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Monday, March 11

Handling Cliffhanger 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.