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Leave ’Em Hanging

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the last couple of weeks, you’ll know that this is season finale time on TV. Those of us who are TV addicts have been tuning in to see bigger, badder, bolder episodes of our favorite shows. . .wondering what they could possibly do to whet our appetites and make us return to view the program next fall (or January).

Good storytellers have an innate ability to “write to the hook.” They’re so tuned in to the structure of each scene/chapter in their story that they know just when to “drop the bomb” to keep the viewer/reader wanting more.

mentalistTwo nights ago, we watched the season finale of The Mentalist, one of the new shows I started watching this year. Even though this is an episodic (serial) show (click here for more on the three types of series in novels and TV), there has been a recurring story thread throughout: Patrick Jane’s wife and child were murdered by a serial killer called Red John, whom they’ve been running across clues about all throughout the season. Last night, of course, centered on a Red John case—and made it look like Jane might finally corner his quarry and bring Red John to justice.

About halfway through the show, my mom said, “Of course he’s not going to catch Red John. They wouldn’t have anything to go on with next season.”

I’d been thinking about that as we sat down to watch it: what would be the ongoing thread, what would Jane’s motivation be, if they let him catch Red John at the end of the first season?

Where would M*A*S*H* have been if the Korean War had ended at the end of their first season? What would have made us want to come back for another season of Quantum Leap if Sam Beckett had been able to leap back to his own time/body at the end of each season? Why would we have continued watching Star Trek: Voyager if they’d established contact with the Alpha Quadrant/Starfleet Command early on in the series’ run and figured out the shortcut to get home?

Why would I want to keep reading a novel that’s going to resolve every single conflict a character runs into at the end of each chapter?

One of the comments I made on several manuscripts that I judged in the Genesis contest was: “While your opening is well written and you do have an interesting hook in your opening line, unfortunately, nothing actually happens in your first fifteen pages to get the story started.” It was either a character traveling from one place to another (two of them on a stagecoach—and the entries were so similar in other ways, I contacted the category coordinator afterward to see if they’d been written by the same person. They weren’t.); or a scene that starts off with an exploration of an internal conflict for a character (a fear-based situation), which then didn’t take her anywhere but back to her bedroom (it did introduce her as a character, but didn’t give an inciting incident that pointed to what the story would be about); or characters blithely going about doing what they’re doing (whether traveling on that stagecoach, weathering a storm, waiting for a train to leave the station, or taking over the running of a medieval keep after her father’s death) and not running into any roadblocks or conflicts that made me want to read the rest of the story once I was finished with the first fifteen pages.

This is where we novelists can learn from screenwriters, whether TV or movies. Because screenwriters have such a limited time to work with—and because they only have sight and sound to work with, not introspection/narrative (unless they use a lot of voiceovers, which can get really old really fast)—they start each episode with a bang and then have each scene move toward a hook, before the opening credits or before each commercial break.

vincentOne of my favorite episodic programs is Law & Order: Criminal Intent. This is mostly because I love the character of Detective Bobby Goren created by Vincent d’Onofrio. Even though each week’s case is “solved” by the end of the one-hour run-time (and I have that word in quotation marks because they don’t always wrap up the rough ends of each case, especially since they dropped the courtroom portion of the case a couple of years ago where we got to see what happened after they figured out whodunit), there’s always a “last line” that leaves the viewer hanging. It’s usually Bobby who gets the last word in, but occasionally it’s his partner, Eames, or even the captain. (Of course, thats on the “Bobby Episodes.” Jeff Goldblum’s new character has yet to gel for me—but I have only seen one of his episodes so far.) It’s that last line, the little quip, the phone call that comes in at the last minute, the message handed to one of them—but not revealed—that leaves questions in the viewer’s mind that makes us want to come back and watch again next week (and beloved characters, but that’s a different post).

So think about some of the season finales you’ve seen (or if you don’t watch TV, some of the movies you’ve seen or some of the books you’ve read) and examine how they ended that make you antsy to find out what happens next or to watch again the next season to see how a continuing thread is going to either be resolved or build to be even greater motivation for those beloved characters. (And if you’re going to be specific about what’s happened in currently airing series, be sure to mark your comment with ***SPOILER ALERT***.)

  1. Carman Boley permalink
    Thursday, May 21, 2009 10:04 am



  2. Thursday, May 21, 2009 10:41 am

    So…My first chapter is about the heroine preparing to leave (I’ve added a lot since you read it)…it’s about the conflict of not wanting to leave, and meeting the (supposedly) disagreeable hero (which I added since you’ve read it). I’ve looked it over a million times and I can’t see how I could re-arrange anything. The second chapter is all about riding in a train (oops. ;-)) I am sensing that there’s not enough conflict there, other than her meeting the future antagonist. Maybe I’m just getting nervous and nit-picking at it. But no one blows up or dies or anything drastic in the first chapter. The hero falls in love, but that’s about it. I guess I’m asking, how could I add something huge to hook people in a chapter where about the only thing she does is moan that she has to leave and meets the hero who’s come to accompany her?


  3. Carman Boley permalink
    Thursday, May 21, 2009 11:02 am

    OOPS! ***SPOILER ALERT*** NCIS just had its season finale on Tuesday. At the almost very end you find out one of the main characters is leaving. Of course, I swore never to watch the show again as it is my favorite character. Then, lo and behold, they show the person kidnapped! They are in a room tied to a chair, being interogated!!! I will now be watching the next season, as they left me with a HUGE cliff-hanger. Very well done on their part, even though I nearly had a heart attack. *Huge dramatic sigh* I can’t wait for season 7!


  4. Thursday, May 21, 2009 11:06 am

    It doesn’t have to be something huge, there just needs to be enough potential for conflict set up in the opening few chapters to keep the reader interested. Riding on a train is fine–as long as your character is doing something interesting, meeting someone interesting, or running into conflicts that make this not just a run-of-the-mill train ride. If it’s just a train ride to get her from one place to another, if it’s only filled with stuff going on inside her head and no real action/conflict, then it needs to be reduced down to a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph, and a quick movement into the next active scene.

    Action and interaction (dialogue) between characters is what creates conflict and tension. But make sure that your action/interaction is always moving the story forward.


  5. Thursday, May 21, 2009 11:44 am

    Carman! Was the NCIS finale for season 6 their best yet! I couldn’t believe it when we got to the end – I was like I have to wait almost FOUR months for the conclusion! I just about threw a pillow at my TV – that’s when I know somethings GREAT or AWFUL. This one was great. NCIS is my favorite show too and I have to say that the finale was beautifully and skillfully written – they brought back so many recurring story lines, even going back to season 3 and weaved it in wonderfully. I’ve always admired the writing and more specifically plotting of this show. I think it has one of the better writing staffs out there. Oh I’d love to sit in on their discussions when they’re plotting out the main arcs they want to bring into the season and how they’re going to make it happen!


  6. Thursday, May 21, 2009 11:45 am

    PS: CSI NY and CSI Miami had good cliffhanger endings. As did House. I think we can learn a lot from TV.


  7. Jess permalink
    Thursday, May 21, 2009 1:16 pm

    The fourth season of the Office left with a hook. Jim was supposed to propose to Pam, and then he didn’t because a secondary character proposed to his girlfriend at the same event. This left the audience wondering if this was some kind of sign of trouble for Jim and Pam as a couple (as well as why the two secondary characters would ever get engaged.) The audience had been expecting them to get engaged for weeks, so if they had, it wouldn’t have been interesting.
    But then, when it turned out to be just a fluke, in hindsight it seemed like a trick. I think television can get away with this more easily than books. In books, I think people have more of an expectation that everything should mean something.


  8. Renee permalink
    Thursday, May 21, 2009 5:47 pm


    Oh my goodness…speaking of season finales, Grey’s Anatomy’s was the worst for me! I LOVE the show and I really like the character Izzy Stevens. Earlier in the season she was diagnosed with skin cancer with a 5 percent survival rate! Soooo I was like, “Great she’s gonna die,” so I was sad about that but I kinda knew she wasn’t going to live…then Dr. Shepard’s like “O I can operate and get the tumor out.” So I was all like, “Oh so she’s gonna be okay”, then at the end of the finale, she codes…greeeaaaatttt!!!! So what happened to her? Then on top of all this we meet this hero who’s brought into the ER after being dragged by a bus after saving a woman’s life and we all root for him…then at the last second of the show we learn it’s George!!!!! What gives! Some writer’s sure know how to do it don’t they?


  9. Thursday, May 21, 2009 7:02 pm

    I love my shows, but hook or not, I am so glad the end is here so I can get some writing done!


  10. Thursday, May 21, 2009 8:50 pm

    “Dirty Dancing”….Baby and Johnny ~ did he make sure she was NEVER put in a corner again?


  11. Thursday, May 21, 2009 11:04 pm

    I love a good cliffhanger. One of my favorites is at the end of season 1 of Life, when Detective Crews finds out that he’d just seen the girl he’s been looking for. He just didn’t recognize her, and now she’s in the hands of the bad guys. Is he going to be able to find her before the bad guys kill her? It’s a great question.

    Whenver I’m writing a “leaving my readers hanging” moment, I always ask myself what question I’m really asking with the scene. If my question isn’t strong enough or I just don’t care about the answer, I know I’ve got to change something. If I don’t care about the answer, how can I hope my readers will. If my hero is on the run: will he be caught by whoever is pursuing him? The part I love is that the answer doesn’t always have to be no. The answer just has to lead down a new path.


  12. Friday, May 22, 2009 6:25 am

    The Castle hook was great. *Spoiler* A continuing story line through the 9 episodes of the first season was the cold case murder of Detective Beckett’s mother that drove her to become a police officer in the first place. Castle starts digging around in the case, even though Beckett tells him not to (in fact, she warns him if he touches it, their working relationship is over). In the finale, he gets a lead on her mom’s death, deliberates over telling her at the risk of losing her, and the last line is, “Beckett, sit down…it’s about your mother.”

    I’m SO glad the show was renewed, and I can’t wait to see her reaction this fall.

    I’m curious to see how long they carry on the arc about her mom’s death. Will they have enough other conflicts to keep the tension going that they can resolve it in the second season? Or will they drag it through into the third?

    JAG (which created the spinoff NCIS) did a good job with the arc about Harm’s MIA dad. Lots of good finale moments for the first few seasons with that. Then they were able to resolve it in season 4 (of 10) and developed other conflicts as cliffhangers…Harm leaves JAG, Mac leaves JAG (they both come back), Mac is going to marry Mic/wait, no she’s not because Harm is lost at sea, Bud’s leg is blown off my a mine in Afganistan…etc. I watched the first 5 seasons when they were on then got too busy with college, marriage, first job, etc. Now my husband and I are catching up on the show on DVD. We’re almost to the end of season 8, but we don’t want to watch the last episode because it’s going to leave Mac and Webb stranded in South America, and season 9 doesn’t release for several months!


  13. Jennifer permalink
    Friday, May 22, 2009 4:11 pm

    Becky~ I know exactly how you feel with JAG. I’ve been getting the DVDs as they come out and rewatching (i’ve already scene every ep…) I keep going oh what am I going to do between waits for the DVDs 😀 I have to remind myself I already know what happens! 😀


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