One particular thing I found difficult was the level of editing I should be doing. Should I be cutting out all word-whiskers, or keeping them all in? Throughout this transcription, I was treading carefully along this line, trying to make my mind up as I went along. For this reason, this aspect of the style may change as it goes along. But what I ended up with was something along the lines of: keep any actual information, but skip false-starts and the like. Again, I have no idea if this is correct, so advice would be very welcome!
You've been doing a good job so far, mbarker; I don't want to tread on your toes, but would like to help you out if I can. You can use my transcription in writing your own, or we could alternate episodes, things like that, perhaps?
Season 8, episode 7[read transcript]
Mary: This episode of writing excuses is brought to you by Audible. visit audiblepodcast.com/excuse to start your free trial membership. Season 8, episode 7.
Brandon: This is writing excuses. Cliffhangers, with Robinson Wells.
Howard: 15 minutes long…
Mary: …because you’re in a hurry…
Dan: …and we’re not that smart.
Brandon: I’m Brandon.
Dan: I’m Dan.
Mary: I’m Mary.
Howard: I’m Howard.
Rob: I’m Rob.
Brandon: Rob! Thanks for coming, Rob!
Rob: How are you?
Brandon: Pretty good. Today we have double the Wells brother for double the fun.
Howard: Well… double the Wells brother for 1.25 times the fun.
Brandon: You could have turned that joke against Dan by saying ‘double the Wells brother, 5 times the fun’.
Dan: I was going to make it a weight joke and say we have at least 3 times the fun.
Howard: Oh— burned!
Rob: I hate all of you.
Brandon: Rob has been on the podcast before I believe.
Rob: I have.
Brandon: And Rob also does his own podcast.
Rob: I do my own with Dan; Dan and I…
Rob: …podcast together.
Brandon: You do?!
Dan: We do, and it is called ‘Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?’ and it is the Wells brothers arguing about pop culture.
Brandon: Oh, wow. Why didn’t I know about this?
Mary: I was wondering that too.
Mary: I knew about that…
Dan: You should be all—
Howard: Because obviously neither of you—
Dan: —You should all be listening to it.
Howard: —Neither of you follow Dan on twitter.
Brandon: Dan— I do…
Mary: No— that’s why I said I know about it; I’m wondering why he didn’t.
Brandon: I follow Dan on Twitter. I just—
Mary: Don’t actually read twitter.
Brandon: Don’t actually read twitter.
Dan: Brandon hired someone to follow me on twitter for him.
Brandon: Okay. So. We’re going to talk about cliffhangers and more specifically about leaving people— leaving the reader in the dark. When it’s a good idea, when it’s a bad idea. This was actually pitched by Rob. So why have you been thinking about this topic?
Rob: Well, I was thinking about it a lot in reference to when I was writing Feedback, the sequel to Variant. There is a lot of backstory… I’m not really— a lot of backstory to the world that I created, but I’m not doing a genre that is conducive to a ton of backstory; it’s not an epic fantasy where you can get into what happened a hundred and fifty years ago, even though that related, and so I really struggled a lot with ‘how much backstory do I gave? how do I introduce that information? and how much is fine to leave out?’ And I actually, much to the— I don’t know— readers like it, some readers don’t like it.
Rob: But I kinda lean toward leaving readers wondering. One of my very favourite scenes in a book on this subject… have you guys read the original ‘Phantom of the Opera’?
Brandon: No I haven’t.
Rob: Oh, it’s pretty fantastic. There is just one scene in—
Dan: Oh wait, I have— it’s the one with the Persian, right?
Rob: With the Persian.
Dan: Yeah. Okay.
Rob: So there’s this scene in it when the main characters— I can’t even remember their names; what’s the dreamboat in…
Dan: I don’t know. His name’s ‘dreamboat’, for now.
Rob: Dreamboat. Okay. So the guy is going down, being led into the tunnels underneath the opera house, to find the Phantom. And he is told to hide by the Persian—the Persian is kind of his guide—and says: ‘we have to hide’. And the— they just refer to him as a ‘Shade’; a Shade walks past him. And he asks: ‘Is that a guard? Is that someone with the opera house security?’ And basically the response from the Persian is: ‘No; this Shade is far more dangerous than the Phantom ever could be.’ And that is all that we ever hear about this guy.
Rob: It is 3 paragraphs worth of them hiding in the dark from this super-evil entity that is under there, with the Phantom, and we never learn more about him. And I just find that so fascinating and so intriguing and I like that we never learn about it, because it implies all of this additional depth to the world that is being created there—additional depth to the supernatural-ness of it— without getting into any detail.
Howard: The same thing happens with Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin. You know, we see the lamp and all the magic that’s associated with it, but Jafar has a staff of mind-control. And we don’t know where it came from, but we know that he’s been using it for a while and it’s never explained. And it’s a stronger story for it having never been explained, because we don’t need that part; we just need to that there are pieces here that add richness and depth to the magic that we’re facing.
Brandon: I really think that we’re talking about two concepts here, though. I mean, this is the idea of the submerged iceberg. That the top level of storytelling and world-building and things like this is what you need to tell the reader, and you leave this sense that there is so much more underneath the story to give it a sense of realism. I think that’s actually different, though, than leaving the reader in the dark about plot elements.
Mary: Yes. I was going to say the same thing. I’ve— When I read ‘Red Seas Under Red Skies,’ I think Scott Lynch does a really good of navigating the flow of information to the readers. They’re basically— it’s a heist, and I think this is one of the things you have to do in a heist, where you have to let the readers know that they know what’s going on, but you cannot tell them what’s going on without…
Brandon: Yeah, this can get really tricky depending on your viewpoint. For example, in the Mistborn books—which is also… the first one’s a heist story—the main character, Kelsier, is leaving out information. And I have viewpoints from his eyes. You kinda have to— even cheat a little bit, and have him say: ‘I can’t think about that now’ or ‘my plans go further than this, but I’ve got to focus on this one piece’ or something like that. Which is almost, I would say, is cheating. It is a form of cheating that I trapped myself into by saying ‘Kelsier has to have a secret plan for the heist to work’, ‘We can’t know what it is’. And number 3: ‘I have to have viewpoints from his eyes, because he’s such an engaging character.’ And those 3 together forced me to use this cheat.
Mary: Yeah, I’m running into that with the fourth book in ‘Shades of Milk and Honey’ which is a heist as well, and it’s all tight third-person, so I don’t have the option of just giving it to somebody else. And the way I’m handling it is by having my main character— so I’ve got the problem that she— it’s the problem that I don’t want her to address for the readers. So I have her think about some other aspect, I have her— I just shift what she is thinking about during that scene. Which is an interesting balance to play with. But the thing I was going to say with ‘Red Seas Under Red Skies’ as well is that—which I also used as a model—is that when he is thinking about backstory, he just thinks about ‘oh, you know, this unpleasant thing happened’, but he doesn’t say what the unpleasant thing that happened is, so if you read those books out of sequence, those clues that he dropped act as cliffhangers for the first book.
Mary: So you get into the first book, and you’re waiting the entire time for the bad thing that is going to happen but you don’t actually know what it is.
Brandon: Rob, I’ve read Variant. Very good book. You withhold a lot of information from the reader.
Rob: I do.
Brandon: Mostly because the character doesn’t know it.
Rob: Yes, and that’s intentional. The book is dealing with a very large conspiracy that spans a lot of time, and a lot of science, and— but the main character is a 17-year-old kid from the projects, basically.
Rob: And I wanted to tell his story, and I didn’t want to get into this too much. When I actually got into the sequel, into Feedback, I started dealing with it, and I wanted to get into this backstory because I’d developed so much of it. And when I turned it in to my editor, she said: ‘Well, the way that you went about this, because you wanted to include all this stuff that you developed, is so kind of convoluted.’ I basically had a mole that was feeding him information. And my editor said: ‘You know, it’s just not working; let’s just tell his story. And we’ll get the answers that we need to get for his story; we won’t get the answers for the epic world, but we will get enough that it will satisfy the readers.’ And that is really the balancing line, between ‘how much is enough?’
Dan: Yeah. Now, Rob’s book is a really good example of this because what it’s really coming down to, in his case, is what genre he’s working with. And he’s working in thriller. You know? And so, in a thriller, you could throw all that extra information in, and it would become a much larger story, it would become, by necessity, a much slower paced story, because you have to slow down and discover all of this backstory; much more of an investigation, much more of a, kind of, long-form science-fiction. When you’re telling a thriller, you have to pare down to what’s really important, and it’s, you know, this one kid’s story, what he’s afraid of, what he doesn’t know, and how he deals with it.
Brandon: Well it’s also a YA thriller. And YA, also, has a sense of ‘we should pare this down and keep this lean.’ The first one really kind of feels a little bit like— it’s a great story first, a character story, and second, an information thriller. When the information starts to come out, things snowball, and more and more facts pile on top of one another. Why don’t you actually—well, we’ll do our book of the week—why don’t you promo the second in the series, or first in the series, however you want to do it— pitch the series to us.
Rob: Okay; pitch the series to you… The first book is Variant, which is narrated on Audible by Michael Goldstrom; does a great job. And Variant is basically the story about a kid, who is trying to flee his crappy, crappy life, in the projects of Pittsburgh. And he takes a scholarship to a private school in the middle of nowhere, and when he gets there, he finds out that he’s essentially in a prison. He doesn’t know why he’s there, but he knows that he is being observed; he knows that he’s part of some kind of project. And the story is him trying to get some answers, and trying to escape. And then the second book deals with—the second book, Feedback—deals with the consequences of that escape. And once you escape, where do you go from there. And that is where we start to get into a few more answers, and where I still withhold some answers. So, anyway…
Howard: Head over to audiblepodcast.com/excuse; pick up ‘Variant’, by Robinson Wells for free, if you kick off your free trial—30 day free trial—and then you can get ‘Feedback’ for 30% off.
Brandon: There you go. I have a story to tell about Variant.
/Rob and Dan laugh/
Brandon: And he knows what story I’m going to tell; Dan knows what story I’m going to tell. And this story has to do with cliffhangers. I love the book. The book was fantastic. Rob had sent it to me, and he had been trying to get me to read it for a while. He had sent me a physical copy and an e-copy—it wasn’t like he was beating me round the head or anything—he had given me a couple of opportunities. And I finally sat down to read it. I read the e-copy, on my e-reader. And I read this book; I was loving it, and I was like ‘Wow! This is great!’ And I hadn’t read any of Rob’s writing since he was in our writing group, back when we were all awful…
Brandon: …and so it was like a wonderful experience; I’m like ‘Hey! He’s gotten as good as the rest of us have!’ That’s a great experience! Then I got to this last page of this book, and I clicked ‘next’, and I thought: ‘Oh no! My file’s corrupted.’
Brandon: Because it had stopped in the middle of a scene, in my opinion. And I’m like ‘My file’s corrupted! This is awful!’ So I go to my laptop and pull up the file, and I look, and I’m like— I go the end and I’m like ‘Yep. The whole file’s corrupted; it was corrupted on here, and that’s why it didn’t transfer. I have to go find the physical book.’ And so I spent about an hour…
/people start laughing/
Brandon: …digging through all the manuscripts people give me and things like this, to find the physical book, to finally get the ending and I sat down, relaxed, and flipped to the end, and—
Rob: And that was the same ending.
Brandon: And that was the same ending. So let’s talk about cliffhangers.
Rob: Sure. Sure.
Howard: Let’s point out for a moment, fair listener, that experience that Brandon had he would not have had…
Howard: …if he was not so wrapped up in the book. You don’t have to have that experience; you can go buy both of them.
Dan: Yeah; exactly; exactly…
Brandon: That’s true. That’s true.
Dan: …and you should.
Brandon: And it’s also an experience I wouldn’t have had if I’d had an actual book in my hands. It didn’t even enter my mind; the cliffhanger was so cliffhangery it didn’t enter into my mind that this was the ending.
Rob: Yeah. Yeah.
Dan: Now cliffhangers are, I think ironically, very controversial. I was on tour a few months ago—I guess it was last year by the time this airs—and that was one of the questions from the audience, is ‘Why do you use cliffhangers? What’s wrong with you?’ And all 3 of the authors were, like ‘Well sometimes they’re really really good to use.’ So: Rob, defend yourself! Why did you use a cliffhanger at the end of Variant?
Rob: Yeah. Well, people hate them, and one of my favourite things is I’ll get reviews where it’ll come across on twitter saying ‘Robinson Wells, I hate you so much right now; 5 out of 5 stars.’ But yeah, it really bugs readers, but in a good way, hopefully. The reason that I used it initially is because originally it ended a chapter before the cliffhanger, and it ended with the basically, very ambiguous ending of escape, but we didn’t really know anything more than—I mean, I guess I’m spoiling the first book but, you know, it’s a book about escape, so they escape—so it ends with, basically, people fleeing off into the wilderness. And people felt like, the editors as it was in the submission process, felt like that was just not a strong enough conclusion; it just felt too ambiguous to them. And so I had— I was talking to my agent, and we basically came to two choices: we could either extend the word-count significantly and answer a lot more questions—but already the editors were saying this is too long; at the time, it was about 95,000 words…
Brandon: Man, so long…
Rob: …I know, so long— well, for YA…
Brandon: It is, it is.
Rob: …for a debut YA, that’s about as far pushing it as you can go— or to sell it easily, that’s as far as you can go. So we can add more word content, maybe 10- or 15,000 words to it, or we could put a very conclusive ‘this is the end of the book’ cliffhanger on it. And, in the end, that’s what I decided to do; is, rather than answer questions, basically say: ‘this is the end of the book; sorry sucka!’
Howard: Tune in next week, same ‘bat’-time, same ‘bat’-channel…
Brandon: It’s very much— Dan and I discussed it after I read it, and he said Rob was taking ‘Lost’-philosophy on telling a story. Lost, each episode, asked two questions for every one it answered. And that’s actually a thriller method of pacing, and it does work very well for thrillers. I have a philosophy in my— and I’m doing epic fantasy; different genres, but I feel that in— when I write a book I do often want to end with a bit of a cliffhanger, but the idea that I try to do is that I try to give a complete narrative arc, and then tease for the next book. Which, in a way, your book does because the first book’s about escaping, and then you tease. It’s just the book seems to shift about half way from escaping to all these cool questions.
Mary: With my novels, I tend to wrap things up, and this may be because I’m coming from short fiction or—
Brandon: Well you also write standalone novels that are connected.
Mary: But that was a very deliberate choice; that was a really deliberate choice because as a reader—
Mary: But what I use is I use internal cliffhangers as a way to get people to turn to the next chapter, which is what cliffhanger was— the term cliffhanger comes from the serials where you literally had a heroin hanging off the cliff. And they were trying to get you to come back next week to the movie theatre. And I think if you’ve got books that you know are going to come out, you know, pretty close to each other, that the cliffhanger can work well, but I think sometimes it can work against you. Not that there are any authors that we know that take several years between books…
Mary: …but I think that that can frustrate a reader more than it can—
Mary: Because they want— because it ups the level of how much they want the book.
Dan: …and I’ve run into that recently with Partials, which, like Brandon said, I was very careful in Partials to start and end an arc, and then have a teaser in an epilogue at the end. And just a week or two ago, I got a message on twitter saying: ‘Dan Wells, I cannot even express to you how angry I am, that I read this book before the rest of the series was finished.’ Which is not a reading philosophy that makes sense to me personally, because that’s not how I read, but it’s a very common one. A lot of people simply won’t read a series until it’s finished.
Dan: And so that is something maybe to keep in mind. On the other hand, you know, I thought ‘Way of Kings’ had, you know, as big of a cliffhanger as Variant did, and I loved that; I loved getting to the end of the book and realising ‘There’s so much more that I didn’t know was there.’
Howard: The thing that ‘Way of Kings’ did for me, and maybe Brandon has a completely different philosophy here, is that all of the questions that were being asked during the body of the story got satisfactory answers to them; but for me, the cliffhanger was questions that were being raised fairly late in the story, or, like, late-late in the last chapter.
Brandon: Right. And that’s usually my goal with cliffhangers: I ask a question in chapter 1, I’m going to answer it in the book; and if I ask a question in chapter 10, I’m going to answer it in the book; I may ask some more questions in chapter 50 that then are going to be answered in the next book. We’re out of time, though. This was a fascinating topic. You can use cliffhangers for lots of cool reasons, you can choose not to; it’s your own balance. I actually have a book-of-the-week. Or, I have a writing prompt. Your writing prompt is: write the story of the Shade, the scary, scary Shade from ‘Phantom of the Opera’, and tell it’s backstory.
Mary: And then throw him off a cliff.
Brandon: This has been writing excuses; you’re out of excuses, now go write.
Dan: Wait! What’s that?!
I've created a nicely formatted version of this transcript, which should make it easier to read, navigate, etc. I will be using this format for each transcript, as well as keeping a text-only copy here on the journal for searchability.