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To Be Continued · 11:07am January 31st

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel, you will never be stuck.”


The article goes into studies exploring how that advice applies pretty generally to our psychology, how being interrupted can make us more impulsive, in both positive and negative ways.

I can't even remember how, but it occurred to me that it's not just a motivation trick for authors writing stories. It's also audiences reading them. Or watching. or listening or smelling


I guess it's really obvious common sense. When something's unresolved, you gotta come back for more, right? Usually? I can't say there's such a thing as a bad cliffhanger... If you don't feel compelled to see more, it's probably because the whole story itself was dull. Sometimes a cliffhanger can feel like a transparent marketing trick, but if the story's good enough then you don't care. Maybe begrudgingly because you have to pay for the next part, depending on the medium.

Why did I still end up thinking about this then, if there's no bad ones? I think there could be good ones, memorable ones.


I recently rewatched Madoka Magica. I won't spoil anything at all here, but if you haven't seen it then you should, even if you don't watch Magical Girl shows. Go into it completely blind and it's an amazing experience.

The episodes end in unusual, deliberate shots. They stuck in my mind, but I couldn't articulate it until writing this out. So each episode contains its own little arc. It begins by asking a question - what decision will this character make, what motivates that character, etc. - and by the end it has answered that. And then, sometimes, it will go just a little bit further before cutting to the credits. Like it's beginning a new episode (and plot arc) before interrupting itself.

It causes a weird mix of feelings. One is feeling satisfied at the episode's arc concluding. But there's that little cliffhanger bit developing out of that, and I'm going "no no! Keep going! I need to see what happens now!" Madoka isn't even my favorite show, but I think it might have THE best pacing of any show I've seen. It always feels like it's moving forward and providing something new, while also leaving you hungry for more. It fulfills its promises and give you answers, then builds on that to offer more questions. It's very tight and smartly directed.

They say in showbiz "always leave the audience wanting more" but in kind of a vague way that, at worst, has writers delivering nothing while constantly teasing that the payoff will come later. Or maybe just chopping 1 story into 2 parts (of all MLP two-parters, the only one I can think of that actually feels like two arcs is the Discord battle)

The Good Place season 1 is really effective at this structure. Here's a problem; the problem's handled; but here's a new development AND tune in next time!

But.... it's not just the structure. There's something even weirder about Madoka Magica's cliffhangers that I couldn't quite identify until now. They still end on weird moments that don't feel very typical.

And I think the internet already figured this out, years ago. It's a popular meme!

I checked the original manga for this moment, it happens at the beginning of the chapter rather than the end, so this was a deliberate directing decision. This isn't how we typically see cliffhangers (and thus trained to write them). It doesn't end on a question. "Here's something unexpected. What does this mean? What will our hero decide? What is going to happen next? Where do we go from here? Tune in next time, same bat time, same bat channel."

Zeppeli has already made his decision. The audience knows exactly what's going to happen next. And yet we NEED to see it unfold. This is also how certain Madoka Magica episodes cut off, right when something was beginning. You connect the logic together, and your prediction is proven correct, but you don't get the climax.

Neither show does this all the time, but it's very memorable when they do. And after looking at them this way, I could identify how various cliffhangers were different, and being used for different emotional effects.

Not saying this is necessarily more effective, maybe. Just fascinated that somehow it does work, despite our intuition saying it shouldn't.

Maybe Hemingway's advice is to be taken literally. Stop when you know what will happen next.

Maybe it all goes back to Vonnegut saying that suspense is overrated. He could spoil his own book's ending within the first chapter, and still make it so interesting that you have to see how it gets there. Though he might be an exception, many authors do fine without imitating him. And suspense can still be quite fun, I wouldn't take that away from people. Just saying that it's not a requirement, there are other options.

And now it sounds like I'm contradicting my earlier suggestion to watch that anime blind. I'm not. I can think of several stories that I strongly believe shouldn't be spoiled, or they lose something critically important. But I never justify that because of "suspense"! It's something better than that.

Report hazeyhooves · 87 views · #cliffhangers
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Comments ( 4 )

Big big big second to watching Madoka, and especially watching Madoka blind.

On the subject of the article, the manga Beastars does this CONSTANTLY. I was always struggling to put it down even at like 1/2/3(/4/5) AM. It's not that every chapter leaves you wondering what's going to happen next, just that, like, the natural rhythm of the story is offset slightly from the chapter breaks. So you can never quite stop, because you never feel like you've reached a temporary ending. (Though, thinking about it, there are definitely a decent number of good old fashioned cliffhangers in there.)

You know I think another good way to handle cliff hangers is with the "problem of the week" structure embedded in an overarching story. I think you've talked about this before. I remember the tv show Burn Notice did this well too (old example I know but I don't watch tv anymore >.< ). Each episode would fully conclude a story, the problem of the week, but then further develop the overarching story in the final minutes. Wanting to see the conclusion to that story made you come back next time. But it didn't feel cheap because the problems of the week were fun, interesting, and did all the lifting with character exploration and development. They mattered.

My (limited) experience aligns with Hemmingway's advice. I've found it easier to pick up writing a story the next day when I stopped with a clear idea of what was happening next. It made me motivated to write again, because there's no challenge to write what I already know will happen (I'm talking on the level of sentences and dialogue here, not plot outlines), and therefore no work or stress to make me shy from it. So, for example, stopping in the middle of a conversation when you already have the rest of it in your head, as opposed to stopping when you can't think what will be said next. If I do the latter, I know going in the next day I have mental work to do before I can write a single sentence, and will then likely procrastinate.

Though I don't think this would apply to everyone.

Have to admit Hemingway's advice doesn't resonate with my writing experience. Leaving a scene unfinished ruins the flow of the story in my head, and is pretty much guaranteed to kill whatever momentum I generated in getting it that far. If I come back to it later, I either have to be in just the right mindset to keep going or have to start off supremely confident in the direction I'm taking, both of which are remote contingencies.

I have a string of unfinished stories where I ran out of steam partway through an unfinished section, and the idea of going back to continue one is about as welcome to me as diving into a pool would be to an aquaphobe. I need to make serious preparations just to try it, and failure is more often the result than success. Killing your own momentum is like tripping yourself up just as you're reaching a comfortable speed.

That's fair, though I think it isn't meant to be "kill your own momentum", but about preparing ahead of time for when you come back to the project. Because you have to sleep eventually. :raritywink:

One trick I heard about is to pause partway through a sentence, so that when you come back to it the next day, you can look at that fragment and think of all the ways you could finish the thought. Maybe you were already thinking about the perfect next line. For a lot of people that seems easier for getting back into the creative flow, rather than beginning a brand new chapter and hope it flows naturally after.... whatever was in your head several days ago. It's like a gift from your past self, a puzzle for you to solve.

But since I tend to procrastinate with writing, I'll usually just write and finish everything I do in one sitting. I'm a hypocrite.

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