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Excitement! Suspense! Cliffhangers! Or…not. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Excitement! Suspense! Cliffhangers! Or…not. [Jan. 25th, 2015|11:48 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Further in my watching of ten gajillion cop shows with my workouts, I have noticed an alarming tendency to try to add suspense in all the wrong places. Not every season has to end with a cliffhanger. If people like your show, they will keep watching your show.


I repeat: NOT EVER SEASON HAS TO END WITH A CLIFFHANGER.


But if you do choose to end your season (chapter, whatever piece of your narrative arc) with a cliffhanger, for the love of Pete can you make it one that actually…cliffhangs? Competently?


For example: “Will this be the end for the group of people this story focuses on?” No. No it will not. Everyone knows it will not. Exactly zero cop shows ever have completely disbanded their unit after that kind of cliffhanger, and the ones that have sort of disbanded it (The Wire S1 into S2) did not make it a cliffhanger. They just said: yup, now we are shifting these characters around to do something different. “Will [only female character] perish in a watery grave?” I’m just going to guess no there. “Will [main protagonist] spend his life in jail for a murder he didn’t commit?” Also going with no.


And okay, yes, if you’re doing it right, the suspense is not whether they will get out of something but how–but in the cases above, the “how” looks pretty obvious. How will [only female character] not perish in a watery grave? Well, by swimming or by having one of the others pick her up in a boat, I’m guessing. Haven’t seen that one yet, so we’ll see. And how will [main protag] get out of jail for a murder he didn’t commit? In a cop show–except for The Wire pretty much universally invested in the system working–I’m going to guess exonerating evidence. Wheee. So could you please stop pretending that we don’t know these things?


Putting a secondary character in peril is more effective than putting a protag in peril if you have established a reason for us to be interested in the secondary character–and if we actually believe you’d carry through with it. By the time you’ve watched a season of a show (read several chapters of the book, etc.), you have some idea whether it’s the sort of show that would let a bad guy murder a 4-year-old. That kind of show has to signal its turns pretty early on, or they will put off the people who are watching it to unwind of an evening with a little light mystery. We live in a narrative-savvy age. You have to roll with it.


Also more effective: putting a protag in non-mortal peril of a kind you’d carry through with. Fiction does horrible things to series protags as long as it lets them keep protagging. “Maybe their spouse will leave them or die!” Yep, unless the spouse is seriously major in the show (El in White Collar, for example), that can happen. “Maybe they will be demoted but still able to do the stuff we thought was interesting about them!” Yep. “Maybe they will have an injury they will have to work through in implausible PT episodes!” Wait, that’s a different gripe. (LEGEND OF KORRA PT FAIL ARGH.) You can make them sad. You can make them lonely. You can make them injured. We know these things happen to protags, so we can actually worry that they will happen this time.


Tim and I had a beautiful alternate universe Criminal Minds for the season in which there was an SUV explosion and it was strongly implied one of the team members was in the SUV at the time. In the time between seasons, we lovingly detailed the adventures of Aaron Hotchner after he had recovered from his massive burns and was dealing with trying to run the BAU from a wheelchair while doing actual rehab so the scar tissue wouldn’t cripple his fine motor control and still raise his son. But we knew they would never, ever do it. The question for the beginning of that season was “how will they cheat,” not “who will be killed or maimed.” And really, “how will they cheat” is pretty much always less satisfying suspense. It’s got the viewer/reader thinking about the creator, not the characters. Not what we want.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: mamculuna
2015-01-25 06:14 pm (UTC)
I don't know your feelings about Game of Thrones, but since that show does quite often kill off major characters, cliffhangers could work. But they don't use them all that much--I'm thinking especially of the Red Wedding, a season ender that let us know who did and didn't survive.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2015-01-25 09:38 pm (UTC)
Game of Thrones even tends to put its wham moments like the Red Wedding in episode 9 of a season rather than 10, and then uses that last episode to denoument and tease us about the next season (Neln ba gur fuvc gb Oenibf). It's one of the things I really like about it.

With the exception of GoT I almost never watch shows these days as they air, and I won't start something which seems likely to end on a cliffhanger unless I know that episode 1 of the next season is available. I really don't like unresolved cliffhangers. I've almost never found their resolution satisfying, for all those reasons you describe, but at least I can release the tension.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 12:37 am (UTC)
I find Game of Thrones far more predictable than most people seem to. Yes, it kills major characters, but never the ones who feel "safe." I know this mostly from the books, but I doubt that the TV show has diverged significantly and started killing Arya, Bran, etc.
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2015-01-26 02:35 am (UTC)
TV is weird about cliffhangers as they seem to come in and out of fashion and now they're back in again so people seem to expect them at the end of the season. I think previously when they were "in" they were special events, it wasn't every darn show doing them. And these days, it isn't even just season finale cliffhangers, but we have half-season cliffhangers and the like. If they give us cliffhangers at every major break in the season it's no longer exciting at all, especially when shows take a potentially dramatic event and then do everything they can to return the characters and show to the way it was pre-cliffhanger.

I'm crazy about shows where they don't do the predictable thing though it can be incredibly disconcerting to watch a show like that when you're used to things going a certain way.

I know people that have stopped watching these unusual shows because they were so pissed off or upset when major characters died or the sort of drama they expected didn't happen. (I imagine in some cases if the shows were a movie, in the test screenings the audience would hate it and then the executives would insist they change things around before the movie saw the light of day.)

I think that may be my most favorite thing of all, when a show messes with the expectations of a TV viewer but is super sly about it so you really do not expect it at all. Except they can't be sneaky in a certain way or I'd realize they were being sneaky. They build up a secret and you imagine you'll be seeing scenes of tedious fallout like you would on every other show in the world, but then the secret is revealed and the characters act like actual grown-ups and get along with things and I stand up and cheer.

As for the PT thing you mentioned, that can be maddening. On Homicide they had one character (Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher) have a stroke and it was dramatic and scary and they did a little somewhat realistic follow-up, but then I'm pretty sure the network said "um, we want Frank back to being more like old Frank already, okay" so it was like they fast-forwarded his stroke recovery. Which, well, fine then. It was a primetime network TV series and a lot of meddling did happen in later seasons; I dream of an alternate universe where it aired on HBO or something and they let it play out the way the creative team wanted it to.

I think I stopped watching Criminal Minds after the SUV blowing up cliffhanger-- I watched the episodes that resolved it and maybe occasional others that season, but then stopped. Still downloading out of habit, uncertain if I'll ever bother with the rest. I have some fondness for some of the actors and characters, but the show drove me nuts (and not in a good way) too often.

Your version of what happened post SUVs blowing up is better, of course. One danger of reading fanfic for shows that are still airing is far too often the between-seasons fic is so much better than what they wind up doing when the show comes back. (At this point I kinda want to pretend everything post season 4 or so of White Collar didn't happen and instead embrace a fanfic world.) (See also: fanfic for the wizarding war in Harry Potter from before The Deathly Hallows came out; the imagined war was bleaker and longer in most cases and far more interesting.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 03:34 am (UTC)
I have kept watching Criminal Minds at this point because it remains absolutely perfect pacing for my workouts. It's like the ur-show for that. But it's clearly not the show it was, and there are some things that are actively betrayals of the show it was.

There is a certain degree to which I snap-judge shows on how obvious they are in the pilot. If I can tell you what line of dialog comes next 50% of the time or more, I'm out. This is probably unfair and makes me miss out on blah blah I don't even. Because: 50% or more of the actual dialog, done.

I don't even mind so much when PT is on fast-forward. I figure the time frame of TV shows is all weird anyway. What I hate is when it's toxic and wrong no matter when it happens. Like S4 of Legend of Korra, which literally no one appears to have noticed: there is telling the disabled person that it's all in their head. There is telling them that they don't want to get well and are using their disability as an excuse. There is "relearning to walk" without gait correction (GAAAAAAH STOP). There is telling them to relax without providing any assistance for making a painful situation also relaxing. It's like the perfect storm of terrible. And it is so much the cultural narrative of how to handle disability in fiction that the thoughtful, interesting people I read have not been hitting the roof over it, which makes it even more painful.
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[User Picture]From: netmouse
2015-01-26 03:22 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'm getting really tired of this with Castle, especially in that after the summer cliffhanger thenext episode I was able to access seemed plotwise to follow the cliffhanger but was missing scenes I had seen previewed, like hulu was missing half an episode or something. I dunno.

And then for the midseason break they threw in another "and this will mess with the whole premise of the show" cliffhanger, and by this point it's tiresome. My ability to care is getting worn down.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 03:23 am (UTC)
Good point--it can be actively counterproductive, not just not actively productive.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 01:37 pm (UTC)
I absolutely believed in the peril in Slings and Arrows because it was the sort of show that would totally let its protagonists fail in their play if that was the right thing. In some shows, "will they manage to put on a play?" would get a "duh, of course" answer, because they're just not willing to let the characters hit any kind of bottom. But in S&A there are always new depths to plumb.

Oh, I know! It's partly that I trust Paul Gross at this point. When I watched Passchendaele, I knew that it was not the kind of war movie that would be like, "Well, the Great War was bad, but at least the people who have names came home safely." Because Paul Gross. And the same was true with S&A: I trusted that he was doing something bigger than what I would now think of as a Canadian version of Glee: "oh, those wacky actors and their foibles! but the show must go on." No. No, better than that, much.

He's got a new thing coming out called Hyena Road, and the tagline for it is, "Three different men, three different worlds, three different wars - all stand at the intersection of modern warfare - a murky world of fluid morality where all is not as it seems." I trust this a lot more than I would a random movie of this tagline where all would mostly be as it seemed after all.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 05:06 pm (UTC)
I'm curious to know whether you have watched any of either Life or Terriers, and if so, what you thought of them.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 06:29 pm (UTC)
DVD log says I bounced off Life very quickly. Terriers no, never seen it.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 05:22 pm (UTC)
The cliffhanger that annoyed me the most was the end of the 5th season of the Inspector George Gently series, which ends as if it is meant to be the last episode of the series, and then the 6th season picks up largely as if nothing happened. There are enough other betrayals of the prior series throughout that episode that I have to wonder if the series creator wasn't writing under the impression that the series was indeed cancelled and he was so pissed off he was going to leave nothing but a burning wreck at the end of it.

The most recent episode I've seen of Endeavor also ends on an obnoxiously un-cliffhangery cliffhanger, especially since the whole series is a prequel to the Inspector Morse series, there are a whole bunch of things that we know cannot possibly happen to the title character.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 06:31 pm (UTC)
I think we must have seen the same most recent episode of Endeavor, because yah: no. Not even a little suspenseful, honestly.

I haven't tried Inspector George Gently yet. Is it good up to that point?
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-01-27 03:58 am (UTC)
I find even episode-to-episode cliffhangers maddening, let alone season finale ones. I don't mind overarching story arcs (in fact, I like them very much), but I like the episode-specific plot to resolve within the episode. As a means of trying to carry over excitement to the next season, cliffhangers don't work for me. If anything, they make me more likely to drop a show, because I hate feeling jerked around. Then too, cliffhangers often use the plot element of the Hollywood Betrayal, which I haaate. (This is where something from the past comes up to cause one character to feel completely lied to or betrayed by another character, almost always wrongly. We know it's a big mistake but we have to hang around and wait while the characters figure it out. These are often romantic in nature, and the romantic ones are the worst of the worst.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-27 04:44 pm (UTC)
I think one of the things I find particularly upsetting about the Hollywood Betrayal is that it seems to assume that everything your partner ever said, did, or thought before they know you must be disclosed immediately. When really, while there are some things you should disclose right away, part of the joy of being in a relationship long-term--or even a non-romantic friendship--is finding out things about this person you know so well that you never knew before.
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