads for that.)

What I want to know is how common is it for other novel writers to use that device in their writing? How do you end your chapters? Do you end them by wrapping up a scene, or do you break your chapters just as something exciting happens? What makes YOU say: "I couldn't put it down..."


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Robert Nowall
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I like the idea of doing so...but have rarely done it. 'Course I could divvy up my chapters and put cliffhangers on the ends...might be worth it, too...
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Lynda
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I have some chapters that end on cliffhangers, others that end with the scene wrapped up. I actually like to end on cliffhangers, but the chapter may not lend itself to such a break.

Right now I'm at the point of combining all my chapter files into one long file to get a total word count on my novel. I know I'm going to delete one entire chapter (it doesn't add enough to keep it) and I'm considering changing where some chapters end, so who knows? I may have more cliffhangers by the time I'm done!

I do enjoy reading books with cliffhangers - they make me crazy, wanting to know what happens next, and keep me awake for hours reading them straight through. But not ever novel lends itself to the cliffhanger style.

Sidney Sheldon was the most translated author in the world? I thought JK Rowling held that honor these days. Ah, to get our own work in that lofty realm! (I do believe in dreaming big!)

Lynda


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Ray
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Depends on the circumstance. If the particular conflict is immediate, active, a cliffhanger ending will make me go on, because I expect it will be resolved soon or take a new twist.

If the scene is more passive, though, like a conversation about the larger conflict, or finishing an immediate task, I prefer that those things be resolved at the end. It's not the conversation that's interesting, but the larger story arc that it's concerned with, and not telling me the ending of it will put me off a little. It's not a deal-breaker, but I'd like a reason for why that scene wasn't finished with the chapter.


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Elan
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quote:
Sidney Sheldon was the most translated author in the world?

Sheldon's website has a timeline of his life and works. It specifies 1997 as the year he achieved that honor. I googled several references that claim the 2006 title of "Most Translated Author" belongs to L. Ron Hubbard.
The official Guiness World Record site doesn't have that particular record online for confirmation, and alas, I don't own a current edition of the book.

Request: Let's not turn this into a "L. Ron Hubbard" bashing, either. I'm primarily interested in who else uses the page turning device aforementioned.

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited February 04, 2007).]


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arriki
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There are lots of other neat ways to end than a cliffhanger.

You can end with a question.
If it wasn't George that Peter saw sneaking away from the house, who was it?

I crumpled up the letter and tossed it in the fire. So, I thought, now what?

Outside the ship lay the bitterly cold Martian night. Was there really life out there?

Or, a zinger.

"The senator knows all about it," she said and hung up.
I knew she was lying.

or how about a decision made but not revealed to the reader

"Where's the notebook?"
That had been John's original question, too.
"I don't XXXXXing know but I'm going to find out."
And I suddenly realized just who might know the answer.

I dropped the knife into the liquid. It fizzed and glowed. Now I knew for certain how the murderer had escaped.

[This message has been edited by arriki (edited February 04, 2007).]


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Survivor
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Well, I'm guessing that it's pretty rare to end any chapter but the final one with a resolution of the main dramatic tension of the book.
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hoptoad
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Correct me if I am misquoting, or out-of-contexting but, didn't OSC write that chapter-ification (okay, made up word) is basically arbitrary.

Perhaps it is, in the sense of the over-all story arc, but IMO whether you like it or not, most readers will use chapters as milestones--benchmarks for progress--in their reading. The end of a chapter is a 'natural' place to put down the book and go do something else.

I certainly think an author should design their chapters with a view to usefulness in propelling the story and encouraging the reader back as soon as possible.

Having said that, I also think that the 'cliff-hanger' should occur where it is natural for it to occur.

Related question: Who here have chapters that vary considerably in length?
Mine are often wildly different. One might be five pages long, the next might be 25 pages. Would that bug you as a reader?

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited February 04, 2007).]


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RMatthewWare
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When it comes to ending every chapter with a cliff-hanger or a zinger, it seems like there would be a lot of corny openings. I'm thinking of those old radio opera where the music gets really high, then you hear a commercial for vitavegamine.

What I do to keep the pace up is to have short chapters. My longest chapter might have ten pages. Generally they probably run six to seven. When I read a book I hate having to stop in the middle of a chapter and am annoyed when a chapter is twenty pages or more.

Matt


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rickfisher
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I don't ever try to end a chapter in a cliff-hanger, and I think that if you really make a deliberate effort to do that, you're likely to have "fake" cliff-hangers that don't have all that much to do with the story, and that get resolved in the first paragraph of the next chapter. This can get rather annoying after a while. (Remember "Goosebumps?")

However, when I'm re-chaptering, I do try to move my chapter endings to the more cliff-hangerish spots. As a result, while I try to keep my chapters in the vicinity of 2000 words, they do vary in length quite a bit. My shortest chapter so far is only 2 words (and those are really more a matter of formatting than part of the text).

I think fairly short chapters are at least as useful as cliff-hangers (given that the substance of the chapters propels the reader forward--and if it doesn't, why should the reader finish the chapter in the first place?). The biggest reasons to put the book down at the end of a chapter are (1) the book is boring, anyway, and that's a good place to give up on it, or (2) the next chapter is too long. I mean, even if it's 3:30 am and you have to get up and go to work in 3 hours, but the next chapter is only 8 pages, it won't make much difference to read just one more. But if the next chapter is 40 pages, well, then, that's a good place to stop even if the chapter ends in a cliff-hanger and it's only 10:30. If a boring chapter ends in a cliff-hangar, on the other hand--well, that kind of trick might work once or twice, but soon it will be seen as a trick, and who likes being tricked?

[This message has been edited by rickfisher (edited February 04, 2007).]


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Ray
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quote:
Well, I'm guessing that it's pretty rare to end any chapter but the final one with a resolution of the main dramatic tension of the book.

I think a cliffhanging chapter is one where the chapter ends but the scene doesn't. Say you have a scene where everybody's at a dinner party and something dramatic happens--the host's pants catch on fire--and the chapter ends with that. The next chapter goes on about how they put the fire out, the host has to go find something else to wear, and whatever else was happening at the dinner party finishes. The dinner party scene ends with that second chapter.

Whether a chapter ends with a question or finishes with a sudden revelation doesn't make it a cliffhanger as long as that that is the end of the scene. Given that not all chapters are complete scenes, and some can have more than one scene in them at a time, chapter placement is as arbitrary as hoptoad said.


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RMatthewWare
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I think you have to respect your reader. Like Rick said, cheap tricks only work so many times. If your reader sees that you're using them or playing games, they'll drop your book like the crap it is.

There are many styles in writing. It's good to learn from them, but it's bad to try to artificially imitate them. OSC was talking about Isaac Asimov in one of his books. He said that early in his career, Asimov tried to imitate one of his favorite authors, and did so poorly. So what he ended up doing was try to eliminate all style from his writing. As a result he created a style unique to himself. I just try to write as clear as I can and let my style emerge as it will. When you try to create a style, you bring attention to the writing and away from the story, which is a huge pet peeve of mine.

Matt


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Two comments:

Cliffhangers are not what make me keep reading a book, interesting writing, characters, plots, and ideas are.

I have read so many books, and done so much editing and critiquing that it is extremely rare when I can say any more that "I couldn't put it down" about a book. Nowadays the best thing along those lines that I can say about a book is that I am eager to get back to it. And any book that I don't HAVE to read (say, for one of the reading groups I belong to) that I am not eager to get back to is a book that I probably WON'T get back to, ever.


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rickfisher
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Right, Kathleen. All those things go together to make up the dramatic tension. So when Survivor said "it's pretty rare to end any chapter but the final one with a resolution of the main dramatic tension of the book," he meant (and I'd say "correct me if I'm wrong," Survivor, but I know you don't need an invitation ) that any point in a good book is effectively a cliff-hanger.

That said, proper chaptering can still be an aid in making a book harder to put down, because most readers do, in fact, try to pause in their reading at chapter breaks; and if that happens at moments of greater tension, and the next chapter is fairly short, well. . . .

Oh, and here's another thing--if you have a number of POVs going on, and end one chapter in a cliff-hanger . . . um, let me back up on this, because a something else needs to be addressed here. First, some people say they hate much switching around between different threads of a story. They're interested in these people, and don't want to read more about those people in order to get back to them. I've certainly read books where one (or more) such threads was dull compared to the other(s), and in that case I'd agree. But I've also read books where all the threads are equally interesting, and then I don't have that problem. I've also read books where, even though it was necessarily split into separate threads, it was always clear that all threads were part of the same story; I like those best of all. Yet I've also heard people say they really like bopping back and forth between different threads, and it doesn't seem to matter whether those threads are entwined or parallel, and whether all threads are equally interesting. So what follows should probably be interpreted depending on where you are on that scale.

If you have a number of POVs going on, and end one chapter in a cliff-hanger and start the next chapter in someone else's POV, it seems like a way to maintain the suspense over a longer period, but it's really the same as having a long chapter coming up. As soon as the reader realizes that the situation they left off with is not going to be resolved, or even addressed, for some time, then that makes this a good spot to put the book down.


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Lynda
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Hoptoad wrote: Who here have chapters that vary considerably in length?
Mine are often wildly different. One might be five pages long, the next might be 25 pages. Would that bug you as a reader?<<

Not necessarily. If the 25 page chapter was fascinating, I'd want MORE. Often the long chapters are expository, the short chapters action. For some bizarre reason, mine tend to be the opposite (and I don't know why - I may change them now that I've pretty much finished polishing and am about to start re-chaptering). I may have a battle spread over three chapters, and that isn't giving every blow, every hex, every wound, but it's covering what's happening to the heroes, who run across minor characters and have little "moments" with them (perhaps that minor character takes a hit for one of our heroes and dies with our hero beside him, or perhaps the minor character updates the hero on the status of the other fighters). I had a chapter that was 28 words long for a while, set in the villain's POV. One of my readers teaches writing at a college and said that a publisher wouldn't appreciate having to waste an entire page on that tiny chapter, so I stuck that bit on the end of the previous chapter. Was I wrong to do so? I dunno. You guys tell me now while I'm preparing to re-chapter, and it might make a difference!

Hoptoad - yes, my chapters range from one page to about 5000 words, averaging around 2000 most of the time. And as a reader, I actually prefer moderately long chapters to a lot of short ones. James Patterson's habit of putting a chapter on each page in some of his books makes me a wee bit nuts, but I do like his writing. And no, I don't think the chapter-per-page idea increases the pace. I think it just increases the annoyance factor and made me not enjoy the read as much. But that's just me. It's still a best-seller - but I get my books at the library most of the time, so at least I didn't pay for it, since it annoyed me!

Lynda


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kings_falcon
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I think the cliffhanger advice is very genre dependant. I know a lot of good mystery and thriller writers who do it and it works well. Da Vinci was a thriller. Lisa Scottoline who writes legal thrillers does it too. The genre is well suited to it. After all, who is rattling the door handle?

It does make for a fast paced book but outside the mystery/ thrillers it tends to annoy me because I find that the scenes aren't complete.

I had one version of my novel where I did end on cliffhangers but found that it meant breaking the narrative in places that made no sense. The chapters seemed gimmicky. I tend to end chapters where the scene or related scences in it natually end and sometimes that does leave a cliffhanger. If I care about the characters, I'll start the next chapter without the theatrics.

Chapter lengths vary too based on what's happening. I don't mind Christopher Moore's half page chapters, as long as there aren't too many and are complete and I don't mind longer chapters as long as the narrative moves.

quote:
Related question: Who here have chapters that vary considerably in length?

I do, I do. As a theory, no the varying chapters doesn't bother me. One rule of thumb I've heard is about 10 pages a chapter.


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kmckendry
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I have read some books where you could tell the author intentionally ended chapters with cliffhangers. I found that I'd tend to break reading mid-chapter at any type of break. Obviously this was not the intent of the author and I find that it reduces the reading pleasure and often I do not pick up other books by that author.

Keith


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Robert Nowall
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Appropos to this discussion: in the current issue of Locus, just in my mailbox today, there's an interview with John Barnes, where, in passing, he mentions that...

quote:
"every 25,000 words, Heinlein [in his juveniles] would paint his hero into a complete corner where the only reasonable conclusion was 'And then he died.' or something equally miserable. Then just as Our Hero stood with his back to the corner waiting to be killed or enslaved or eaten or whatever, he'd hit the reader with a Life of Brian moment---as in that spot in the movie where Brian falls from a high tower and suddenly lands on the back of an alien spaceship, there's five minutes of this pointless incomprehensible space battle, and then he's dumped back on the streets of Jerusalem. Of course in a Heinlein novel it would turn into a space opera for another 25,000 words until Our Hero was in some other corner, or it was time to tack on some quick lame ending for the book as a whole.

There's more to the discussion, but you get the gist of the argument. I sense John Barnes isn't overly fond of juvenile Heinlein. Also I'm not sure of the notions of "cliffhanger" and such apply in such even quantities---I can't remember how much wordage happened between the cliffangers I remember.


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Survivor
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kings_falcon makes a good point. The artificial "cliffhanger" works better in certain kinds of books than in others. Thrillers and mysteries often have a degree of uncertainty about exactly what must be accomplished before the main tension is resolved.

In Lord of the Rings, we know that Frodo has to get to Orodruin and throw the One Ring into the fire. At the same time, as he gets closer to Mt. Doom, the danger of discovery, capture, and total failure increases. As long as Tolkien keeps moving Frodo (and the Ring) towards the goal, we have a clear sense that each chapter will be more dramatic than the last. You can substitute Star Wars or whatever into that analysis, we can clearly see what has to be done (we've got to blow up the Death Star) as well as the increasing danger of failure as the story progresses.

In a mystery, the killer is usually right there in close proximity the whole time, the detective just has to find the right clues, but the reader doesn't know what those clues are or how many need to be discovered before the case will be solved. So it's harder to be constantly aware of the progress of the overall dramatic tension because we lack the information necessary to judge its progress. The same is often true of a thriller, in which we may not even understand the nature of the dramatic tension, the secret evil plot that must be thwarted, because it's a secret. So both mysteries and thrillers have much greater need of interim drama because the main drama consists of information that the characters don't have.


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rickfisher
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All this discussion was too much for me. I went and re-chaptered novel #2, even though I'm only halfway through (probably a waste of effort, at least if scenes get added, or things change enough in other ways that I have to do it again). But I noticed some things.

Probably the most important is that the end of a scene tends to be the moment of greatest tension in the scene. Generally, the purpose of each scene is to increase the overall dramatic tension of the book; once that's done, there's little point in continuing. So the best places to end a chapter seem to be when a scene is completed, if the scene is properly constructed. I don't know if I'd call these cliff-hangers--but I certainly hope they'll make the reader start the next chapter.

There are other possibilities. Sometimes a scene can end with a surprise. Often in this case the tension actually decreases, but the sudden new possibilities that the surprise opens up still evoke a "What's going to happen now?" response. (Ditto on the "cliff-hanger" remark above.)

At other times, especially if a scene is long, I want to cut it in the middle somewhere (if I can find a place that doesn't seem hokey, or simply puzzling). Often, in these cases, it's when the tension is actually at an ebb. That doesn't bother me, if it isn't too frequent. In fact, as a reader, I like to hit occasional spots where it's not so hard to put the book down. I need the break. And once I've divided the scene there, I may even decide to insert other scenes in between.

Anyway, in re-chaptering, the current half-book went from 19 to 24 chapters, and they range in length from 1194 to 2212 words, with an average of about 1700.


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franc li
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I've often cursed OSC's seeming ability to end chapters in a cliff-hanger, or otherwise accused him of writing the book and then moving all the chapter breaks back a page to keep you going. My husband says I'm crazy.
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Zero
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I agree strongly with what KDW said. A cliff hanger, like in a TV series or an amateur book, they might make me really want to continue... for a couple of days. But without engaging characters I lose interest quickly and once I do, I'm never coming back. If the characters are good enough I don't care about the cliff-hanger moments, I care about the characters' development and interaction.

[This message has been edited by Zero (edited February 07, 2007).]


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