Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I finished a book in the past week.  It followed a trilogy.  And it ended with a gigantic cliffhanger.

I'm all about letting readers do work when I write.  I love it when writers leave something open for me to interpret--not too open, but clever enough that I can feel smart when I understand.  For example, when I was doing my undergraduate degree I took a wonderful creative nonfiction workshop from Patrick Madden, and we did a section on fragmentary essays.  I chose food as a theme.  I picked all sorts of interconnected stories about food from my life, like the time when I was three that I tried to eat razors because I thought they were gum, or an day I spent with a friend with Willi Prader syndrome who couldn't tell when he was full.  And interspersed with these reminiscences were a handful of stories that I told in fairytale-like prose.  At risk of horrible embarrassment, I'll post the one my class chose to read aloud:

Hurry! her husband urges, shoving her through the door, but she leans on his arm, slowing him because she leaves behind people she has known for years and years, cookbooks and recipes, tastes and smells never to be found again on this earth.  Only half awake she stumbles through the streets and past the city walls, the stone cutting and hissing beneath her bare feet.  Her mind curls in the bed, still, and she longs for a warm drink or a bit of wheat bread, freshly baked.  She reaches the tall black stone on the outskirts of the town, and although her husband pushes on without glancing back, she takes a moment to rest.  To breathe.  The air tastes of fire—of cooking—and her stomach rumbles as she longs for wine, a bite of pumpkin pie or desert watermelon.  She turns back in the night, coolness seeping through her feet as she tries to remember the spices pressed in her neighbor’s roasted lamb.  Lemon salt?  Cloves?  Her eyes move absently across stone and sand to the city.  Seeing, her mouth gapes, and while her neighbor’s house burns she freezes, caught, her hands suddenly granulated colder and paler than the stone. 
She cannot move, the feel of salt weighs so heavy in her mouth.

We had to read a section aloud.  This was a rule of the workshop.  And when I read this section--blushing the whole time, because reading my own writing out loud always makes me realize what could sound better--my teacher let out a yell right when I finished, pounding his fist on the table.  "Lot's wife!" he yelled.  "That's Lot's wife!"  Turns out he thought I'd included all these weird tales that I'd made up, but he was pleased as anything once he figured out I had a Biblical base for my weirdness (I'd also included Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, although, like Lot's wife, I never named her).  I've had instances like that as a reader, instances where I put things together and I think "Wow.  I should have seen that!"  (Brandon Sanderson does that a lot, including twists he's set up but I never see.)  Anyway, I'm a huge fan of that making-the-reader-feel-awesome idea, and I can deal with open endings to novels, if they're done well.  Like Ethan Canin's Carry Me Across the Water, which may end in sleep or in death.  Or Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.  I'm tolerant of many things in literature, because I will always be an eclectic, omnivorous reader.

But I hate cliffhangers.

It feels like cheating.  I like cliffhangers before scene breaks.  I'm all for cliffhangers at the end of chapters.  But at the end of books? I pay for a whole story, thank you very much!  I like an ending with my beginning and my middle--and don't add a whole bunch of spicy starting-the-next-story-in-this-one sauce (although you can include some dark-hint-sprinkles, if you must).

Anyway.  I've rambled on long enough.  Perhaps I should go investigate that shadow that's been lurking just outside my window--that shadow that I completely didn't make up to cause this post to have a cliffhanger ending, because there's going to be a picture anyway....

This pillar is called Lot's Wife, and it really does exist near the Dead Sea.  Haunting, no?


  1. That is so true about cliffhangers. There needs to be an ending but it is also a powerful tool for series. But like you if it is too open then I feel cheated. That picture is cool.

  2. It is a powerful tool. I admit they work on me, and I buy the next book. I just resent it.

    And thanks! It's creepy and cool at the same time...