Monday, March 11, 2013

Handling Cliffhanger Scene Endings With Multiple POVs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In the good old days of movies serials, the story would end with the hero literally hanging off the edge of a cliff. If you wanted to know what happened, you had to come back for the next episode of that serial. A great way to get folks to come to the movies, and even a great way to get readers to turn the page, but this doesn't work quite the same with multiple points of view (POV).

A good example of this is Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I remember leaving the theater and saying, "What was Lucas thinking? Every time he got to a really cool part he changed scenes and totally killed all his tension."

A particularly rough set of scenes switch off between Yoda fighting Darth Sidius in an epic lightsaber battle, and Anakin fighting Obi-Wan. In any scene, let alone an climatic fight scene, there's a rising tide of tension you want to build to get the reader (or viewer) to the edge of their seat. Star Wars actually did this well at first, pitting two sets of characters against each other that fans have been waiting to see clash.

In the scene, Yoda and Sidius are swinging it out, you're caught up in the story, the battle, the drama, it looks like it's all about to go down hard and then--

Bam. You're with Anakin as he slowly and dramatically begins his run to the climax. It's a bit of a letdown, sure, but then things start heating up and the tension rises and you're getting into it and then--

Snap. You're back with Yoda and it's just not the same. You've been yanked away three times in a row and you really don't expect the scene to play itself out anymore. Half the tension is gone, and it keeps flipping back and forth, leaking more tension with every shift. By the time you get to the end you don't care all that much anymore.

(More on the various types of scene, chapter, and book endings here)

Multiple POVs require a deft touch to keep readers hooked. Here are some common issues when dealing with multiple POV cliffhangers:

1. A loss of tension 


Tension works well when it's had time to build. You spend pages (or chapters) crafting a scene, and it starts to get really good...and then suddenly the cliffhanger happens and it's gone. Even if you start with the next line in the scene after the switch, you still have to start over. Readers have to remember what was going on and then get back into the mindset.

2. A loss of reader investment 


If you switch too often, readers know you're just going to yank them away, so why get into it? It can pull them out of the story, keep them detached, and make them not care so much about what's going on. Which is the opposite of what you've been trying to do.

3. A loss of reader interest 


If one storyline grabs reader interest more than the other, they'll be more inclined to skim the scenes they don't care about as much to read the ones they do. Cutting scenes in the middle of the good parts makes the odds of a less exciting storyline or POV getting booted that much higher. Even when readers are interested in both (or more if you have a lot going on) they might rush to keep reader momentum, and miss half of what you wrote.

(More on scene breaks here)

Tips on Writing Multiple POV Scene Enders 


When you have multiple POVs and you're looking at how to end those chapters, think about the overall flow of the book and not just that chapter. The adage is a rising tide raises all boats, and that's a true concept for a novel. There will be waves as the tides rises, some boats getting knocked around more or less than others, but everything is moving at roughly the same speed toward the end, gaining speed the entire time. Try:
  • Building both (or more) sides up at the same time so the same level of tension is always at hand, but stick with one POV longer when breaking the scene will hurt the tension, not raise it. 
  • Ending on resolutions that finish a scene and provide a payoff to the tension, but still leave something for the reader to want next. Reveals are useful here. You might have a major action-packed scene, the reader thinks it's all over and then WHAM! A secret is revealed or something goes sideways and it's not over. They're hooked, but since nothing has started yet, switching to another POV isn't as jarring.
  • Letting the cliffhanger of one scene transition into the next POV. If you build up tension in one area, and end that scene with a teaser about what might happen in another POV, and then you switch to that POV and what's happening there, you hand off the reader to the next exciting part instead of yanking them around. Joss Wheadon did this particularly well in The Avengers. My favorite transition was an early scene where a character mentions "you should have left X in the ocean," then it switches to Tony Stark underwater in the ocean. Subtle, but it ties the scenes together.
No matter how you break it up, the book as a whole should work, because a story is more than the sum of its parts. If it reads like two (or more) novels shoved into one book, it won't feel like a cohesive story. You want those parts all working together, not stealing each other's thunder.

Writing exercise: This one should be fun. Let's hear a great cliffhanger ending. One line, one word, one paragraph--it's up to you. It's doesn't even have to be part of an existing work, as long as it makes folks want to "turn the page" so to speak.

Winner gets a 1000-word critique from me, entries in the comments, contest open until next Monday, March 18, noon EST (this should be the normal deadline from now on). Winner announced Tuesday.


  1. Excellent advice! Isn't it funny how easily you can lose all the tension you just built up? I guess it's all about knowing when to use cliffhangers and when to use other techniques that will keep the reader wanting more.

  2. OMGosh! I think I might do this in one or two places. Thanks for the thoughts and bringing it to my attention. *runs off to scan her wip*

  3. I'm going to have to watch for this as well. I never thought of having to rebuild that lost tension by cutting the scene too soon.

  4. Oh-oh. I think I've been doing this.

    Off to rearrange my chapter endings!

  5. Excellent point, Janice. It's a good thing to keep an eye on.

  6. I think most of us do this far too often. I've taken the idea of "leave 'em wanting more" a bit too seriously in the past, and still catch myself doing it now.

    Thanks for the reminder to be aware of it.

  7. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin's built a rabid following using this exact technique.

    On the other other hand, that's why I stopped reading him.

  8. This post just terrified me a little bit. But I think my novel's ok. I just never thought of cliffhangers that way!

  9. Lucas needs to hire you.

  10. I make a deliberate point of crafting the last line in a scene to take advantage of the power position - leaving an impression, having a hook to the next scene or chapter.

    Your question made me go back a pull a bunch of last lines from selected scenes. I also evaluated them to find the ones that don't need a lot more of the scene, but stand alone.

    I will do a final draft near the end of editing to pull them into a cohesive set.

    For now, I liked the following last line:

    "For a few minutes I was almost normal."


  11. She yelped.
    Pain raced up her neck and down her arm.
    “Kyra? What is it?” Viendo looked at her.
    She hadn’t wanted to make a big deal.
    “Kyra?” Zemmy was even looking at her now. Great.
    She inched her hair away from her shoulder. “I – I got shot.”

  12. "Saxtili... I have been betrayed."

  13. George Lucas couldn't do it, but Peter Jackson managed it the Two Towers. Helm's Deep and Isengard and Osgiliath all come together, in ways Tolkien never had to think of.

    And I am not a geek.

  14. A wonderful post! I loved it so much that I picked it as one of my top 5 blog posts of the week.
    Thank you for sharing such wonderful things with other writers!

  15. liebjabberings, NICE.

    Sam opened the door and gave the young man a friendly smile. Tourist, he thought. The guy looked like the type. "Can I help you?"
    The young man glanced down at the paper in his hands and up at Sam. "Samuel Chimes?"
    Sam blinked. "Yeah, that's me."
    From the front room, Linda called, "Sam, who is it?"
    The young man took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Hi, Dad."

  16. Great post...again!

    The enemy surrounds us. Ammunition is running low.
    We are injured and hungry and thirsty and utterly spent.
    Only a message to headquarters, 25 miles away, can save us now.
    I am the last messenger. I am a carrier pigeon.
    And I must get through.

  17. Cat, not if he saw the Star Wars fan fiction I wrote in high school, lol.

    Waugh, Jackson did do a great job there. Nothing wring with being a geek. I know I am :)

    Karen, thanks so much!

  18. Thanks for the great post! I'm working on POV change/chapter transitions right now. Here's the latest:

    Shaking, she drew a letter from her apron.
    Peggie snatched it up.
    It was addressed to Sir James, in her mother's hand, and bordered all in black.

  19. Hahaha...
    I thought "and I am not a geek" was Waugh's cliffhanger! It caught my attention :)
    Guess I'm a geek too!

  20. Emily, LOL you might be right! It really could go either way there. Waugh might have to clarify that :)

  21. Since I am writing with two POVs for the first time, this is perfect. As a reader, I've noticed this. I am a skimmer, but it is good to construct carefully to avoid this feeling as the writer.

  22. Rubinna, I like anything that makes me think about why I do a particular writing thing. I think so much of what we do is instinct, and when we understand why we can make better use of our skills. This was one of those hmmmm moments for me ;)

  23. I have an abandoned manuscript that was written in alternating viewpoints.. I might get back to it and analyse it with your tips in mind. Thanks for that!

  24. Hopefully, this excerpt isn't too long for the excercise...

    Were the keys in his pocket?
    She tiptoed towards him, hoping her thudding heart wouldn’t wake him. His breathing was deep and regular. She licked her lips. Could she search without disturbing him?

    She steadied her hand, and slowly, slowly inched her fingers into his pocket until they touched something metallic. Were they? Yes! Keys!

    Something clamped on her wrist. She jumped. It was his hand. And his eyes, small pinpoints of fury, glared at her.

  25. Another great post! This is quickly becoming one of my favorite writing blogs.

    My entry:

    "Help's on the way," Martinez said a moment later from where he leaned over the communication station. "Probably eighteen hours away at top speed."

    "Sounds like we have a date. Let's make sure we're ready for it." Including, Brian thought grimly, preparing to scuttle the ship if needed.

  26. I had a quick question about this contest :) I worked on my entry earlier and it came out significantly longer than the others that are up here, just under 200 words. Is that too long for this contest? I can probably cut several in my revisions, but I'll need to completely rewrite if I'm to take it as short as some of these entries are.

    Thanks for running these contests! They're so much fun!

  27. Jill, shorter is probably better, as 200 words is almost a page. Maybe under 100 words? The goal is to be punchy with fewer words :) Glad you're enjoying the contests! I've been having fun coming up with them.

  28. I ended up with 122 words. The first paragraph could be deleted to put me under 100, but I thought I'd leave it because it's important to my setting.

    Shain didn’t see her, as his eyes were already becoming glassy. Only a Contract could save his life now, but for all he knew, it was a Contract killing him.

    Vayda rushed to his side, shrieking so distantly that Shain couldn’t hear it. My god, he thought as he dropped to his knees in the soft sand, how many times is this damn desert going to try to kill me?

    Her soft hands were on him already. He tried to tell her it was hopeless this time, but the words wouldn’t come – his throat was choked with blood and burning bile. Besides, he knew that no matter what he said, she’d do her very best to save him.

    If only she could.

  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. Claire felt her shoulders sag. What a night, she thought. From waitress to circus sideshow to human being to furniture. What’s next?

    Bobby stepped in front of her, eyebrows drawn together.


  31. The Hylista shuddered as it skimmed just above the tree tops. The smoke alarm still shrieked. Tyris coughed from the smoke. Sparks flew as the power went out with one last, loud bang.

    Tyris’s hand clutched the small jade dolphin hanging around his neck, and he reached for the photograph taped to the console. Milandra smiled at him, oblivious to his distress as always. His touch dislodged the picture, sending it fluttering to the floor as the ground rushed up to meet him.

  32. I'm a new follower :) Great blog. Some really useful things on here.

    My entry:

    Max raised his gun in front of him, nudging the door open with his shoulder. Checking his corners, he moved into the corridor, Kate right behind him, her own gun sweeping the area for anything he'd missed.

    'Something about this stinks,' Max said. 'I can't shake this feeling...'

    'Concentrate, Winters.' Kate’s voice was a sharp whisper in the near silence.

    They made their way to Cargill’s office. Empty. Just like everywhere else.

    ‘Did they know we were coming?’ Max said, his gun dropping to his side as he scanned round the abandoned office.

    ‘You could say that,’ Kate said.

    She still had her gun in her hands.

    Pointed at him.

  33.   Dozens of heavy boots trampled through the brush not more than a few paces away. One soldier stopped, surveying the area.
      Devin held his breath, even as thorn and bramble pricked him from every angle, sure the slightest noise would reveal his presence. But when he dared a peek at the passing soldiers, he couldn't stifle a choked gasp.
      He hadn't seen it in ten years, but Devin knew that face. The squad commander looked exactly like his long-dead father.
      Devin heard a hollow click. Cold metal pressed against the back of his head. He froze. A blunderbuss? Fantastic.

  34. Great post! Helpful and pertinent as always. I've been working really hard to end my chapters with a good prompt, for just this reason, they're not always going back to the same person, or the same place often!


    Alexandrea shrunk back, releasing the tension from her body. However, her mind had not wound down yet. _I should never have shared what I saw with Moralynn, or especially with this, Elf._ She gulped. _I will not let him become trapped, as I suspect I have become._

  35. Hiya Janice! Here is my attempt at writing a cliffhanger:

    My fingers followed each word of the cursive handwriting until I reached the last sentence on the bottom of the page that read:

    If he knows the truth I will have to

    I quickly flipped the page. It was blank. So was the next one, and the one after that.

  36. Another Great Post.

    Here's my entry:
    I gasp for air, Evan’s lips pushing on mine melodically in sync with the waves thrashing our bodies. We sank back down, but the kissing never stopped until we had to push up for breath again. It was as if we were the same person, breathing, kissing, and surviving as one.
    “I love you,” he says running his hand through my hair. I smile, kissing him hungrily, preparing to say it back when we go up for air.
    “I lo…” I gasp, a sharp pain running through my stomach. My eyes begin to close as I fall onto Evan but he pushes me off causing me to open my eyes again.
    “I’m sorry honey,” he says as I reach for whatever is causing the pain, releasing a small knife and a shroud of blood that taints the Caribbean.
    “Evan?”I try to focus, pushing on my wound. We can fix this he didn’t sear any of my organs. He? He stabbed me? The realization causes me to wobble. By the time I focus again he’s already on our boat a few feet away.
    “Goodbye Lena,” I hear it as a mere whisper, overshadowed by the sound of the boats motor. Evan stabbed me and left? I try keeping my eyes open, my blood rushing out of me faster than the water rushing into me. If I had the proper tools I can fix this, but here in the middle of the ocean, all I can do is hope the sharks don’t find me until I pass out.