Thursday, May 28, 2015

Leaving Them Hanging

In my youth, I loved professional wrestling.  These were the days of the Monday Night Wars between WCW and WWE(sorry, hardcore fans, but I never counted ECW).  Yes, WWE eventually came out on top, but many forget that it was WCW that ruled the roost for a while.

One of the best things WCW did was leaving everyone pining for just a bit more.  As the nWo angle created suspense, each episode would end with a cliffhanger of some kind - wrestlers would be entering the ring as the screen faded to black, or some new surprise appearance would happen just as the credits began to roll.  It always frustrated me, but it also achieved its purpose - making me long for the next week to hurry up and get here so I could see what would happen next.

A good book is similar - it gives us just enough to let us know that what's going on is exciting, but it also leaves us wanting just a bit more.  We get so invested in the story that we frantically flip through the pages, always wondering what will happen next.

While this is great, so long as interest can be maintained, it does lead to one big problem - nothing ever gets resolved.  This can frustrate readers to no end.  Twin Peaks and Lost were notorious for always leaving cliffhangers and never resolving issues.  A good storyteller understands that readers will put up with this for a while because he or she is so invested in what you wrote.  However, they want there to eventually be some sort of payoff.

J. Michael Straczynski got this when he declared during Babylon 5 that no issue could go more than two seasons without resolution.  This allowed him to build in the cliffhangers that would drive folks crazy even though they knew that they'd eventually gain closure.

Since we become so invested in our characters, sometimes feeling as if they're members of our family, we want good things to happen for them in the end.  It can be exhausting to always have things a breath away from a climax yet never really get there.  This is the trap that we, as writers, must avoid.  Any novel that is a "stand-alone" has to resolve itself, and the author needs to stand by that resolution.  A series should go for no more than three books on the same theme(sure, you can write many novels in the same universe, but no one story should be more than a trilogy).  This lets our readers catch their breath, gain closure, and move on.

Some folks might enjoy the breakneck, never ending drama of leaving readers hanging, but, sooner or later, they'll just throw you away in disgust.  You may feel vindicated in some sick way, but you'll be feeling it alone, for all your readers will eventually abandon you.

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