Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

A Brief Thought on Cliffhangers

04.28.13
by Daniel Abraham

Ty and I were talking about the idea of closed vs. open cliffhangers.  The idea is that bad cliffhangers get their power from witholding information while good ones get their power from providing information. This isn’t an idea that’s original with us, but I don’t remember who we got it from.  So if you know, remind me.

Anyway, our best understanding is that it would go kind of like this:

Closed (bad) cliffhanger:

His telephone rang.  Cassie’s voice sounded thin and tense.

“Mike, we have a problem.”

——————————————————————————-

Open (good) cliffhanger:

His telephone rang.  Cassie’s voice sounded thin and tense.

“Mike, we have a problem.”

He shifted the phone to his other ear.  “What’s up?”

“There are three dead bodies in my garage.”

The light went from red to green.  He sighed.  “I’ll be right there.”

———————————————————————————

This is not to say I’ve never used closed cliffhangers (or even haven’t used them recently — or often), just that my opinion on the issue is . . . ah . . . evolving.

15 Responses »

  1. Yes, I’ve often thought about this. Give me an open cliffhanger over a closed one any day. Another way of putting it is the difference between:

    Then, something dramatic happened!

    and

    Then, something dramatic happened — but I’m not going to tell you what.

    Granted, all writing is a kind of willing manipulation of the reader — but the closed cliffhanger *feels* like manipulation, and generally makes me think that whatever’s happened mustn’t really be all that dramatic, otherwise why not just tell us?

    In my mind, the exemplar of the closed cliffhanger is Alias (or at least its first season, which is all I watched). And the exemplar of the open cliffhanger is Babylon 5. Which is not to say that each show didn’t occasionally use the other approach — but, by and large, I felt like B5 brought me along with the story, whereas Alias often just left me dangling.

    • It’s a little sobering for me, because I’m looking at a great big cliffhanger I did a while back and trying to figure which category it fits in…. The problem with new insights into craft is that you didn’t have it for anything you wrote up to now.

      • FWIW, the first big cliffhanger of yours that comes to mind is the one in the last chapter and epilogue of Caliban’s War, which I thought was great. If I had to break down why I thought it worked, I’d probably say it’s because it provided enough information to show that it wasn’t artificially truncating the story, but rather acting as a kind of pivot point to a new stage of the story.

        Or perhaps to look at it another way: it didn’t hold back information that belonged at the end of that book, but rather brought forward information that will connect with the start of the next book.

  2. The two categories you propose don’t seem to cover all cliffhangers. To my mind, a cliffhanger involves leaving the reader/viewer hungry for resolution. The Empire Strikes Back pioneered the now-common formula of ending the second film in a trilogy on a cliffhanger that’s resolved in the third film. But it’s a cliffhanger because things are left unresolved (Boba Fett flies off with Han Solo in carbonite), not because information is withheld or revealed.

    • Well, to a certain point, *all* cliffhangers work by leaving things unresolved. I’d say ESB’s cliffhanger is clearly open, because we are given a lot of information about Solo’s fate (we know Boba Fett is going to surrender him to Jabba, and we know Jabba’s bad news even when we have yet to meet him). A closed ESB cliffhanger would’ve been for Solo to go missing and not know what had happened to him.

    • Your mention of the cliffhanger that ends Empire Strikes Back brings up another kind of cliffhanger, or rather, another reason for utilizing them: Sometimes even the creators don’t know how the cliffhanger will be resolved. When they wrapped filming on Empire, it wasn’t a sure thing that Harrison Ford would sign on for another movie.

  3. The second is definitely more intriguing and gives you something to really think about. The first just brings you to the edge of the cliff. The second actually dangles you over it.

  4. The first place I remember running into the idea of open vs closed endings was in this Jo Walton post about C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/05/alone-among-aliens-cj-cherryhs-lemgforeignerlemg, where she writes: “What they tend to do more than conclude is open up at the ends, which works pretty well for being satisfying.” Not exactly the same point, but close, maybe?

  5. You may have heard Brandon Sanderson cover this topic. He talks about this specifically in this lecture about thriller plotting that I just happened to watch last night:

    http://www.writeaboutdragons.com/home/brandon_w2012/lecture-13/thriller-plotting/

    I think the “closed” cliffhanger can be used to good effect, but not if you’re led to believe that that phone call in the middle of the night is something really important, and then turn the page to find out it was a wrong number. The “open” cliffhanger is almost always preferable. The potential for abuse just isn’t there like it is for the “closed” version.

  6. I’m not sure anyone (as a reader) would actually enjoy the closed cliffhanger, it doesn’t give anything to the reader, and comes of as if the author just adds it, for there to be a cliffhanger, and he/she will add a conclusion later, as an afterthought.

    To put it in another way, closed cliffhangers are open ended, and are used in bad TV-shows where the writers don’t know how to continue the story for the next season, and cop out and say “we’ll figure it out next season” or for a book “we’ll figure it out next book”.

    But having read 3 of your books (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s war, and The Dragon’s path, currently reading The King’s blood), I cant say I’ve come across any situation where I’ve noticed you using closed cliffhangers. So kudos for that 🙂

    /P

  7. If you’re kicking the end of An Autumn War to see how much air is in the tires, I’d be inclined to classify it as open, in these terms. In any event, it punched me in the solar plexus with sufficient force that I was happy just gasping for breath until The Price of Spring came out. It probably ranks as the mid-series ending I most appreciated. (I’m stepping around use of the word “liked” for fairly obvious reasons.) The ends of Ian Tregillis’ The Coldest War and Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars have given it some competition, maybe, but I doubt you’ll mind that company. (The end of The King’s Blood got a protracted “eeeeeee” sound out of me, and I’m still trying to decide what I think about it, which certainly means it served its purpose. Purchase of the next volume is a lock in this household.)

    I’m inclined to think that these terms for cliffhangers owe something to Jo Walton’s discussion of series awhile ago on Tor.com, although, if memory serves, she called series books without cliffhangers “closed” (positive valence) and series endings with cliffhangers “open” (neutral valence). Maybe it’s time I reread the Walton discussion.

  8. (Debates with self – shall I go there? Why not? Okay, careful now…)

    Daniel, you’ve just explained why A STORM OF SWORDS was satisfying, while A DANCE WITH DRAGONS wasn’t.

  9. My favorite cliffhangers (also closed ones, btw) are from the Chronicles of Amber (the Corwin cycle). In each book between the first and last ones, Zelazny provides a strange new detail just before the end & you’re left to re-evaluate everything you’ve read so far. Brilliant.

  10. This is kind of hilarious, as I just stumbled onto this site for the very first time after swearing several times upon turning the page to find the end of “Tyrant’s Law.” Cliffhangers indeed, sir.

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