Cliffhangers – it’s all about the foreplay
I hate it when chapters just fizzle out on you. When they’re so tired of running through the story that they just give up and fall sagging to a full stop, lie breathless on a patch of clean type space and await the big number of a new chapter that heralds a fresh go at keeping your attention.
But what I hate more than a damp squib ending, a busted bridge into the next part of the adventure, are really weak opening lines of a story. Oh man, it’s such a disappointment. You look at the glossy cover, the great title, the snazzy graphics that enticed you in, and there, right at the start of Chapter One is the crappiest intro you’ve ever read. But the back cover blurb was smart and hooked you, so you persevere, you plod on, plough through the verbiage and you selflessly search for something gripping and scintillating.
As readers, we’ve been trained to give books a chance, to let authors warm up a little. How amazingly generous of us! It’s not something we do for chefs, is it? We don’t forgive a really poor starter and an insipid main course in the hope that the dessert will be a real humdinger, do we?
Nor should we do the same with books.
Authors owe it to readers to excite right from the start. Okay, not full on, flat out, total drama that can’t be maintained or beaten for the next few hundred pages, but a mesmerizing, tantalizing level of excitement that promises even greater thrills.
Every opening paragraph to every new chapter is a form of mental foreplay between the writer and reader. It’s the author’s job, to find the G-spot of that particular genre being read and worship it.
Here’s the opener to The China Dogs, my new thriller, in the vein (I hope!) of James Herbert, Stephen King, Randy Wayne White and James Grippando:
Gobi Desert, Northeastern China
The silver buses drive across the land of endless sand. Onboard are prisoners from China’s notorious Death Row. Rapists, serial murderers and child abusers. Twenty men about to be given an extraordinary chance to live. To wipe the slate clean.
Hopefully, in that couple of hundred words, I’ve set the geographical and political scene, and a sense of the drama abut to unfold. Once main characters are introduced, openers can contain the same anticipation of drama, in much shorter form. Here’s the start of Chapter Six
Zoe wonders how her day got so shit so quickly.
I went for a sharp shocking one liner because Zoe Speed is the kind of no-nonsense heroine who uses the word shit a lot, hence its inclusion. She’s at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum to the refined detective she’s about to cross paths with. Lieutenant ‘Ghost’ Walton and Miami, the city he adores, demand a much gentler opener: -
Walton parks his old Sweptwing Dodge at the corner of Twelfth and Third, closes her up and looks back with pride. It’s not a car; it’s automotive art. Just as Miami is not a city, it’s a life installation.
And then, it’s back to high tension, as I introduce Zoe’s brother Danny, a character who shares his sister’s feisty and slightly unscrupulous DNA: -
There’s no alternative but to run.
Run until his lungs are on fire and he can’t breathe.
Then run some more.
Danny Speed has got jammed up. It’s down to a weasel called Jason Bennett who works the Internet café Bean and Bite. He just knows it is.
And then we get to the bad guys. The really bad guys: -
The leader of the largest army in the world showers in the luxuriously marbled bathroom that adjoins his spacious office.
He scrubs hard to rid himself of the smell of the women.
Of their sex. And their blood. And their crying.
The intention is that in a very short intro, before you even read his name, you get a sense of this guy’s hypocrisy and you decide right away that you don’t like him. It also does the job of any good intro, it gives you location, action and expectation in the shortest number of words possible.
Everyone writes differently (thank goodness) and that’s what makes reading so pleasurable, I just find that I tend to go for those authors who have cliffhanger intros as well as endings.
If you’re writing your first book, you can do a whole lot worse than pick up your favourite novels, check out how all those new chapters start and finish, then decide for yourself what your own style is.
About the Author
About the Book
Author: Sam Masters
Publish Date: August 19, 2014
Publisher: Witness Impulse an imprint of HarperCollins
~ Synopsis ~Man’s best friend is about to become America’s worst enemy...
When a sudden rash of deadly canine attacks hits the greater Miami area, Lieutenant “Ghost” Walton, Special Ops, takes little notice. Blame it on the heat, a rare disease, or the fact that people just don’t know how to take care of their pets.
But when the body count rises, and the perimeter of blood and carnage spreads wider and wider, into the farthest reaches of Miami-Dade county, Ghost has no choice but to pay attention. Doggedly, he tries to uncover the link between these lethal incidents, but he doesn’t count on falling for a sassy out-of-towner with a dark past, nor does he expect to stumble onto a plot that threatens national security.
Where to Purchase
Gobi Desert, Northeastern China
The silver buses drive across the land of endless sand. Onboard are prisoners from China’s notorious Death Row. Rapists, serial murderers, and child abusers.
Twenty men about to be given an extraordinary chance to live.
To wipe the slate clean.
The long vehicles that carry them are equipped with lethal electrocution equipment, state-of-the-art technology designed to deliver on-the-spot executions. The inmates can choose to stay on board and be quickly put to death; their organs harvested there and then and sold to those needing donations.
Or—when the doors swing open—they can run for their lives. Run into one of the largest deserts in the world and take their chances with what lies out there.
Air brakes hiss, sand sprays, and the five buses come to a syn- chronized stop in the blistering heat.
Three army copters hover in the sweltering air. Military bosses watch like circling vultures.
On cue, automated locks clunk and the big doors of the ve- hicles slide open.
Clouds of hot sand rise as the bare feet of desperate men jump and run from the vehicles.
No one remains.
Six miles away—six miles north, south, east, and west—the doors of four armored personnel carriers also open .
General Fu Zhang peers down like God. Watches life and death play out. People reduced to black dots, scattered like dung beetles. He can’t help but think it would be better for the men if they’d stayed on the buses.
Their deaths would be less painful.
The leader of China’s armed forces follows each and every fa- tality on his video monitor.
Nonchalantly, he waves a hand to the pilot to return to base.
He is pleased.
Seldom has he seen such efficient slaughter. Such economic carnage.
Project Nian is nearing completion.