Writing Excuses 8.7: Cliffhangers and Icebergs with Robison Wells

Double the Wells brothers for double the fun! Robison Wells joins us for a discussion of cliffhangers. Rob and Dan can be found together on another podcast called Do I Dare to Eat a Peach.

Rob’s first novel, Variant, ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, which is resolved in Feedback, the second novel. Rob confesses to us that he likes leaving readers wondering about portions of the world-building — that’s the 90% of the iceberg invisible beneath the surface of the water. He also withholds lots of information from the reader, and does so without cheating since the POV character has no way to know these things.

We talk at length about how we keep information from the reader, and how the less we tell, the more suspense we can provide.

The Variant cliffhanger is a particularly sharp one. Rob defends it for us, and talks about why he and his editors decided to conclude the first book in the series the way they did. Mary discusses how she handles pacing with internal cliffhangers at chapter breaks. Dan tells us about some interesting reader reaction to Partials.


Write the story of the scary, scary shade from Phantom of the Opera.

Variant and Feedback by Robison Wells, both narrated by Michael Goldstrom

28 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.7: Cliffhangers and Icebergs with Robison Wells”

  1. Another good podcast.

    I had the same reaction to Variant many readers had: “That’s it? That’s the end? You [Expletative]!” Cliffhangers done right make you want to read the next book but done poorly they make the author look lazy. A cliffhanger can come across as, “I’ll worry about this later” . The other risk you run with Cliffhangers is the risk that the cliffhanger will never be resolved which happens in TV so much. How many perfectly good TV Shows have ended in Cliffhangers but were not picked up for another season?

    With the “Iceberg” situation: Done well, hinting that a small part of a larger world will draw you in. Done wrong it shows the bad writing for what it is, spackle on a plot hole or a cardboard cut-out of a world. The key to that is consistency. I recommend building your entire word and how it all fits together before you start dropping breadcrumbs for the reader. The bane of all writers is consistency and most of the problems with failed icebergs come from inconsistency. I have never read the Phantom of The Opera but a one off bit like that mystery figure would hit the cutting room floor in anything I made because that bit has nothing to do with the rest of the story and all it does is cheat the audience.

    When Brandon mentioned Lost’s writing philosophy, I remembered J.J. Abrams’ TED Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/j_j_abrams_mystery_box.html

  2. The “WHAT? HOW CAN THIS BE THE END??!” reaction didn’t happen to me with Variant…but it DID happen in Feedback. I read an e-copy (because I didn’t want to wait) and I thought my file corrupted–so I had to check it against a physical copy from the bookstore. I admit I was left very confused with Feedback’s ending and it felt like it opened up more questions than it resolved.

    I don’t remember the cliffhanger ending in Variant (or I wasn’t THAT unsatisfied), but it must’ve worked because I was left counting down to Feedback’s release.

  3. I’ll take a listen in a bit, but I’ve found a lot of it has to do with how the brain works, by letting it fill in all the details for itself. This is what I like. This is why I find writing comic script that determine everything visual before I draw it to be sort of like Outlining is for a novelist.

    Lets take an example, a basic poem of Setting, Subject, Action.

    A yellow room,
    A printer waits, unplugged from the computer,
    And asks you to print off your manuscript.

    You don’t have to know all the details of the room, sometimes your mind fills in the rest.

  4. A cliffhanger will often make me abandon a series unless I have the next book right next to me. If I read the book as it comes out then I know my choice is to be frustrated for a year, or to lose interest.

    I acknowledge that I appear to be in the minority with this though.

  5. You can reference one of your icebergs from earlier in the story to provide a hook or not-quite-cliffhanger ending. Like Obi-Wan and Yoda in Empire Strikes Back with the dialogue: “That boy is our last hope,” / “No, there is another”. It’s an obvious hint as to what’s coming but at the same time it adds a lot of depth to the world. And, in that case, fear that just maybe Luke could lose, because he’s not the last hope.

    I’m not a fan of cliffhangers, either reading or writing them, but they can be extremely effective.

  6. Excellent podcast and excellent timing (as usual). My WIP is going to end with a cliffhanger and I’ve been second guessing the wisdom of that. I like what it does for the story and that it will make people pick up the sequel, I’m just not sure if it will make the novel easier to sell to a publisher. Hearing how it worked for Rob eased my mind a bit.

  7. I was reading a message board where they made a joke that the Shade was actually Sherlock Holmes.:P

  8. Another great podcast…thanks!

    I’m not a huge fan of cliffhangers, but when done well, I can see their purpose to the story, and I actually enjoy them. Teasers fall into this category for me. When cliffhangers are done poorly, however, not only can it seem lazy, but I sometimes see it as a ploy to keep me buying books, rather than using the strength of the writing and story to keep me intrigued.

  9. Great podcast guys! A great book to study for unexpected twists and cliff hangers is Louisa May Alcott’s, “A Long Fatal Love Chase”. It was written to be released in the serial format of it’s day but was deemed too racy by her publishers and was never printed in her lifetime. By today’s standards, it’s pretty tame. The novel follows a steady pattern of cliff hanger and twist, cliff hanger and twist. For a guy who doesn’t normally read serial stalker type romance novels, I loved it.

  10. Dan says towards the end that a lot of readers won’t start reading a series if it hasn’t been finished and he doesn’t really get that mindset but it makes perfect sense to me. Look at Wheel of Time even, Jordan died before he finished the books so Brandon took over. They’re still wonderful reads but I’m sure there is a hardcore WOT fanscene who will always feel disappointed or cheated by that. It’s the same with Steven King and the Dark Tower series. It first came out in the very early 80’s and he almost died in the middle of the books. If you had been following those books since inception and that car accident claimed his life that would be a cliffhanger that would never be resolved. Do you want to spend your free time reading a series that really engages you and has a very real chance of never concluding? This could very well happen with A Song of Ice and Fire. I hope not since I went ahead and read all of those books knowing they’re not finished and it ends with a cliffhanger that makes you want to stab a stranger.

  11. That is the catch 22. There is a sizable group of readers that won’t read an unfinished series. However, if everyone only reads finished series it becomes more difficult for the publisher or author to know whether they have a hit or a flop from that first book or two and whether to finish it out or cut the losses and move on to another project.

    I suspect they can still tell which are doing well or poorly due to fan feedback and sales to those who don’t insist on waiting till all the books are done. But I’m with Merryxmas on this one, the sentiment is totally understandable from a reader perspective.

  12. Ah, great Scheherazade, when will your story end? In a 1000 and one nights?

    What will happen when a pair of blue eyes stare into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in a cliff?

    Pauline! Can anyone get there in time to untie her before the train runs over her?

    Will Lassie bring help in time, or how long can Timmie tread water in the old well?

    Stay tuned, and in the meantime, read the transcript!


  13. On cliffhangers, am I the only that finds as much as I try to write a short story, it always ends on a cliffhanger, but then later find I can’t finish it?

    Also, is there a way for a writer not to be perceived as having “Golden Words”, a term I’ve very recently became familiar with. A lot of times its not the critique itself I have a problem with, its editor hostility.

    Which I don’t understand when they present themselves as someone who critiques any genre. This is why I’m leery about anyone who says.

    Are there any editors that specialize in a specific scifi genre?

  14. Sarah, when you say “editor” what do you mean? Are you talking about online readers and critics, or the people in magazines and publishing organizations who buy submissions and help clean them up and fit them for their publications? Most editors in publications focus. It sounds to me as if you are submitting to online criticism. It might be useful to listen to the podcasts about working with a writing group and readers — you may very well need to hunt a bit to get readers and critiques that will work for you.

  15. Good podcast.

    What bothers me as a reader/viewer is when the follow-up to the cliffhanger ends up diminishing its impact. Sometimes the issue creating all the tension gets dealt with briefly, perhaps even perfunctorilly, and the beginning of the next installment. It is particularly irritating to me when the way that the cliffhanger is dealt with is to reveal hidden information to reveal that what the audience thought had happened wasn’t really what had happened.

    I see this problem a lot more with TV than with books, but some authors handle end-of-chapter cliffhangers this way.

  16. I wonder about the difference between “cliff hangers” and plain-old intrigue. I suppose, as a rather visual person, I actually perceive a cliff hanger to be an ending (like, you know, you’re actually hanging off the damn cliff. It’s the end, or you’re saved in the next chapter. Or the next book. Or the next show.) But it seems like we’re expanding the term cliff hanger to also mean simply creating mystery and drawing in the reader through establishing intrigue. Is every unanswered question a “cliff-hanger?”

    I admit, I’m having trouble looking at Jaffar’s staff as a cliff-hanger instead of a simple “atmosphere-creator.” Ditto for the shade in “The Phantom of the Opera.”

  17. SAS? I think that’s what Brandon meant when he tried to separate the iceberg principle (deepen the background and setting) and cliffhangers (teasing the next segment – scene, chapter, book, episode). I agree, intriguing but unexplained background doth not a cliffhanger make. Unanswered questions with an expectation that they will be answered later… Do!

  18. Well like my issue tends to be, I might end the story on a completely different perspective from the main character, and then end the short story on a cliff hanger from that other character.

    This is most common when I write mystery short stories.

  19. You guys expressed what sounded like confusion about people not starting a series until the whole thing is done. I can give you several good reasons why.

    1. Michael Jordan
    2. George R. R. Martin
    3. Joanne Bertin
    4. Jean M. Auel
    5. Melanie Rawn

    It’s people who either leave series hanging (Jordan, Bertin, Rawn) or who have such a pause between two books of their series that the readers honestly give up and move on (Martin, Auel). (Yes, some people who leave things hanging don’t have a choice. Maybe put H. Beam Piper in there, too.)

    We’ve been burned. Oh, how we’ve been burned. So I’m one of those people who typically will not read a new-to-me series until all of the books in it are written, if I can see that it either has no foreseeable end (Jordan, back when I stopped at book 5 and at which time I formed this rule) or has a finite story. Harry Potter and Harry Dresden are exceptions, as are some of the other urban fantasy series I read, because . . . how do I put this? I don’t get as personally involved with the characters, so it doesn’t bother me as much if it’s two years before the next book comes out.

    Another thing you guys didn’t mention (that I recall) is the cliffhanger used manipulatively and transparently to get the reader to turn the page. This is why I quit reading Dan Brown books after three. I realized that he’s a one-trick pony whose bag of tricks is unlikely to mature since they don’t have to. And his trick is to end each scene with a cliffhanger. Each conversation, almost. It’s manipulative, it’s transparent, and it’s frankly insulting after a while.

    On the other hand, Mike Stackpole in Dark Glory War hits readers with a beautiful cliffhanger right at the end that is probably just as manipulative, but I don’t hate him (too much) because I had come to care about his characters enough that, dangit, I want to know what happens to them.

  20. Yep. I noticed it right away. But there’s no way to fix it after it’s entered, so I was hoping people would just assume and go on. :)

    The point is still valid, however.

  21. But doesn’t that sort of force the beginning writer to start with short stories first to get their foot in the door?

    Yet often I find even with starting with a short story, it often ends up in a cliff hangar, I’m not very good with endings in particular. I keep leaving it where I’m asking myself for more, yet can not give.

    A key example was with A Mechanic Slave, a comic script in 22 pages, a time travel short story.

  22. I forgot to add, though I did write that story of 3,000 words in about a day. So it felt a bit rushed, hence why I decided it was best not to publish it.

  23. Great cast. I love ambiguity and agree with Rob Wells on the hinting at a bigger, deeper world without spelling it out. I tend not to describe my protag either. Some people hate that, but, as a reader, I like space to imagine, unless the way they look is central to the way people react to them.

    I tend not to read long series of books, so haven’t really experienced the cliffhanger in fiction, only in comics and TV shows.

    Off to read Phantom of the Opera now.

  24. I am not a writer, just listening to Writing Excuses for the fun of it. Very entertaining, and I learn a lot, almost by accident. I still DO read long series, even though I really suffered with Robert Jordan and Diana Gabaldon. But its worth it when the books are so good. Gabaldon is less cruel, because all her books do have an ending, even if many questions stay unanswered. The last one is the exception with a very shocking open end. My worst cliffhanger moment was with Jordan, when Mat stays burried under a house at the end: after having waited for years for the next book, Mat did not even appear in it!!!!

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