When I think of writing a serial novel the first craft challenge that presents itself is the cliffhanger. Cliffhangers are a story device designed to make readers come back. “Who Shot JR?” the “Dallas” TV show’s most well-known cliffhanger was a summertime question of my youth. In my favorite soap, “All My Children,” each Friday brought some sort of cliffhanger for one of the plot lines.
Some authors use mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter of their standalone books. During an analysis of Stephanie Meyer’s “The Host,” for an unrelated craft investigation, I noticed how often she would split a scene across a chapter right at the climax point in order to create a cliffhanger from chapter to chapter.
Emily Naussbaum reports in the New Yorker: “Cliffhangers are sensational... (they are) primal and unashamedly manipulative.” Here, here, I say, bring ‘em on. Manipulate me.
There is nothing more juicy than a cliffhanger. If I can get a reader on the edge of their seat just dying to turn the page or wait for the next installment – well that would be alright with me!
When I need to learn something I turn to a book, or a model, as I prefer to call it when I'm in research mode. I've been reading serials and decided to dig into the cliffhangers of Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” and Margaret Atwood’s “Positron” to see if I could see what the big authors do with their end of episode cliffhangers.
I’m going to rate the cliffhangers on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being that you absolutely have to turn the page to find out what happens next.
SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE PLOT OF “THE GREEN MILE” OR “POSITRON”
First let me say that “The Green Mile” was written in 1996 and was an experiment to see how Stephen King’s fans would react to serial fiction. This was before ebooks and before the resurrection of the serial. I found his book to be more of a traditional book than a serialized one.
The Green Mile
I had seen the movie, “The Green Mile,” so I already knew the plot but I wanted to read the book to see how King wrote it in episodic fashion. Here is a summary of the cliffhangers by episode:
Episode 1: 54 pages long. Toward the end of Episode One, Paul, the protagonist, and Brutal, one of the prison guards, have found a hole where a mouse, Mr. Jingles, had hidden some peppermint candies and some colored splinters of wood from a spool. Mr. Jingles was the pet of the now-executed prisoner Delacroix, who gave the mouse the candies and had him fetch the spool. Apparently, Delacroix was badly executed by the villain and both Brutal and Paul decide they can’t be guards of the Green Mile any longer. They can't watch any more prisoners be executed. The last line of the episode is: “John Coffey will be the last.” We've already gotten a bit of Coffey’s story and a bit of Delacroix’s story. Episode One serves to set up a frame for us to find out in detail what happened to both of those prisoners. In a straight novel, this is a great setup. As far as cliffhangers go, I’d rate this with a one. (See below for what might have worked better.)Maximize the Structure
Episode 2: 60 pages long. The end of this episode shows a violent prisoner who has one of the guards in a stranglehold and is dying in front of Paul’s eyes. The prisoner sees that Paul has a gun and turns the guard toward it, “so that I’d almost certainly have to hit one to hit the other. From over Dean’s shoulder, one blazing blue eye dared me to shoot.” This one gets a four and a half rating from me. Does he shoot? Does the guard die? I want to know.
Episode 3: 62 pages long. The prisoner Delacroix is to be executed the next day and is worried about what will happen to his mouse, Mr. Jingles. The guards lie and tell him they’ll take Mr. Jingles to a fictional place called Mouseville in Florida, where he’ll spend his time entertaining people with his tricks. Delacroix throws the spool for Mr. Jingles to fetch and it takes a bad bounce and ends up on The Green Mile, the corridor running between the cells. The villain, another guard, who has been trying to kill the mouse, finally gets his chance and he stomps on it. The last line: “He turned and walked back up the Green Mile, not hurrying, leaving Mr. Jingles lying on the linoleum in a spreading pool of his own blood.” That’s a solid five. We love Mr. Jingles. He can’t be dead. You have to fix this!
Episode 4: 57 pages long. Paul has come up with an idea to smuggle John Coffey out of prison to help the warden’s wife. The guards are debating whether it’s a good idea or not. They are afraid Coffey might make a run for it. He's a giant of a man and in jail because of a violent crime. But Paul assures the other guards Coffey's not going to try to escape. They want to know how Paul can be so sure. We know that Paul has discovered something about Coffey. Paul begins to tell the guards how he knows with the promise of the rest of the information to come in the next episode. Meh. This gets a two from me.
Episode 5: 63 pages. The guards are bringing Coffey back from the warden’s house where he has helped the warden’s wife. Coffey is weak and almost falls off the truck. He’s coughing and the guards are afraid they are going to get caught sneaking the prisoner back into jail. The last line is: “As it turned out, our evening was far from over.” A promise for what’s to come. Manufactured to tantalize me into wanting to know. Another mediocre cliffhanger – a three from me. I care about Coffey and I know he gets executed so I would read the last episode but the episode ending didn't leave me dying to read it.
So what’s the difference between these episode endings? The end of episode two and episode three contain the possibility of irreversible change, whereas the other episode endings, while interesting, don’t have the same zip. They don’t end on an action scene and they’re promises that more information will be revealed in the next segment. They appeal to my curiosity, not my need to know.
I also see there's a “care about the character factor” at work in episode endings. By the end of the first episode, the care factor isn't that high. In a classic King move, during the episode, he writes a violent prisoner introduced to the death row jail. Sets up the reader for what the guards face bringing a prisoner into the Green Mile. A bit later King brings in John Coffey, who, while he is a giant of a man who could easily overpower the guards, is gentle. His eyes are different. And the only question he has for Paul is: do they leave the lights on at night? Because he doesn't like the dark.
We care about Coffey right away (King is so good at that). So it would have been an excellent build toward the last line of “John Coffey would be the last.” End of episode. Boom. The gentle giant will be put to death and our protagonist is going to have to do it. And then he'll never do another execution again. You'd have to turn the page, right? Why does Coffey have to die? Why can't you save him? You have to save him.
However, that's not how episode one is written. There's a whole segment between Coffey's question about the dark and the last line. That segment, while good, interesting and necessary, dissipates the build toward the last line. It does set up the suspense about Mr. Jingles, about Delacroix's bad execution and that the story to come will show why Paul and Brutal have to get out of this game. Great standalone writing to be sure. But maybe serial episodes require a bit of a different structure.
Next we’ll look at the first three episodes of “Positron,” Margaret Atwood’s serial. (Episode 4 has been released but I haven’t had time to buy it yet. I guess that says something, right?)
Episode 1: 31% of the 3-episode ebook. Stan has become obsessed by a note he found in a home which he and his wife, Charmaine, inhabit every other month with another couple they've never met. In a dystopian future, many people live in jail for a month and then live out in the world for a month to save on resources. Great concept. It’s a good book. The note Stan finds has a lipstick print on it and is signed Jasmine. Clearly a love note. Clearly, Jasmine is everything Charmaine is not. So Stan decides he is going to get a glimpse of Jasmine the next time they change places with the other couple. At the end of the episode he finds out Jasmine is really Charmaine who is having an affair with Phil, the man who takes Stan’s place every other month. She left the note for him. Stan has been caught snooping by Phil’s wife, Jocelyn. Jocelyn is security for the new order, a muckety-muck who can easily eliminate Stan if she wants. But she wants revenge. So she takes Stan as her new mate. There’s no way out for him. Irreversible change; I’ll give it a four.When I compare these two books with some of my favorite TV shows that make good use of cliffhangers, they come up a little short. Ever watch “24?” Or “Breaking Bad?” Or “The Walking Dead?” Some episode endings are better than others, to be sure, but most fall into the “irreversible change” category rather than the “stay tuned for more info” category. Many are jaw-dropping surprise twists. Clearly manipulating me and that's why I love them.
Episode 2: 32% of the book. By the end of episode two, Jocelyn has tired of Stan, who has been keeping up a good front. Jocelyn says it’s time for him to go. She has arranged for Stan's wife, Charmaine, who’s been in jail these few months, to get her old job back. Charmaine puts unwanted or misbehaving people to sleep. For good. The next procedure she will perform, Jocelyn tells Stan, will be on him. Stan is convinced Charmaine will never do it. But Jocelyn tells Stan that it will really be fake; they want him on the outside of the system so he can do a job for them. He’s stuck again. Jocelyn sticks Stan with a needle and he passes out. Pretty good cliffhanger. I’ll give it a four. But wouldn’t it have been better if it ended with Stan on the table and Charmaine standing above him with the reader asking the question of whether she would actually do it or not? I'm just saying.
Episode 3: 33% of the book. Charmaine does kill her husband, as far as she knows. Remember they fake all this. Afterwards, Stan gets smuggled out and Charmaine is "asked" to go to the the medical facility. She can't say no. She gets into a car they send for her, and Phil (Jocelyn's husband) is driving, but he pretends not to remember her. Now she believes they are trying to erase her. Now she will have to keep her wits about her if she wants to lead any kind of life in this system. The last line here is: “She’s on her own.” Not a great cliffhanger, as cliffhanger’s go. It’s a mirror of Stan’s ending in episode one. It gets a three from me.
So in your serial, should you shoot for all episode endings to have an irreversible change? End in action? Be a surprise? Would that be too much? Too predictable? Too far into the realm of Snidely Whiplash standing over Nell Fenwick, who's tied to the tracks with the train coming? But if you don't, how do you get the reader to come back?
Any advice on episode endings you'd like to share while I'm rewriting?
To read Part 3, click here.
About the Author: Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach and founder of The Writing Ranch. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.