Earning Your Cliffhangers

Screen Junkies’ recent video on the Top Ten TV Show Cliffhangers got me thinking about the cliffhanger as a storytelling mechanism.  As classic a move as it is, it’s still risky.  Done well it can be game-changing; done poorly, it plays as a cheap trick.

Let’s say you’re the IT guy in your average American corporate workplace.  The dress code is business casual, which translates to the same pleated J.C. Penney khakis and button down shirts responsible for the downfall of sartorial standards for the modern American male.  After years of reading GQ on the toilet at home, you finally get up the courage to wear a suit to work.  So you show up Monday with a Mens Wearhouse special and, to your surprise, everybody asks you who died.  When they find out that you didn’t go to a funeral that morning and that, in fact, you wore a suit to work because you think you’re that awesome, the heckling begins, and suddenly you’re known throughout the company as the Duke of Fucking Windsor.

It’s not that the IT guy can’t pull off wearing a suit to work.  It’s that in addition to doing it with dead-certain confidence and a healthy dash of style, he’s got to lay a foundation first.  He can’t just bust in looking all Mad Men–or, worse, looking all Rudy Giuliani–and expect to start getting propositioned over the Keurig machine.  He’s got to start slow, go from pleated to flat-front–make the jump from Sketchers to Florsheim before he tries on the Aldens.  Spend more than ten dollars on a haircut and buy some socks that aren’t white.  That way, when he finally does work up to the slim-fit, double-vented Milan-cut suit with a handmade linen pocket square, he’s given people some time to adjust.  Then instead of guffaws, he gets jealous whispers.

OK, maybe that’s unrealistic.  Chances are you’re still going to be the Duke of Fucking Windsor.  But my point is, you need to earn a cliffhanger, just like you need to earn sartorial respect.

Screen Junkies made a great list, and I suggest you watch it.  I’m going to disagree slightly with them on one, however.  Battlestar Galactica (the reboot) has a number of great cliffhangers, but my favorite comes at the end of season one.  You already know what I’m talking about: the Galactica and the human fleet are still at Kobol, trying to decide between colonizing it and continuing the search for Earth.  Commander Adama has just ordered President Roslin arrested for treason, after she secretly convinced Starbuck to steal the captured Cylon Raider and return to Caprica for the Arrow of Apollo.  The Cylons have caught up to the survivors over Kobol, and battle ensues.  In a daring attack, Boomer (the Galactica iteration), lands her raptor on the Cylon Basestar and destroys it, after learning once and for all that she is indeed a Cylon.  She returns to Galactica, where Adama holds out his hand to congratulate her.  Her Cylon programming taking over, she takes out her weapon and fires two rounds into Adama’s torso.  Cut to credits.

BSG 1x13

It’s an incredible scene.  But much like the related action of killing off characters, it’s only powerful because of the strong foundation that the writers have laid.  A lot of dramatic tension and characterization over the course of a whole season of television went into creating that scene.  It works because of the general excellence of the storytelling: we feel for these people, we’re horrified at what they’ve survived; we’re rooting for them despite overwhelming odds.  We’ve also become very invested in these characters.  Commander Adama is the valiant, wise military commander we all hope would be in charge in circumstances like this: a man bred for war, a man whose flaws make him a bad family man but a great general.  He’s pulled the dregs of humanity out of the fire time and time again, and always made it look easy, always kept it together.  He’s a father figure for the entire crew of the Galactica, for all of humanity, really: he can be hard and determined and unforgiving, but he can also be compassionate and self-analytical when necessary.  He’s not afraid to admit it when he’s made a mistake.  It feels a lot of the time, watching the first season, that Adama is holding things together single-handedly.  And then one of his own officers puts him on the ground.

We’re left wondering whether Adama survives.  It’s shocking, and traumatic, and creates a feeling of desperation and hopelessness in the viewer: where do we go from here?  How can we go on without Adama?  Who else has the grit to get the job done?  Ron Moore and his team earned that cliffhanger.  They established Adama as a person, someone we’d fear to lose, and then, in true expert style, took him away from us.

But what if it had been Colonel Tigh that Boomer gunned down?  Sure, Tigh’s a great character too; in the first season in particular, he’s one of those guys you love to hate.  A useless drunk who’s not qualified for his rank or position.  If he’d been blown away you’d probably have thought: eh.  No great loss.  Moore and co. took away our favorite character at a vital point in the story, and gave us no indication of whether or how he’d survive.  And, importantly, it left us wanting more than simply to know the answer: it left us wanting to see and experience the aftermath.  Does Adama survive?  How?  What does he do afterward?  What are the consequences for him, for Boomer, for humanity?

Conversely, when cliffhangers don’t work, it’s a much less visceral experience.  George R. R. Martin has written some great cliffhangers, but he’s also written some crappy ones.  It’s a danger of overusing the form: eventually you’re going to miss.


The example that comes to mind with Martin is the way he leaves Arya Stark’s character at the end of A Feast for Crows.  Having fled Westeros for Braavos, Arya comes to the House of Black and White to train as an assassin.  She essentially gives up her identity as Arya Stark and becomes Cat of the Canals.  That old identity asserts itself, however, when she runs into Dareon, sworn brother of the Night’s Watch and erstwhile traveling companion of Samwell Tarly, who is on his way to Oldtown to become a maester.  Presuming that he’s abandoned his post on the Night’s Watch, she kills him as punishment.  She returns to the House of White and Black and is given a glass of milk to drink.  She wakes up the next morning blind.

Admittedly, A Feast for Crows isn’t Martin’s best work.  And there are logistical reasons why the book ends as it does: due to the problems surrounding the writing of Crows and its sequel A Dance with Dragons, what was originally one large book was split into two smaller ones.  So it is entirely possible that Arya’s ending changed as a result of the years-long editing process.  That said, when we finally learn what happened to Arya in Dragons, the result is fairly anticlimactic.

It turns out the potion only made her blind temporarily, as punishment for her transgression.

Now, maybe it’s just me; maybe other readers thought this was a great cliffhanger.  Maybe it’s just that the years between Crows and Dragons created an artificial sense of importance that wasn’t intended to be attached to Arya’s blindness.  But the way it felt to me was Martin was messing with us, and not in a fun way.  He left us thinking Arya might be blind forever, only to come back years later in the sequel and essentially say “oh, yeah, that was totally just a red herring.  She was blind for a few days.”

That’s not a cliffhanger I can get behind.  That’s a cliffhanger for the sake of having a cliffhanger.  That’s a cliffhanger that might be acceptable between two episodes in the middle of a TV show season, but not one that I find acceptable between two major volumes of a large work.

The good news about cliffhangers is that readers have an excellent nose for bullshit: they know when they’ve been played and when being left hanging actually serves the story.

So remember, writers: earn your cliffhangers.  Don’t taunt your audience.  Look what happened with Lost.

What are some of your favorite cliffhangers?  Which worked, and which didn’t?  Why or why not?

Christopher Nolan on Obsession

The Tribeca Film Festival is happening right now in New York (it goes through the 26th), and The Hollywood Reporter has some great coverage of the event and its various panels, one of which involved a discussion on filmmaking with Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher).

There were two moments in particular that I enjoyed reading about.  While discussing the difficulty in maintaining creative direction over a studio film, Nolan talked about some advice given to him by Steven Soderbergh and having the courage to do your own thing:

“You have to get out there and find a place for yourself,” he explained. “You have to make your own rules. You have to figure out what’s going to work for you…. That’s the thing he taught me, is that you’re on your own and you have to get out there and make it work.”

Nolan made his own rules when he was writing the script for Memento, attributing the film’s mind-bending storytelling approach to him just disregarding the rules.

“It’s the classic example of something interesting that can come about when you don’t know what you’re doing,” Nolan said when Miller asked how one writes a script like that. “You’re starting out and you think, ‘Why are there all these rules? Why do people take screenwriting courses? Why can’t you just write the movie you want to see as it would appear on the screen?’ “

Later, when asked about his fears going forward, he said:

“My biggest fear is embarking on a project that you lose faith in or fall out of love with,” he said. “There’s a huge investment of time [in a film], and the biggest fear is that I’d get halfway through and think, ‘No, this isn’t something I really care about anymore.’ So before I embark on a project, I just have to test it, however I test it, by writing drafts, by just living with it and really trying to dive into it. You have to be sure that you’re going to be as happy, as obsessed with this film two-and-a-half, three years later as you are the day you commit to it.”

Christopher Nolan is a great role model for aspiring artists of any genre or medium, because he epitomizes an ideal balance between mainstream appeal and artistic integrity.  He tells stories that move and excite people and that appeal to a diverse audience without sacrificing his artistic vision or dumbing down his subject.

His fear of losing interest in a project he’s working on likely hit home with many artists, particularly writers.  Writing is the art of the long con, a marathon not a sprint, and it’s important to be able to gauge how in love with an idea you are before embarking on the process of turning it into a real thing.  Even when you find an idea you love consistently, there will undoubtedly be times when you need to bolster your enthusiasm–when you’ll need to sit back and remind yourself of why you wanted to write this particular story in the first place.  When you’ll need to take a break and regain some of that lost passion.  This can happen to anyone at any time.  With that in mind, it’s obviously best if, like Nolan, you only put your creative effort behind the projects that really grab you.  The ones you can’t let go of.  The ones you’re obsessed with.

With art, obsession can be a good thing.

‘A Locking Door’ Shortlisted for ‘The Liar’s Key’ Writing Contest

22852698ThatThornGuy.com, Mark Lawrence’s “unofficial” website, is hosting a writing contest to promote The Liar’s Key, the second book of his The Red Queen’s War trilogy.

The contest rules were simple: write a piece of flash fiction no longer than 300 words including both the words “liar” and “key.”  No other parameters specified.  (This is the second iteration of this contest, the first being for The Prince of Fools.)  The fiction would be judged by authors T. Frohock, Myke Cole, T.O. Munro, David Jackson, Fantasy Faction Overlord Marc Aplin, and Mark Lawrence himself.  The prize would be a signed ARC of The Liar’s Key, graciously provided by ACE Books.

I submitted a piece titled “A Locking Door,” which, to my delighted surprise, was selected for the top ten out of 105 entries.  Here it is:

A Locking Door
By James Cormier

Chloe checked the door again, the knob warm in her hand, careful not to jostle it. She’d never seen doors like these before they moved, heavy things with glass knobs and worn brass plates, each with its own tarnished skeleton key. Old keys, like Chloe’s, that squealed in dry locks that drove heavy old bolts into neat slots cut into the heavy wooden jambs.

Her mother had pressed it into her small hand after she’d told her, her mouth firm. Chloe was a good girl, and almost a young woman, now. Good girls locked their doors at night and didn’t talk about those things. Good girls were quiet as mice.

Chloe listened through the storybook keyhole and heard the TV downstairs, along with the clatter of dishes under the running faucet and the clink of his glass on the table. If you told anyone, he’d said, after the first time, they’d just think you were making it up. You don’t want people to think you’re a liar, do you? You know what God does to liars. He only said it that once. She chewed at a fingernail, peeling off a half-moon shred and hissing when it bled.

She’d locked the door during a loud commercial, when he’d gone to the bathroom, flinching at every squeak from the lock. It would be worse if he caught her doing it. Chloe waited another minute, just to be sure, then got into bed with her jeans on. She listened to the hissing, clanking radiator and squeezed her key until it hurt. She opened her hand and felt the key-shaped mark in her palm. When she started to nod off, she slipped the key into its spot under her mattress to keep it safe and waited for morning.

My heartfelt thanks to Mr. Lawrence, Agnes of ThatThornGuy.com, and all of the judges and participants.

The Death of the Editor-Author Relationship

A few thoughts on the traditional relationship between authors and their editors, compared to what we seem to have today.  Imperfect and flawed, I admit; I was trying to get some ideas out.  There have certainly been more intelligent things written about this subject.

Scott Lynch on Depression

Relentless Reading has a wonderful, honest interview with Scott Lynch, author of the Gentlemen Bastards Sequence, in which he talks frankly about his struggles with depression and their effect on his life and his writing:

Depression’s not a weird thing, it’s a fucking normal thing. It’s by definition not healthy, but it’s healthy to talk about it and admit that it happens.

And it’s important to know that it’s not going to stop your life and it’s not going to stop you.

Also: World of Warcraft, LARPing, Skyrim, and more.

Classical Music for Writing

I present to you my playlist of classical music for writing.  As you can tell, I prefer comparatively lively classical music, especially when listening to it for inspiration.


The Creativity Threshold: A Few Words on Writer’s Block

The Art of Remodeling

“Do construction workers feel this tired every night?” I asked my wife, after the fourth straight day of installing our new kitchen.

No, I haven’t disappeared into the dark, dripping wilderness–well, actually, I sort of have.  I’ve taken a couple of weeks off to remodel our house, which includes assembling a certified shit-ton of Ikea furniture and installing a bunch of cabinets.  Oh, and then there’s the flooring that came yesterday, and the plumbing work for the sinks….

Taking a break from writing does have its upsides.  For one thing, 12 hours a day with a drill set and a measuring tape do give the mind time to wander (except when I have to do math, which requires painful, brain-numbing focus that leaves me wanting to take a nap).  A major plot element of The Book of Ever crystallized for me while doing my weekend warrior thing, which will speed along the writing of the two sequels to Exile.  For another thing, 12 hours a day on one’s hands and knees, drilling, hammering, sawing, measuring, and lifting gives one an unprecedented appreciation for the comparatively luxurious idleness of a day spent writing fiction.

One also begins to appreciate odd things that might otherwise go unremarked upon.  The peaceful, quiet companionship of the few solitary wanderers who populate Home Depot on rainy Tuesday nights.  The compelling satisfaction of realizing that one might be ready for a larger toolbox, that the poetic process of acquiring tools over a lifetime of home ownership has reached the end of its beginning.  The realization that one is no longer entirely unskilled at home maintenance and repair–that one knows how to patch a hole in a sheetrock wall, and how to install a faucet, and how to mill out a replacement part for the Ikea base cabinet that one broken by kneeling on the wrong part.

There is lots of writing not being done, and lots of episodes of Arrow building up in Netflix, and Guardians of the Galaxy is just waiting, temptingly, on On Demand.  But it will wait.

Life goes on, gentle readers; make sure to have a hammer handy.

My Writing Process, In Bullet Points

Truman Capote wrote supine, with coffee (or sherry) and a cigarette.  Which was the least interesting thing about him.
Truman Capote wrote supine, with coffee (or sherry) and a cigarette. Which was the least interesting thing about him.

I’ve been thinking about writing process a lot lately.  Whenever I’m between large projects or still in a “soft” phase (see below), the process by which I write fiction becomes more present to me than it is when I’m writing one thing determinedly.

Victoria Schwab talked today about “cook time,” a concept which, as obvious as it seems, hadn’t occurred to me before in the context of writing a book, and which actually applies rather aptly to my own process:

I have what I call a long “cook time.” This means that once I get an idea, I let it simmer on the back burner for months, if not years. One of the reasons I do this is because I’m usually working on something else, but the larger reason is that I want to make sure it’s not just a random idea, but something worth pursuing. By the time I take it off the back burner, IF I do, I am fairly confident that it’s not only something I can write, but something I can FINISH. Once I took a project off the back burner, and it turned out it wasn’t quite ready, so I put it back, but once I’ve started to actually write, I’ve never quit a book.

This is almost me, with one exception: I often start writing things that I’m not able to finish right away, because the idea in question hasn’t had sufficient cook time.  So I suppose I’m not as patient as Ms. Schwab, but the overall idea is the same: book ideas, by which I mean world-building, plot character, setting, etc., all percolate in the back of my mind for months and years before I even contemplate starting to write.

The false starts I sometimes have aren’t entirely useless, though.  Often the act of sitting down and writing out the beginning of a story (it’s usually the beginning) acts as a sort of threshold test for the idea as a whole: can I write about this?  Is this something that I could conceivably turn into a full story, or is this a passing whim, a throwaway idea, a piece of micro-fiction at best?

Talking about one’s writing process is usually only useful for the person doing the talking, since everyone’s process is different, but most of us interested in the craft nonetheless find it fascinating.  With that in mind, here’s a few facts about my writing process, in bullet points, because for my purposes bullet points are more useful than a narrative:

  • Contrary to what is apparently one of the most-asked questions at writers’ panels, coming up with ideas has never been a problem for me.  I’ve got more ideas for books than you could shake a lightsaber at.  It’s choosing between them that’s hard.
  • The spark of an initial idea is hard to describe–it strikes you like a little electric shock, and you have to go write it down.
  • I write all of my good ideas down, in the form they came to me, in one of my many notebooks.  There’s a good argument to be made that “if it’s a good idea, you’ll remember it anyway,” but nonetheless I like jotting down some notes about the details when it comes to me.
  • It’s from there that the “cooking” phase begins: the idea zooms around in my head like a pinball, dinging against other ideas, setting off lights and buzzers, combining with things, knocking things out of the way.  Eventually, to mix metaphors, it begins to snowball, changing into a steadily growing kernel of a book.
  • Cook time ranges from months to years for me.  The Book of Ever, for instance, had a comparatively short cook time: I took book one, Exile, from concept to finished manuscript in about six months.  On the other hand, I’ve been planning out an epic fantasy series in my head and in notebooks for years now, which still hasn’t fully taken shape.
  • Usually, a project being on the back burner for me means that I’m stuck or blocked in some way–usually in the way of plot.  I often begin things, then set them to simmer, and sometimes take them off the heat, so to speak, if I don’t know the way forward.  Sometimes other things take priority simply because they’re further along and require more attention.
  • Any time something’s cooking on the back burner, I think of it as being in a “soft phase”: I’m working on it, but not exclusively and perhaps not with full knowledge of its content or ending.
  • On the other hand, once I know how to finish it, it enters the “hard phase”: I work on it exclusively until it’s done.  No getting distracted with notes or writing on other work.
  • Do to the amount of cook time, my writing projects tend to come out in something fairly close to their finished form on the first go; I don’t go through multiple “drafts” the way some authors do.
  • That said, I consider myself a gardener, not an architect.  “Knowing the way forward,” for me, means that I have a general skeleton of the story in mind: major events, character arcs, world-building.  I don’t have a chapter-by-chapter outline, and things often change in the writing.
  • Between the soft phase and the hard phase there’s usually a click.  You’ll hear a lot of writers talk about this moment: that moment when everything crystallizes, when the constellation of ideas and plot points and character beats comes into alignment.  The click.
  • The click, whether it’s a big one or a little one, usually happens at the most inopportune time possible.  Like when you’re having a serious conversation, or parallel parking.
  • Once I start writing, I aim for 1,500 words per day.  Ideally I write significantly more than that, but if I write 1,500 then I don’t feel that the day was wasted.
  • I often edit as I write, which is another reason I don’t go through multiple drafts, and also explains why my output is sometimes on the lower side compared to more prolific authors.
  • When I’ve finished the first draft, so to speak, I force myself to take at least a week off.  Ideally it would be longer, but rarely do I have the patience to wait that long when I know a book is almost ready for publication.
  • When I come back to it, I do one substantive read-through, often mostly aloud, looking for major editing issues related to plot, character, etc.  I read on the screen, editing as needed as I read.
  • After that I print it out, do a copyedit, and give it to beta-readers.  Based on their feedback, I either change things or don’t, then do a final proofread and it’s off to the press.  It’s a simple system, but I’m happy with it for the time being.

What’s your writing process like?  What’s different, what’s similar?  The great thing about this conversation is that there’s truly no right answer: everyone’s process is different.  Don’t compare your writing process to that of another writer.  (Except for the fun of it.)

Sign Up for Jim’s Kickass Newsletter

I started a mailing list.  You can sign up for it here, or via the link in the righthand column of this page.  I promise not to email you more than twice a month (and will probably do so far more infrequently than that).

Why sign up for one more thing to clog your inbox, you ask?  It’s simple.  In addition to updates on my upcoming work, you’ll also gain access to exclusive content (preview chapters from the sequel to Exile, for example), giveaways, and more.

You know you want to sign up.  Come on, just try it.  Everyone’s doing it.  You know you want to.