Monday, November 14, 2011

The perils of cliff-hanging

Al Capp, the famous cartoonist who created Li'l Abner, said that more people bought newspapers if they were worried by a comic strip than if they were merely amused by one. Capp pointed out that if you read Dick Tracy, you didn't laugh when you got to the last panel. You gasped or moaned when a gun was fired at the famed detective. There was no peace for the reader until he or she found out what happened.

The above bit of folk wisdom comes from the book The Art of the Funnies by Robert C. Harvey.

It applies perfectly, however, to the novelist who employs cliff-hanger endings, as I do in my Jim McGill series: The President's Henchman, The Hangman's Companion and now The K Street Killer. In all three books in the series, I end the story with a character placed in sudden jeopardy.

In the new McGill novel, which I abbreviate TKSK, there is a crucial difference. I raise the stakes big time. In The President's Henchman and The Hangman's Companion, the characters who find themselves in danger are important but supporting figures. In TKSK, there are two characters placed at risk: one a principal character, the other someone guaranteed to tug at heartstrings.

The early reactions to the book have been: Loved the story, hated being left in suspense. "I'll have to wait months to find out what happened."

At this point, I need to say that nothing in my professional life makes me happier than making my readers happy. That reaction tells me I have not labored in vain. It also says I'll be able to support myself long enough to write again.

Nonetheless, I have to follow where my muse leads me. If I don't, my source of inspiration might take a powder. Then all I'd be is a guy with a good vocabulary and nowhere to put it.

So I ask you, dear reader, please indulge me my creative choices. They're what give me satisfaction and bring you the stories you, more often than not, find so winning. And bear in mind I'm not only honoring my muse, I'm also following the dictum of one of the greats of modern popular culture.

"Always leave 'em wanting more." Walt Disney

(Please let me know what you think about cliffhangers, characters in jeopardy, and writers listening to their muse.)


  1. You said the magic words 'I have to follow where my muse leads me'.

    Some readers may be frustrated, but your motives are pure! Your faithful followers will eagerly await another great story!

    And I will be eagerly awaiting another great post! Nicely done!

  2. Joe,

    It's a chapter-ending technique everyone uses and but I never thought of it for the ending of a novel in a series. I guess it puts the pressure on you to push out the next one.

    Interesting post; thanks.

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  4. I thought the ending was disappointing. One of the particularly satisfying things about the other books was the robust denouement. In the case of the daily comics, they are, well, daily. With six months between books, I am not sure that even the most ardent readers'interest will not have wondered. I am sure that you have considered this and the cliff-hanger leads one to the choice of only two possible conclusions as to your motivation.

  5. I tape my favorite TV shows and watch them later to edit out the commercials...waiting between novels in a series is like being forced to sit through very long boring commercials, anxious for the show to this case, I do not have a choice! I will patiently wait for Mr. Flynn's next and next and next SUPERB work of fiction!