Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cliffhangers versus Resolution

It's a difficult job for a writer to know how to draw a reader in and tease them just enough where they want more, but not so often that you get written off as only a flirt who can't come to completion.  Twin Peaks and Lost were notorious for always ending on a cliffhanger and never resolving anything.  Eric Kripke, the creator of Supernatural, on the other hand, never let a storyline go past a season and a half.  In his words, audiences want to get some closure along the way.

This is challenging for me, and I suspect it is for a lot of you as well.  Don't provide enough leading tension, and people will put our books away as boring.  String people along too long, and they'll throw your book away in frustration that they never seem to reach the end.

Most of my chapters leave just enough unresolved tension so that the reader will turn to the next one.  However, I recognize that there are storylines that, while important, simply aren't going to be vital to the final chapter.  The reader wants closure, but you can't wrap up five storylines at once, so you have to do so within the body of the work every so often.  I use a ratio of around five to one - I'll leave one chapter resolved for every five that create tension.  This allows readers to take a breath and not be completely exhausted by the end of the book.

Speaking of the end of the book, this also applies to entire storylines.  I don't personally care for many stories that go beyond the level of trilogy.  Yes, there may be the iconic character who you can do a whole bunch of things down the road with, but even in such instances, story arcs should be complete by the third book.  I think on the Thrawn Trilogy within the expanded Star Wars Universe and how Timothy Zahn wrapped everything up, even while leaving the world intact to revisit later should he choose to do so.  However, I didn't walk away from that trilogy feeling like I had unresolved questions, so it was a satisfying read.

William Fortschen made, in my opinion, a classic mistake with a book he wrote about a decade ago - Down to the Sea.  He took a storyline that had wrapped up from The Lost Regiment series, and he began a new adventure within it.  The world was open enough to do this, so there should have been no problem.  However, he abandoned the series - there have been no new books since, even though numerous plot points have yet to be completed.

A few authors have done this - they've written a storyline that people got invested in, led them into tension, and then never gone back.  It's one thing if you've read the most current work in a series and are just waiting for the next one to come out, but it's quite another if it's been six years and you can see the writer has no intention of delving back into the world, and this is maddening.

I know we have innumerable stories spinning through our heads - entire worlds that go on regardless of whether the story has been written or not.  However, readers aren't given a cable that hooks directly into our psyche, so they need these things to come out.  And unlike real life, they want them to come to a conclusion.  Why?  Because it provides a sense of order and happiness in their lives, qualities not always present in the real world, so people turn to stories for comfort.

It's okay to draw people in and find ways to push them into new stories.  However, you can't always flirt and never close the deal; people will eventually leave.  And we definitely don't want that to happen.

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