Cliffhanger Endings

Lately, there have been a spate of novel series with cliffhanger endings. The writer employs a cheesy radio gimmick, where just as the hero is about to be executed by the villain, the program abruptly ends with, “if you want to find out just what happens next, tune in tomorrow.” While no one likes a cliffhanger ending, the radio audience was probably a little more tolerant of such show-nanigans. After all, they only had to wait a day and it wasn’t costing them anything but their patience. But your readers have to wait longer than a day to get a resolution to the dilemma you’ve left them with. Even a quickly churned out book would take a month—and it wouldn’t be terribly good at that, so half-baked. Worse, you’re asking your readers to shell out another X in hard-earned cash just to see if Dick escapes Harry’s clutches, something you should have resolved before writing “The End.”

So how to do you keep a reader’s interest without resorting to this sort of shabby trick?

By providing your reader with some resolution of the problem you’ve presented in your piece. In the above example, Dick may escape Harry’s clutches, but fail to neutralize Harry. Or he may neutralize Harry, only to learn that he isn’t the mastermind of the evil plan. The next book could follow him in his attempt to capture the true villain. Warning: that trick only works once. You shouldn’t have a whole series of books where Dick pursues and subdues a laundry list of sub-villains posing as the big boss. After the second falsie, readers are going to begin losing their patience with you, the writer.

My Dark Brethren Series is split into four parts. While the overarching goal is a HEA for my heroes (it’s a gay romance), each book has a specific goal.

In the first book, Owen Adler is determined to save his husband from falling into the hands of their shared enemy, his elder brother, Kurt. The means he uses to accomplish that goal are quite satisfying, though the couple are not reunited at the end of the book.

In the second book, Owen Adler endeavors to win his freedom from his evil master so he can return to his husband. When he discovers he can’t do that by playing by the “bad guy’s” rules, he abandons all he’s gained, though it might mean death, in the hope of succeeding by his own methods.

In the third book, a confused Jacek (Owen’s husband) is transported to the place where Owen is presumably being held captive. He ultimately frees Owen, but afterward loses him, when Owen presumably perishes.

In the fourth and last book, a grief-stricken Jacek sets off alone, leaving only his husband’s ashes behind. But things are not quite what they seem. An old enemy has followed Jacek, one determined to keep him from Owen forever.

As you can see above, each book has its own goal, so even though I don’t completely resolve the couple’s difficulties, they do gain (or lose) something at the end of each book.

In the first book, Owen gains Jacek’s safety at the cost of his own freedom.

In the second book, Owen plays a dangerous game of impersonation to gain his freedom—and fails.

In the third book, Jacek attempts to free Owen from the master who holds him hostage. While he succeeds in freeing Owen, Owen is so badly wounded, he dies (at least, it seems so).

In the fourth book, Jacek and a resurrected Owen must combat a number of enemies, including, at times, each other. Ultimately, they find happiness together.

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The Hero as Celebrity

Another chapter to Thomas Carlyle’s book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841) could be added today called The Hero as Celebrity. 

In fairly recent years, celebrities have risen to positions of power that their predecessors could only have played as characters of fictional productions. Donald Trump is the too obvious example of this. Once a reality television star, he is now president of the United States, for good or ill, you be the judge. He isn’t the only former star to rise in the political arena. Bodybuilder turned actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California. Actor Clint Eastwood was mayor of Carmel, California. Wrestler Jesse Ventura was governor of Minnesota. Child Actress Shirley Temple (Black) was U.S. ambassador of Ghana (1974) and Czechoslovakia (1989). And, of course,  The Gipper served as the U.S.’s fortieth president.

While stars may rise, they can just as quickly fall. Think Bill Cosby, who has been accused and convicted of multiple charges of past sexual misconduct. Think also, Kevin Hart, whose “homophobic” tweets, more than ten years old, were recently retailed online to prove him an unfit host for an Academy awards ceremony. Rather than issue a formal apology for his past “misconduct,” Hart simply withdrew himself from serving as the host. He also wisely deleted any old posts that might be used as “future” evidence of misconduct.  

However you might feel on this subject, let’s all agree that none of us has lived a spotless life. We have all made mistakes. Worse, mistakes we didn’t even consider mistakes at the time we made them. Cosby’s past behavior is indefensible, without question, but Hart’s remarks, however inappropriate, may have been more a reflection of the time than of his character. Even if they represented his personal feelings, the question is, would that have interfered with him doing his job as host of an awards show? If he had caved and issued the apology he felt he owed no one, would that have been enough to redeem him in the eyes of the public?

Let’s turn the spotlight briefly to his accuser(s), who used social-media mistakes some ten years old to turn to the public against him. Why bring this up now? What did they hope to gain by it? Protecting the rights of every citizen of the United States is a laudable goal, but shielding those same citizens from the faulty opinions of their fellows is overreaching. Particularly, if the accusers have the perceived “right” to dig up any publicly recorded statement or act you’ve committed since birth that fails to meet the ever changing standard of what is publicly acceptable. There was a time, sadly, when a same-sex couple could be arrested, if their relationship was exposed. Now, it’s a crime to say something against that same same-sex couple, even if you made that silly comment off-the-cuff twenty years ago.

Where do we draw the line? What is going too far?

We can turn to Thomas Carlyle for that simple, not so simple, answer:

“…we are to remember what an umpire Nature is; what a greatness, composure of depth and tolerance there is in her. You take wheat to cast into the Earth’s bosom; your wheat may be mixed with chaff, chopped straw, barn-sweepings, dust and all imaginable rubbish; no matter: you cast it into the kind just Earth; she grows the wheat,—the whole rubbish she silently absorbs, shrouds it in, says nothing of the rubbish. The yellow wheat is growing there; the good Earth is silent about all the rest,—has silently turned all the rest to some benefit too, and makes no complaint about it! So everywhere in Nature! She is true and not a lie; and yet so great, and just, and motherly in her truth. She requires of a thing only that it be genuine of heart; she will protect it if so; will not, if not so. There is a soul of truth in all the things she ever gave harbor to. Alas, is not this the history of all highest Truth that comes or ever came into the world? The body of them all is imperfection, an element of light in darkness: to us they have to come embodied in mere Logic, in some merely scientific Theorem of the Universe; which cannot be complete; which cannot but be found, one day, incomplete, erroneous, and so die and disappear. The body of all Truth dies; and yet in all, I say, there is a soul which never dies; which in new and ever-nobler embodiment lives immortal as man himself! It is the way with Nature. The genuine essence of Truth never dies. That it be genuine, a voice from the great Deep of Nature, there is the point at Nature’s judgment-seat. What we call pure or impure, is not with her the final question. Not how much chaff is in you; but whether you have any wheat. Pure? I might say to many a man: Yes, you are pure; pure enough; but you are chaff,—insincere hypothesis, hearsay, formality; you never were in contact with the great heart of the Universe at all; you are properly neither pure nor impure; you are nothing, Nature has no business with you.”

We all make social faux pas, say dunderheaded things we don’t mean, and dunderheaded things we do. The question is, is there any WHEAT (GOOD) in us, despite that?

Are we going to allow ourselves to live in a society where Thought Policy comb through our social media posts, past and present, and punish us, as they see fit? Or are we going to use common sense to make our judgments on what is acceptable or unacceptable?

In the case of Kevin Hart, as long as it was made clear to him that any offensive comments would not be tolerated on the broadcast, and he adhered to that policy, I think it’s fair to say we could overlook his past mistakes, whether he regretted them or not. After all, no one’s perfect.

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A Kiss and a Yawn

The bane of romances, especially ones in the contemporary category, is keeping your protagonist and his or her love interest from their HEA in the first chapter. After all, if these two were meant to be together, why aren’t they already? Sometimes, an old boyfriend/girlfriend is standing in the way. Sometimes, a misunderstanding. Sometimes, circumstances beyond their control. They didn’t exchange phone numbers after that one hot night, and until they find one another, baby doesn’t have a daddy.

What keeps them apart isn’t as important as HOW it keeps them apart. A recent review I read dealt with a too good to be true romance that had everything to recommend it but fire. The couple (in this instance, two women) were so perfectly suited to each other that they instantly hit it off, going from strength to strength. Unfortunately, this didn’t make for a very exciting or satisfying story. When the writer reached the point where she had to close this tale of two ladies in love, she had to come up with something over the top to threaten it. How can you have a convincing black moment when there’s been nothing but sunshine from page one? The writer was forced to execute a soap-opera-ish denouement that disappointed several of her readers. Clearly, she hadn’t paced the angst properly. The ending was, as a result, too obviously contrived.

Starting conditions are everything. Determine from the get-go what is going to stand in the way of a happy ending and capitalize on that.

If I may use my own first novel as an illustration. A history gay romance, the main characters are a Polish partisan named Jacek Tarasek and an Englishman named Owen Linet, who is visiting Warsaw with his architect father. Jacek has been tasked by the leader of his group to get information on Owen, who is supposed to be the son of a German general. Though his reasons for coming to Poland seem innocent, Owen could be a German spy. Jacek attempts to discover the truth are complicated by his growing feelings for Owen. If Jacek learns that Owen is a spy, will he be able to expose him—possibly kill him—to protect his country from the enemy? To complicate matters still further, Owen uses what is in essence “black magic” to stop Jacek from doing something they’ll both regret. If Owen was a threat before, as an evil mortal man, how much more so, if he proves to be an evil IMMORTAL one?

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Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 3

In the radio program, “When the Curtain Falls,” starring Ginger Rogers, a wallflower that men avoid, if they can, determines that the very first man who’ll kiss her will be a famous movie star. With the help of some friends, she manages to get an interview alone with the star, who curtly refuses to “train” her as an actress. When she bursts into tears, he reluctantly arranges training for her with his understudy. A crisis during a production of Romeo and Juliet launches Ginger’s acting career, when she proves herself on stage. The actor who had foisted her on his understudy assures her, backstage, that he knew all along that she had talent and wants to take charge of her acting lessons personally from now on. The understudy, having taken a new job elsewhere, bids Ginger goodbye, before setting off for his train. She chases after him. When he confesses that he loves her, she is overjoyed. He is surprised that she would prefer him over the famous actor, whom was, as you remember, her original love interest. She has, by then, gained the wisdom of experience. The man who helped her when she was NOBODY is the only one she can truly trust with her heart.

Structurally, this is a great arc for a romance story. Heroine falls for Johnny Hero, only to realize that she’d be far happier with his underappreciated sidekick.

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Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 2

Another good radio program is The Mysterious Traveler, a 1940s-1950s fantasy/science fiction/mystery/suspense program, in which a mysterious traveler tells you, the listener, tales he’s picked up on his journey.

The first of the series that I listened to involved a rich man who married a beauty, which is usually the end of a good story, not the beginning. Sadly, the man lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. Afterward, he found out just how much his beauty was worth. Enraged at being forced to live as the wife of a POOR man she didn’t like, Millie begins flirting with every man in the village, much to her husband’s outrage. His attempts to curtail this steady stream of visitors only ends in his humiliation, when the gossips of the town begin telling tales about his cheating wife. As the couple grow more estranged, Millie makes Luke move out of his bedroom to an upper floor of the house, purportedly because he is keeping her awake nights calling her name restlessly in his sleep.

Luke’s mental state at the time the story begins can be summed up succinctly. A broken man with little or no chance of recovering from his financial losses, he wants to lead a fairly simple life with the woman he obtained with his once vast wealth. He is determined to keep her, even if that means physical violence against those who attempt to take her from him.  When Millie and her lover, Steve realize that they will never escape Luke (who will hunt them down, if they run away), they plot together to have Luke arrested for murder. Steve picks up a drifter (an easy thing to do during the Depression), who he lures back to a cabin. There, Steve uses a sledgehammer belonging to Luke to viciously murder the drifter, obliterating his face. To aid the authorities in identifying the drifter, Steve puts his watch on the dead drifter’s wrist. He also chisels a tattoo that is a twin of his own on the dead drifter’s arm.

Luke is caught, tried and sentence to 25 years in prison. After 16 years, he is paroled.  By chance, he moves to a city where his ex-wife (she divorced him one year after he was imprisoned) has taken residence. He follows her home, discovering, by accident, that the man he supposedly killed is still alive. Though Millie and Steve attempt to bribe Luke, he curtly refuses, insisting that Steve come with him to the house of the judge who sentenced him. There, Steve will confess to his wrongdoing, exonerating Luke.

After Luke has told the judge this story, the judge asks him to bring Steve in. Luke does this, carrying Steve on his shoulder. When the judge remarks, “but you told me he was alive,” Luke answers, “he was, until an hour ago. He wouldn’t come, so I made him come. There’s nothing you can do to me. I already served my sentence for killing this guy.”

The story ends with Luke passing away before any decision can be made as to whether he ought to serve a new sentence for the murder he actually committed.

The twist ending makes the whole story, already an interesting one, all that much more poignant. Luke has his revenge. One of the more interesting aspects of this story is that there is no “good guy.” Luke is clearly to blame, at least, in part for his wife and her lover’s scheme, because they would never have resorted to it, if Luke had not made it impossible for them to get away otherwise. Luke had lost everything, it seems, except his willful pride. He BOUGHT this woman. She was his to keep. She had no right to leave him. And he would stop her—if she tried.

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Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 1

For the bargain price of $29, I got a flash drive containing 10,000 old radio programs from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Except for the Lux Theater productions (which run a solid hour), none of these audios is longer than 30 minutes. A crash course on how to tell a story in thirty minutes—and in a way that’ll keep those listeners in their seats till the very last word. An excellent learning tool for us writers out there. Take an episode of The Great Gildersleeve entitled “Day Off for Peavey.” In the catalog, number 358, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of Richard LeGrand’s acting career. LeGrand played Peavey, who was the proprietor of the only drugstore in Summerfield, where Gildersleeve and his family lived.

Episode 358 borrows its formula (rather heavily) from a Norwegian fairytale called “The Husband Who Was to Mind the House,” by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. If you are unfamiliar with that tale, it relates the adventures of a husband who thought he could mind the house far better than his wife, with whom he so often found fault. The following morning, the wife goes off to perform the husband’s farming chores, while the husband stays behind to see to things domestically. Of course, all manner of disasters occur in the home, ending with the husband getting stuck in the chimney. His wife rescues him. Though the authors give no indication that the husband has learned, by experience, not to treat his wife so harshly, we at least get the satisfaction of seeing him proved wrong.

The same principal idea is in operation in Episode 358 of The Great Gildersleeve. Peavey’s drugstore is celebrating its 30th anniversary of operation. Thinking Peavey deserves a day off, Throckmorton Gildersleeve assumes management of the drugstore. After he has said some rather uncomplimentary things about Peavey to his nephew, Leroy, Gildersleeve brags that if he were in charge of the drugstore, he would have made far more of it than Peavey has. To prove it, he sets himself the task of outselling Peavey, whose lack of ambition, so Gildersleeve claims, has deprived him of the power of becoming a successful business man.

The first thing Gildersleeve does, upon taken temporary custody of the drugstore, is bully his nephew-in-law, Bronco into buying a lot of merchandise he doesn’t need. Later in the day, Bronco returns all the things he doesn’t need to the store, embarrassing Gildersleeve while he’s bragging to his friends, the judge and the barber about how good a salesman he is. When he attempts to enlist his friends as touts, they both suddenly have work of their own to do that they are shamefully neglecting. A hurt Gildersleeve takes some comfort, but not much, from Leroy, who stops in to see how things are going at the drugstore. Just when Gildersleeve is ready to throw in the thermometer, a crowd of people, having heard about the anniversary from a “man on the street,” come in the drugstore. Soon, Gildersleeve has more business than he can handle. He has to call his housekeeper to help him. The end-of-the-day receipts are more than twice what Peavey usually rakes in.

With what he believes is warranted pride, Gildersleeve shows off his earnings to Peavey. He is somewhat taken aback when he learns that the “man on the street” wasn’t one of his friends, who were too busy with their own affairs to help him, but Peavey himself who used his “free” day to drum up business for his store. Gildersleeve realizes, somewhat belatedly, that Peavey was a far more competent businessman than he gave him credit.

This story, boiled down to its most basic essence, is—armchair generals never win any REAL battles.  We might add that it is also easier to give advice to others than to follow it yourself.

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The Tenth Victim

If you like The Hunger Games or any similar death-game stories, you’ll love The Tenth Victim, a 1965 Italian film that ought to be a cult classic, if it isn’t already one. Marcello’s got a lot of problems with women, a wife he can’t divorce, a mistress he doesn’t want to marry, and a sexy blonde that he may or may not be forced to kill. This movie has all the excitement of The Games with a delicious froth of mod on top. I highly recommend it, even if it is, at times, a little too antiseptic to be believable. Where’s the blood?

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Sample Blurb: Vacation From Us

Here is an example of a blurb I made up for a contemporary gay romance:

After five years of marriage, even the happiest couple in the world can get a little tired of each other. Right?

While having a drink with some old high-school friends in a neighborhood bar, Calvin Ball meets a stranger, who invites him on a weeklong holiday in London. Without thinking, Calvin agrees. That night, he slips away from his sleeping husband, leaving behind a note that says, “I’m taking a little vacation from us. Don’t worry. I’ll be back. Love, Cal.”

The first few heady days with his new lover are all that Calvin could ask for. That is, until he sees his husband in London with another man of his own, one far younger and handsomer than Calvin.

For the first time, Calvin realizes what his little vacation might cost him? But is it too late to get his man back? Or is this weeklong holiday about to become a permanent vacation?

Before writing this blurb, I determined what tone I was going for—light and somewhat comedic. That would be the only way to give a story like this a sufficiently satisfying HEA. Without intending to, my protagonist, Calvin has lately lost some of his enthusiasm for his partner, Julian. I won’t spoil it—I don’t intend to write this book—by telling you that the betrayed husband has arranged this little holiday for Calvin, even going so far as to pay his “escort” for the trouble of entertaining him. To make Calvin jealous, Julian shows up in London, purportedly on business, with a handsome male model as his own escort. In this hypothetical story, Calvin will spend the rest of his holiday in London, endeavoring to win back Julian. When he at least succeeds, Julian will come clean, the book ending with the line, “next time we take a vacation from us, let’s do it together.”

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Another Think

This mistake is now so ubiquitous, we may have to accept it, even if it’s bad grammar, but it’s another THINK coming, not THING. THINK about it.

Dick said, “I’ve put up with Harry’s shit long enough. If he thinks he can stay another month rent-free at my apartment, he’s got another THINK coming.”

Harry’s first think on the subject was decidedly unsatisfactory to Dick. Harry’s got to think again. Things never come into the picture.

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Who Is He? An Identity Crisis

So it’s clear who a pronoun represents, a writer must make an introduction first.

“Dick ate a slice of chocolate cake, then he helped himself to a scoop of cinnamon ice cream.”

The “he” who helped “himself” to ice cream is clearly Dick, because no new “he” has come between the chocolate cake and the ice cream.

This is easy enough to follow, when you’ve got a sole “he” to manage, but what happens when you introduce more than one character into a piece of writing.

“Dick wished Jane a Happy Birthday. Harry went to the table to fetch the first gift she was to open.”

The identity of “she” is easy to guess. Jane is a girl’s name. Begging the pardon of any boys bearing it.

What about this sentence?

“Dick gave Jane a Mickey Mouse watch for her birthday. Harry gave her a stray black kitten he found in the alley behind his house.”

Since Harry is the person introduced at the beginning of that sentence, it’s assumed that the “he” and “his” identify him.

If we add a third sentence, “He said it had fleas,” the reader would naturally assume that it was Harry who pointed out the kitten’s defects. To make it clear that Dick mentioned the fleas, the writer would need to reintroduce him. “Dick said it had fleas.”

While we’re on the subject of clear identification, the “it” that has fleas might just as easily be the house as the kitten, though it is far more likely that kittens have fleas than that houses do. Nonetheless, it would be just as easy and far clearer to say, “Dick said the kitten had fleas.”

There are times, however, when reintroducing a “he” makes the sentence awkward—worse, unnatural. And any unnatural syntax is going to draw readers out of the story they are reading. You don’t want that.

Here’s an example from a short steampunk story I recently read. I have changed the names to conceal the story’s identity—and shield the writer, who, for the most part, wrote a good story.

“It was always Dick’s job to bring meals down from the kitchen, and every time he climbed the stairs he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off and leaving it lying on its back, on Dick’s cot.”

In this particular story, Dick is a boy and Harry is an automaton he made from scrap metal. Since the reader knows Harry is only a mechanical toy, it is easy enough to guess the cot belongs to Dick, not Harry.

“It was always Dick’s job to bring meals down from the kitchen, and every time he climbed the stairs he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off and leaving it lying on its back, on his cot.”

Grammar rules were invented for clarity. If the meaning is clear already, there is SOME wiggle room. However, if violating the pronoun-introduction rule is just too much for the writer to personally overcome, he or she (sorry, but I still think the blank-check “they” is lazy writing, even if it is more polite) ought to reword the sentence.

“Any time Dick left the cellar, he made a point to secure Harry by turning it off, leaving it lying on its back on his cot.”

Since Harry is an “it” there is no confusion with the “he.” Also, by shortening the sentence, I put Dick closer to his pronoun. I’m not sure why the writer felt it necessary to point out that it was Dick’s job to bring down meals from the kitchen. Dick surely left the cellar more frequently than those times when he had kitchen duty. Since he secured Harry each time he left the cellar, it wasn’t necessary to tack the kitchen duty onto the front end of that sentence. After the writer established Dick’s habits, she (or he) could open the subject of that one time when Dick went up for the dinner tray and came back to find Harry—

Well, I won’t ruin the story for you.

If you have an awkward pronoun placement, the best way of correcting it, in most cases, is simply to rephrase the sentence.

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