Cliffhangers: are they for your characters, or your readers?

I’m currently reading dystopian sci-fi page-turner Wool by Hugh Howey. I’ll post the review once I’m through, but one aspect of its narrative structure struck me and I wanted to discuss it; namely, its cliffhangers.

My own work, Citadel, is written in third-person deep point-of-view, which means I refer to the character I’m following in the third person, but the narration stays in her head, describes the events she sees and notices the things only she would notice.

But like many writers, I move the perspective around between my characters, staying with one for a full chapter, then moving to another for the next, just as Howey does in Wool.

The problem is, sometimes there can be AN EVENT that affects everyone, or A TRUTH that people discover separately, at different times. This creates a dilemma: by the time your second character becomes aware of something, the reader already knows it. You cannot elicit the same reader response (surprise) more than once.

This happens in Wool a number of times: one main character discovers A TRUTH, then another, then that character describes THE TRUTH to another character, and so on. We experience revelation repeatedly, rendering it almost redundant.

That’s not to say Wool is poorly structured or filled with superfluous sections – at one point, the protagonist must divulge THE TRUTH to her ally in order to procure their assistance. But the way the chapters end, it feels as though we’re being asked to share this revelation again.

Closer to home

I’ve had the same thoughts concerning my own work, but from an opposing angle. I have a MONUMENTAL EVENT that sweeps through the world of my characters, but rather than each one LEARNING THE TRUTH and that forming the end of my chapter, their relation to THE EVENT is wildly different, whether that be immediate danger, loss of a loved one, or a perceived social shift.

That is to say, I don’t ask the reader to learn the same information more than once, aside form how that new information affects my characters in disparate ways.

I hope I’ve succeeded.

The problem with Wool – coming from someone only half way through it – is that there is only one MONUMENTAL TRUTH and it affects everyone the same way, which makes it very difficult to keep the reader engaged. After a rip-roaring initial fifty pages, I was hooked, but near the middle of the book, I lost interest a little because I was seeing other people find out the same thing I already knew.

It’s a tiny niggle in a book I’m otherwise thoroughly enjoying; but it’s also one I think could have been avoided. Saying that, Wool is intentionally focused and claustrophobic, resulting in less space to explore different perspectives of the same reveal.

What do you think? Should we only have one person’s reaction to an event? Or is their reaction to it more important?

I’ve intentionally kept spoilers out of this post, so if you’ve read Wool and want to air your thoughts, please follow the same courtesy in the comments!

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11 thoughts on “Cliffhangers: are they for your characters, or your readers?”

  1. It depends – you can still hang suspense on how the dynamic between characters is changed by a TRUTH. They might both react the same way, or differently on the reveal, but what about later? What if their relationship were somehow intwined with the mechanics of that truth. There may in that sense be an additional, layered META_TRUTH.

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    1. That may well be the case, and certainly the TRUTH-sharing has elevated the plot in a way that it couldn’t have without it, but it was more the way the revelations came at the end of the chapters. They were the cliffhangers, the bits supposed to make us gasp. Yes their consequences may yet prove far-reaching, I’ve no doubt; but it was that vacancy of suspense brought about by already knowing the TRUTH that made the narrative slump a little.

      It’s not wrong or bad by any means; it just dampened the mood, the excitement.

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  2. Thanks for linking me to this post. Really interesting! I haven’t read Wool, so no spoilers, just my two pence.
    Repetitive cliff-hangers are deadly to me as a reader. I lose interest. Why am I seeing the same thing over and over, which I already know? I’m not a huge fan of multiple points of view anyway, and showing me the same event, no matter how important, from several different character’s perspectives, is a way to get me to put the book down. Move on – what is the next thing?!
    I think cliffhangers can work for some narratives, but I think they’re overused. Literary serialization and episodic television have made novelists think that cliff-hangers work to build tension, at the expense of taut plotting. Enrich the plot to pull me through the novel, instead of trying to leave me on the edge of my seat at the end of each chapter!

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