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The Art of the Cliffhanger

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Every genre novel is a novel of suspense. The literary novelist desires the reader to ask, "What does it mean?" The genre novelist wishes more than anything to hear the reader ask, "And then what happened?"

There are different ways to state the latter question. In thrillers, the natural question goes something like: "And then did he live?" or "How did he get out of that life-threatening mess?" In mysteries it is: "And then did he find the truth?" In sci-fi: "And then who prevailed?" In romance: "And then did she get the guy?"

Suspense is defined most simply as leaving someone hanging in anticipation of the next thing, and that happens a lot in good storytelling of all genres. Book marketers, however, tend to associate the word more narrowly with a sense of danger to the protagonist (or someone the protagonist loves), and therefore they typically apply it to books in the thriller, horror, and, with increasing frequency, mystery categories.

But writers and readers needn't think that way. Suspense more broadly defined appears among the inner workings of nearly every successful novel with commercial intentions.

Why is this so in genre fiction more than literary or experimental? Because the genre author concerns herself more than anything else with what works for readers. It's only a small exaggeration to say that, as a practical matter, the literary novelist shoots for indirect compensation for her efforts -- in the form of awards, tenure, or critical praise. The genre novelist, by contrast, wishes more than anything for her work to put food on the table. Between intention and outcome many unforeseen things can happen, but intentions do matter.

Thus when the genre novelist finds a technique that works -- that gets readers regularly to ask what happens next; in other words, to get them to turn the pages -- she's inclined to stick with it. In fact, if she's smart she's inclined to employ that technique as often as possible until it stops working.

And at least since folklorists wrote the frame story featuring Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights (first published in English in 1706), the cliffhanger has never stopped working. It is an archetypal story element that appeals to something so deeply seated in the human mind that we can scarcely resist it even when it's executed with egregious disregard for our suspension of disbelief. All it requires is that we already care about what happens next to a character in the story. With that established, a full-on cliffhanger ramps up the dramatic tension exponentially by breaking the narrative chain.

A cliffhanger raises the stakes and then leaves that part of the story in a state of incompletion. Having brought the protagonist to the precipice, the author abandons him there. In a book or movie, the author or director moves to another subject, time or place. In a serialization -- book or television -- it may only involve a chasm in real time, the story picking up weeks or months later from exactly where it left off.

In any case, the cliffhanger is a rather blatant manipulation, because it's akin to physically removing one part of the story from another. Where the logical progression of the novel calls for us to find out what happens next in the protagonist's very particular situation -- hanging from the cliff, proverbially or otherwise -- the author, like a croupier with a rake, pulls the conclusion just out of reach.

In an essay in The New Yorker about television cliffhangers, the critic Emily Nussbaum writes that "cliffhangers are fake-outs. They reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing. If you trust the creator, you take that dare, and keep going."

Why do such a thing? Because the reader wants to be entertained and that entertainment derives, at least in part, from a sense of uncertainty. The longer that uncertainty prevails, the more likely we are to stick with the story, thus allowing time for other plot complications to catch up.

The trust that Nussbaum references forms, perhaps, the most important part of the equation.

I like to think of storytelling as a series of contracts between author and reader. For example, the author sets certain rules in a novel that may or may not be based upon reality. So long as he applies those rules consistently, all other things being equal he has the reader's attention. But if he changes the rules mid-stream for his own convenience, he breaks that trust and will lose the reader.

Similarly, the cliffhanger requires fulfillment of a contractual obligation. If the author asks his reader to turn his attention away from the situation that he just artificially fractured, he must at some point in future let us know what happened. A reader who trusts the author to do this will stick with the story to find out. But if a reader believes in her heart that the author will break that contract, attention flags.

The term cliffhanger derives from a now-forgotten novel by Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes, which was published serially by Tinsley's Magazine in 1873. I confess that I haven't read it, but apparently at the end of one installment the protagonist ends up literally hanging from a cliff, only to be rescued by his lover during the next installment.

The most powerful cliffhanger in fictional history may have come 32 years before the term was coined, when fans rioted on a New York dock while awaiting delivery of a new installment of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. The prior installment had left off with Little Nell gravely ill, and desperate fans were shouting at sailors on the boat from England to learn whether she had given up the ghost.

In modern times, of course, those cliffhangers making the broadest impression upon our culture come from television. With books fighting for eyeballs in a distracting world, they must stake every claim on the reader's attention that they can manage. That's why cliffhangers in novels have a more critical role to play than ever.

J.E. Fishman is the author of the upcoming book THE DARK POOL.