Leaving Them Cliffhanged

“I loved the way you cliffhanged me so often in your book.”

I spent a part of my teaching career at an international school in Hong Kong. One year I read aloud Red Scarf Girl to a class of grade five students.

red scarf girl by ji li jiang published by scholasticIt is the childhood memoir of Ji Li Jiang and describes how she and her family survived China’s Cultural Revolution.  After we had finished the book I gave my students an assignment to write a letter to the author telling her what they thought of Red Scarf Girl.

I’ll never forget what William wrote in his letter. He thanked Ms. Jiang for sharing her difficult personal story and described a favorite scene where her brother deals with bullies. He ended by saying “I loved the way you cliffhanged me so often in your book.  I just wanted my teacher to keep on reading. How could she stop when the story was so exciting?” I had explained what a cliffhanger was to the class but until I read William’s letter had never  heard the word used as a verb.

Cliffhangers are certainly a good way to build suspense into writing and as the age of the children who are our target audience increases so can the suspense. Cliffhangers can warn of impeding disaster, reveal a secret, provide a surprising twist in events or have a character display a dangerous emotion. They can present a dilemma or pose a troubling question. It is probably not a good idea to resolve the cliffhanger as soon as the next chapter starts but rather thread the solution through the subsequent pages so the reader will continue to be engaged. 

remarkable journey prince jen by lloyd alexanderDuring my teaching career the book I read aloud to my students that did the very best job of leaving young readers ‘cliffhanged’ was Lloyd Alexander’s The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen. Virtually ever chapter ended with the author talking directly to the reader and asking intriguing questions about what would happen next. 

Cliffhangers should never be forced or added primarily as a marketing feature. However a cliffhanger can enhance the quality of a story and make it more effective. 

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Writing For Children- Not As Easy As I Thought!

MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free lance journalist for thirty years. 

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

Story’s Little White Lies

134170985_istockphoto_thinkstockIt’s funny how as a writer I find myself becoming, at times, a better oral story teller. I just caught myself retelling a small scenario from church to my husband and simplifying some of the details to make a better verbal impact and a greater punchline.

Huh. Did I just lie? Did I just go against everything I’ve been taught all my life and tell a Lie?

Interesting. And all the more so because it’s becoming a bit of a habit.

There’s nothing worse than listening to someone tell a story and having them use a lot of “sort-of’s” and “kind-of’s,” or “a little bit’s.” Or describing something as “like a this thing–well, no, maybe it was more like a that–” They try to get the details just so and for many things, like telling how father’s iridectomy went, the details count. After all you don’t want Aunt Bertha passing the story to Uncle Curt and suddenly father’s iridectomy becomes a triple bypass complicated by a plantar’s wart and his body odor and he had an out of body experience in the midst of it.story-fun

If your child’s teacher calls to tell you your child spit on the janitor’s head, you better hope she’s not fiddling the truth, when your child only sneezed on the water fountain.

Nooo, we don’t want that sort of false retelling. And when the boss says you’re getting a $10 an hour raise and you open your next paycheck to find a 10 cents a day decrease— well there’s h— oops, certainly something to pay.

So how do we tell a story for the sake of a good story? Cause I know I’m not alone.

Because I’ve caught myself altering the strict truth of story simply for love of telling it well. I doubt I’m the only one. Let’s hope I’m not heading for perdition. Story gets into ones blood. It’s been part of civilization ever since—ever. Like since the first cave-men with no language, spoken or written, played charades to tell each other what happened out in the fields that day. of course they’re gonna swap the details to out-do one another.storytelling

What does fiddling the facts comes from? Perhaps some of us get tired of listening to stories from people who have to reclaim every detail, important or not, that slow down the story and cause you to lose interest. The tension is stretched to uselessness by constant correcting themselves or telling too much back-story in a backwards manner, whether it pertains or not.

Or it’s because, as of we writers, the editing of the written word, the maximizing of each phrase to carry the story, the careful choosing of words to say more than they do at face value, has taught us to edit more carefully the spoken story too.

It’s the essence that counts. The overall effect. The end result. Carried only by choice details, not all and sundry.story1


So what if the little boy in church today actually hummed a different tune than the Star Wars Theme song? If not, it was certainly a lot like it and created the same impact–a wave of tittering in the rows nearest him. So later when I told my husband, it would have lost the giggle factor if I’d out loud speculated if that’s what song it really was. The acoustic quality of the tale would have failed entirely, thus vetoing the point of the tale.

And it was funny. The little guy belted out that tune right during a pause.AA_New_Logo♫ ♯♪ Dun da da DUN dun, dunta da Daaaa…♫ ♯♪

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Cloying Clichés 2 ~ Stale Story

Cookie cutter stories. cliches-in-genre-fiction-altCopy cat fantasy. Repeating romances.

Last week I discussed tired clichéd phrases and comparisons.Peas in a pod similes and metaphors.

But clichés happen in storytelling too.

Boy meets girl. They detest each other. Something happens to the one. The other can’t bear to stand by hating and rescues the other. They realize they love each other. It was destiny. The fillers are just as cliché. Just as predictable.

Fantasy. One humble, gutless or shy hero. One nasty as heck villain. One goal–to attain something or somewhere before the other so the evil git doesn’t destroy the world. End=hero, still humble on pedestal. Oh, and maybe throw in a girl to protect. Possible slight variations, but again cliché, predictable.

The names change, not everyone is red-haired, but basically cookie cutter cut-outs. Some people don’t mind if all they want is escapism for a few hours.

But the multitudes want something more. Twists, turns and that “Oooh, I did NOT see THAT coming.”2012_12_10-cookiecutters
And so even though they were about to see if their spouse or brother left them any mango chip, avocado muffins, they tuck their feet up for another chapter. And another.
And they don’t hear their stomach growl in the stillness because in that chapter the hero starts acting like the villain and the villain has an attack of conscience and you still can’t put the book down cause–wow–you want to see where this goes and how it pans out.

Clichéd story frameworks are crutches. They can be starting points, because as every writer learns there are only so many plots all told. But what do we do with them? Yes, there are few plots, but that doesn’t mean also few stories.

The story is what we do with that plot, where we take it and the characters. Think of the most interesting or influential people in history. Think of the class clown in your school, however long ago. Why were they interesting? Because they dared to be different, to take a different road, to say the unexpected. They were not white stormtroopers, mindless clones.

For example, dragons in story have been cast as brutal and also benevolent, but nearly always large, magnificent, and powerful. Where would a story go with a dragon who was large, yes, but cowardly and had stunted wings of different sizes. He can’t bear a hero on his back to glory. What would he do in battle? This then affects the hero. How does he react to this pathetic sample of dragon kind? How does his reaction affect the rest of the epic journey?

lego-stormtroopers-photography-12And here’s a big one. What if the Boy wasn’t tall and handsome? Or the Girl slim and beautiful? Why can’t writers portray heroes/heroines who stutter, or limp or have a scar or are even just plain? Nondescript, easily forgotten?

Twist it, distort it, throw everything and everyone in your stories for a great roller coaster loop. Characters in these circumstances will really have a tale worth telling and reading and will stay in the mind much longer than those interchangeable princes and princesses in fairy tales. Remember, “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” are clichés too.

Seeking alternatives to clichéd writing, is how we develop our unique writer’s voice, that voice, that writing style and story style that makes a reader say not “I liked her book” but, “I like her books, I love this author, I love her way with words!”

Here’s an exercise. Using all these words in a 10, 15, or 20 minute do-or-die, write-off-the-cuff, free-write. Just fly with it and don’t think too hard.

mammoth, skiing, hail, garage, mechanic, perfume, conservatory. 🙂

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Journal Your Characters

Do you need a new method to tackle a new novel? Is your current one not gelling like it should? Here’s something that might work for you.

As my first manuscript is undergoing what I hope is the last revision before submission (cross your fingers for me, peeps) I am beginning another one separate from that series.

A whole new world to explore, a whole new set of characters and a a new protagonist who likes to make herself known, very different from Lexi in my first book. But the idea for this novel, again for middle grade readers, spawned from a series of photos as a setting, not a story line. So I took the setting, brainstormed a protagonist who might fit into it, and just a whispery spidersilk of an idea.

So, how to flesh this out? How do I get to know my cast of characters and see where this takes me? How do I find out what my spunky Octavia has to say about what’s going on around her and to her?

A favourite author of mine uses scrapbooks and a journal to collect images, research and notes about her stories. I decided to adapt that to my use. 20140616_173110

Since the story idea sprung from images, I created an album of pictures that could populate my story: buildings, scenes, people and actions. I knew I wanted Octavia to live with her family in a mansion of some sort with a village nearby. I searched for mansions on google maps. It’s amazing how close you can zoom in. I found a small castle that fit the image in my mind, but it was in Belgium, so I “moved” it to an area of England that suited my needs better. In Kent I found a little village with a river alongside and room for the castle on the other bank of this river, (that part’s important,) and voila! I printed maps of the area, tailored to suit my needs and printed them out large. Bits of fact and bits of fiction.20140616_173359

I love journals. So I bought 2. A dollar store one for rough, off the cuff notes and scribbles, bare bones ideas and questions. The second is a nicer one with a hardboard fabric cover that lies open beautifully for easy writing. This second one has become Octavia’s journal. In it I write, in her voice, totally random scenes that I am exploring for possible use in the story. I also wrote up a list of people’s names from which I can draw when I need a barber, or a shopkeeper, or an electrician or a school bully.

I have many quick reference lists in this journal,about Octavia’s quirks, her weaknesses and strengths, her likes and dislikes. (For this I used the mobile app Writers’ Lists–incredibly handy app.)

Like a scrapbook, I insert pictures–from the internet, magazines, catalogues–that inspire me and I use those like firestarters. And so I write all sorts of things that might go through Octavia’s head, things she might experience. I explore her relationship with her cousin, her friend, her parents. I discover how she reacts in situations. It’s like whenever you make a new friend or acquaintance–you don’t know them all at once, you have to go through hell and high water to understand them. And when I know my protagonist well, I will understand what she needs thrown at her to make her story worth reading.

Besides that, this way it’s a heck of a lot of fun and keeps the journey interesting!


Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Ergodic Lit

Sounds a little too much like the other kind of literature whose genre begins with an E but trust me, it’s quite different.

We were introduced to this genre of writing at our last writer’s meeting. And yet not introduced. We’d seen it, not very often, but didn’t know it had a name.

House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski is a prime example of ergodic literature. Here are a few screenshots of the book:House of Leaves 440-441trSome of the text is “normal.” It has footnotes. But even the footnotes have footnotes, as they carry on with other bits of the fiction novel. The set-up makes you sit-up and pay attention. The reader interacts with the story, because sometimes when the characters experience down times, the text goes straight down the page. If there is turmoil, the text follows suit by being a jumble or by being superimposed over top some smaller text.

It’s creative, it’s thought provoking–it’s art!.

Think of children’s books being like this. I mean, chapter books. We know picture books do this. They have lift the flap pages and pop-ups and doo-dads and hiccups. Full flaming colour. And then we move on to chapter books. Kids books have come a long way and are lively, with great illustrations. but there’s always a percentage of kids that go off books, when they have to read them themselves, at least for the most part.

What if they start reading, because a teacher or aunt or bus driver is standing over their back with a report card, and their phone or i-pad or x-box is burning a hole in their pocket. They’re reading, um, yeah, whatever, mostly looking at the pictures, and they turn the 3rd page and pow–the text is in mirror writing. Or in a checkerboard. Or in a big spiral and you have to read it from the inside outward turning and turning and turning the book? Hey, cool! (I wrote letters to a school chum like that. She was kerfuzzled. Still, she never forgot who I was.)

These days, attention spans are shortened and people are used to instant gratification. Fast food, one hour photo, speeding tickets–the list goes on. Books are full of intrigue and suspense. Who of all these characters we meet is the bad guy?? What is the priceless treasure they will find under the bed mattress in the dump? You’ve got to keep reading to find out. That takes—like—forever.

Pictures help keep kids interested. Heck, they keep me interested. But what if more kids books were ergodic?Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events uses this technique in a few places. Someone uses the word ever in a sentence and in order to stress this, the word ever is repeated for an entire page. Elsewhere, he has a full page spread in just black. Not black text–just blackness. He also repeats an entire page but in such a way you know it’s not a printers error. It’s part of the story.

Would the ergodic technique help reluctant readers develop a passion for reading? I concur. The variety in page lay-outs, text size, shape and direction, make the reading more interactive and give a certain gratification in bits at a time as you progress through the book. Splash a little colour here and there as a bonus, and a few images for the younger readers and bam—interactive experience that still amounts to just reading, no button pushing, and no intrusive beeping.

Besides, wouldn’t it make reading to your kids more interesting? I definitely concur. Now I just need to snoop through the bookstore and see if there are any kids books out there like House of Leaves.

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)
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