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Writing Excuses 8.7: Cliffhangers and Icebergs with Robison Wells

Writing Excuses 8.7: Cliffhangers and Icebergs with Robison Wells


Key points: leaving out backstory, a.k.a. the iceberg principle, is not the same as cliffhangers, a.k.a. teasing the next book. How much backstory you can include may depend on your genre. Think about what the character knows. Cliffhangers are controversial, some readers hate them. Thrillers often pose more questions than they answer. Many books give a complete narrative arc, then tease for the next book. Internal cliffhangers are often used to keep readers turning pages.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode Seven.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Cliffhangers with Robison 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.
[Dan] Yea!
[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, five times the fun.
[Dan] Oh. I was going to make it a weight joke and say we have at least three times as much of us here...
[Howard] Oh, burn!
[Rob] I hate all of you.
[Brandon] Rob has been on the podcast before, I believe?
[Rob] I have.
[Brandon] Rob also does his own podcast.
[Rob] I do my own with Dan. Dan and I podcast together.
[Dan] Woohoo!
[Brandon] You do?
[Dan] We do. It is called "Do I dare to eat a peach?" 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. I know about that.
[Dan] You should be all... You should all be listening to it.
[Howard] Obviously, neither of you follow Dan on twitter.
[Mary] No. That's... I said I know about it.
[Brandon] I do.
[Mary] 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 hires someone to follow me on twitter for him.

[Brandon] Okay. 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, but I'm not really... A lot of backstory to the world I created, but I'm not doing a genre that is really conducive to a ton of backstory. It's not an epic fantasy where you can get into what happened 150 years ago even though that relates. So I really struggled a lot with how much backstory do I give, how do I introduce that information, and how much is fine to leave out? I actually, much to the... I don't know... Some readers like it, some readers don't like it, but I kind of lean toward leaving readers wondering. One of my very favorite scenes in a book, on this subject... Have you guys read the original Phantom of the Opera?
[Brandon] No, I haven't.
[Mary] No.
[Rob] Well, it's pretty fantastic. There is just one scene in that...
[Dan] Oh, wait. I have. It's the one with the Persian, right?
[Rob] It was the Persian. Okay, so there's a scene in it when the main characters... I can't even remember their names. What's the dreamboat in...
[Dan] I don't know.
[Rob] The guy...
[Dan] His name is Dreamboat from now on.
[Rob] Dreamboat. Okay. So the guy is going down, being led into the tunnels underneath the opera house to find the Phantom. He is told to hide by the Persian. The Persian is kind of his guide, and says, "We have to hide." And a... They just refer to him as a shade... A shade walks past them. He asks, "Is that a guard? Is that someone with the opera house security?" The... Basically, the response from the Persian is, "No. This shade is far more dangerous than the Phantom ever could be." That is all that we ever hear about this guy. It is about three paragraphs worth of them hiding in the dark from this super evil entity that is under there with the Phantom. We never learn more about him. 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 of the world that is being created there, additional depth to the supernatural this of it without getting into any detail.
[Howard] The same thing happens with Jafar in Disney's Aladdin. We see that... We see the lamp and all the magic that's associated with it, but Jafar has a staff of mind control. We don't know where it came from, but we know that he'd been using it for a while. It's never explained. It's a stronger story for it having never been explained, because we don't need that part. We just need to know 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 [cough] excuse me. 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 the sense that there is so much more underneath this story to give it a sense of realism. I think that's actually different though then 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 job of navigating the flow of information to the readers. There's... 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 is 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, Kelsior, is leaving out information, and I have viewpoints from his eyes. You kind of have to even cheat a little bit. Have him say, "I can't think about that right 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 Kelsior has to have a secret plan for the heist to work. We can't know what it is. And number three, I have to have viewpoints from his eyes, because he's such an engaging character. Those three things together forced me to use this cheat.
[Mary] Yeah. I'm running into that with the fourth book in the Shades of Milk and Honey, which is a heist as well. It's all tight third person, so I don't have the option of skipping to someone else. The way I'm handling it is by having my main character... So I've got the problem... That'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 that I was going to say with Red Seas under Red Skies as well is that, which I've also used as a model, is that when he is thinking about backstory, he does... He just thinks about, "Oh, this unpleasant thing happened" but he doesn't say what the unpleasant thing that happened is. So if you read these books out of sequence, those clues that he drops act as cliffhangers for the first book. So you get into the first book and you are 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. That's intentional. I... The book is dealing with a very large conspiracy that spans a lot of time and a lot of science. But the main character is a 17-year-old kid from the Projects, basically. I wanted to tell his story. 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 developed so much of it. When I turned it into my editor, I... She said, "Well, the way that you went about this, because you wanted to include all of this stuff that you'd developed, is so kind of convoluted..." I basically had a mole that was feeding him information. My editor said, "You know, it's just not working. Let's just tell his story. 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." That is really the balancing line, is 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. He's working in thriller. In a thriller, you could throw all of that extra information in, and then 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 longform science fiction. When you're telling a thriller, you have to pare down to what's really important. It's 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. YA also has a sense of you 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... We'll do our book of the week. Why don't you promo the second in the series, or the first in the series, however you want to do it?
[Rob] Sure, sure.
[Brandon] Pitch this series to us.

[Rob] Okay. Pitch the series to you. The first book is Variant which... Narrated on audible by Michael Goldstrom who does a great job. Variant is basically a story about a kid who is trying to flee is crappy, crappy life in the Projects of Pittsburgh. He takes a scholarship to a private school in the middle of nowhere. 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's 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. Then the second book deals with... The second one, Feedback, deals with the consequences of that escape. Once you escape, where do you go from there? That is where we start to get into a few more answers, and where we... I still withhold some answers. So... Anyway.
[Howard] Head over to, pick up Variant by Robinson Wells for free if you kick off your free trial... 30 day free trial. Then you can get Feedback for 30% off.

[Brandon] There you go. Now I have a story to tell about Variant, and it does tie in.
[Brandon] He knows what story I'm going to tell. Dan knows what story I'm going to tell. This has to do with cliffhangers. I loved the book. The book was fantastic. Rob had sent it to me. He'd been trying to get me to read it for a while. He'd sent me a physical copy, and then an e-copy. It's not like he was [badgering?] me, but he'd given me a couple of opportunities. I finally sat down to read it. I read the e-copy on my ereader. I read this book and I was loving it. I'm like, "Wow, this is great!" I hadn't read any of Rob's writing since he was in our writing group back when we were all awful.
[Brandon] 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." Because it stopped in the middle of a scene, in my opinion. I'm like, "My file's corrupted. This is awful." So I go to my laptop and I pull up the file. I look and I go to the end and I'm like, "Yup, the whole file's corrupted. It was corrupted on here, that's why it didn't transfer. I have to go find the physical book." So I spent about an hour digging through all the manuscripts people give me and things like this to find the physical book, to finally get the ending. I sit down and relaxed and flipped to the end...
[Rob] And it ends at the same place.
[Brandon] That was the ending. So let's talk about cliffhangers.
[Rob] Sure. Sure.
[Howard] Let's say... Let's point out for a moment, fair listener, that experience that Brandon had, he would not have had if he wasn't so wrapped up in the book. You don't have to have that experience. You can go buy both of them.
[Brandon] That's true.
[Rob] Exactly. And you should.
[Brandon] That's true. It's also an experience I wouldn't have had if I'd had an actual book in my hands. I... It didn't even enter my mind. The cliffhanger was so cliffhangery. It didn't even enter my mind that this was the ending.
[Rob] 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. That was one of the questions from the audience, is, "Why do you use cliffhangers? What's wrong with you?" All three of the authors were like, "Well, because sometimes they're really, really good to use." So, Rob. Defend yourself. Why do you use a cliffhanger at the end of the Variant?
[Rob] Well, people hate them. One of my favorite things is I'll get reviews where... It'll come across on twitter saying, "Robinson Wells, I hate you so much right now. Five out of five stars." But, yeah, I mean, it really bugs readers, but in a good way, hopefully. The reason that I used it initially is because of... It originally ended a chapter before the cliffhanger. It ended with basically the 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. 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. 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] And so long.
[Rob] Yes. I know. So long. Well, for YA. A debut YA.
[Brandon] It is.
[Rob] For a debut YA, that's about as far pushing it as you can go. Or, I mean, to sell it easily, that's about as far pushing as you can go. Where was I going with this? Oh, okay. So we could either add more word content, maybe another 10 or 15,000 words to it, or we could put a very conclusive this-is-the-end-of-the-book cliffhanger on it. 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 is very much... Dan and I discussed it right after I read it. He said, "Rob is taking the Lost philosophy on telling a story." Lost, each episode, asked two questions for every one it answered. That's how that... That is a def... That's actually a thriller method of pacing. It does work very well for thrillers. I have a philosophy in my work... But I'm doing epic fantasy. Different genres. But I feel that... 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 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 halfway from escaping to all these cool questions.
[Mary] I... With my novels, I tend to want to wrap things up. This may be because I'm coming from short fiction [inaudible]
[Brandon] Well, you also write stand-alone novels that are connected.
[Mary] But that was a very deliberate choice. That was a really deliberate choice, because as a reader... But what I use is, I use internal cliffhangers as a way to get people to turn to the next chapter. Which is what the cliffhanger... The term cliffhanger comes from the serials where you literally had a heroine hanging off the cliff. They were trying to get you to come back next week for the movie theater. I think that if you've got books that are... That you know are going to come out pretty close to each other, that the cliffhanger can work well. But I think sometimes it can work against you. If you've... If there... Not that there are any authors that we know that take several years between books...
[Mary] But I think that can frustrate a reader more than it can...
[Dan] Well...
[Mary] Because they want... Because it ups the level of how much they want the book.
[Dan] 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 and an epilogue at the end. One of the... 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. So that is something maybe to keep in mind. On the other hand, I thought Way of Kings had as big of a cliffhanger as Variant did. I love that. I love getting to the end of the book and realizing 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, right in the last chapter.
[Brandon] That's usually my goal with cliffhangers. I ask you questions in Chapter 1, I'm going to answer it in the book. If I ask you 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.

[Brandon] I actually have a book of the week... Err, 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 his backstory.
[Mary] And then throw him off a cliff.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Rob] Wait, what's that?
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