Thursday, September 13, 2012

With a sickening lurch, Fiona's truck sailed off the...

                                                              Chapter 2.

...curb and landed in the street. "Darn it," Fiona said. "Now I've scraped both the front and back bumpers."

And there, my friends, is what writing consultant and screenplay guru Trai Cartwright, (who gave a bang-up presentation at the Colorado Gold conference) calls a cliffhanger.

According to Ms. Cartwright, cliffhangers are a great way to jumpstart a story that sags in the middle (more on sagging middle here). Put another way, she suggest never ending a chapter or scene on an 'exhale.' Instead, roll back the last seven lines of the scene and start your next chapter with them.

But she also reminds us to answer the 'question' we posed at the end of the previous chapter. And, if possible, to provide an answer the audience doesn't want. For example, in a serious attempt to create tension I could write:

With a sickening lurch, Fiona's truck sailed off the retaining wall and landed on the wooden drawbridge. She put the truck in reverse and punched the gas pedal, but the rear wheels spun uselessly on the rain-slick wood. Just as the left tire caught, she heard--then felt--the aging boards creak and bow under the truck's weight.

"Hang on, Letitia," she said, trying to quell the panic in her voice. "Mommy's going to get us out of this."

The child huddled next to Fiona whimpered, and then screamed as the bridge gave way.

Chapter 2.

The icy water swirled around Fiona's waist while she scrambled to unbuckle her daughter. "Hold on to Mommy, honey...."

Would you keep reading? I might--if the writer had made me care about Fiona and her daughter.

But if we had ended chapter one AFTER Fiona and Letitia escaped the flooded truck, a reader might sigh with pleasure, set down the book and go make a sandwich.

Instead, Ms. Cartwright insists we want readers to keep reading long past when they intended to stop. We want to be the author who keeps them up until two a.m. on a work night, who compels them to read our book while they walk to the subway station.

I'm going through my current project to see where chapters end on an 'exhale'. I'm sorry to report there are several.

But they won't be there much longer.

Cheers...and happy writing!



  1. Great advice! I try to do this in my stories, but don't always succeed. At least not initially. There are always those 'rewrites' where I can fix it.

    1. You do a great job with this! When I read GRAVE SECRETS there was literally a point at which I couldn't turn pages fast enough.
      But reading good suspense and understanding how to create it are very different animals. Trai Cartwright did a nice job explaining how to use this tool. Now the trick is to use it well!


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