Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

photo by tricky (rick harrison)

A handful of plotting techniques have been so overused by generations of hack writers that they’ve picked up their own nicknames.  Heavy foreshadowing (“If only she had known”) for instance, or getting your hero out of an impossible situation by an equally impossible plot twist (“With a mighty leap . . .”). These techniques are rightly mocked as awkward attempts to generate tension – plot mechanics at their creakiest.  But another nicknamed technique has, I think, been unfairly relegated to cliché status—maintaining two parallel stories and ending your scenes so that you cut between them at moments that leave your readers hanging.  Or, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”

The nickname dates to silent movies, when transitions were accomplished through title cards interspersed between scenes.  In the earliest days, studios didn’t make new cards for each movie, but used a set of stock cards:  “One Year Later,” “Comes the Dawn,” or “Wedding Bells.”  “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch” was the card used most often when the action cut away from the heroine just as the log she was tied to was being fed into the sawmill.

The literary version of this technique dates back to at least Homer, but it was probably perfected in the nineteenth century, when most novels were serialized in newly-popular magazines. One of my favorite old bookstore finds is two bound volumes of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine from 1852/53.  They contain a number of literary gems, such as a contemporary review of Moby Dick (“Beneath the whole story, the subtle, imaginative reader may perhaps find a pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life.”).  They are also home of the first American serialization of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Since Dickens needed to keep readers interested enough to wait a month for the next chapter, nearly every installment ends with a cliffhanger – another silent movie term that made the leap to literature.  For instance, the January, 1853, installment ends with Krook’s spontaneous combustion (with an illustration), and readers have to wait until February to see the outcome.  But for many of the transitions, Dickens ends at a critical moment, then picks up the next month’s installment with another thread, forcing readers to wait two or three months before circling back to the original. December, 1852, ends with the revelation that Miss Summerton is Lady Dedlock’s daughter.  We don’t get back to Lady Dedlock until February.  The gap may have left readers frustrated, but it certainly sold magazines.

Jumping from one thread to another at a critical moment lets you create a cliffhanger within your novel.  Of course, if you use it thoughtlessly – if every transition you make involves the main character facing a moment of mortal peril, for instance – then your readers are going to see through the technique.  But when you use it subtly and responsibly, this transition can be an effective way to increase your tension.

So how do you manage these transitions subtly? Remember, your critical point doesn’t have to involve your protagonist tied to the railroad tracks.  It could be anything that opens up new possibilities in the story – anything that will make your readers willing to wait to see how it turns out.

Consider Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.  For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it tells the story of an aspiring young writer, Skeeter, in the depths of the Jim Crow south, struggling to write a book about the black maids who are such a feature of the white households she knows.  Stockett jumps back and forth between three main threads, centered on Skeeter and two of the maids, Aibileen and Minnie.

How does Stockett make the transitions from one thread to another?  In one chapter, Aibileen discovers that Miss Hilly, possibly the worst racist in town, has learned of Skeeter’s book.  This raises the tension considerably, but the chapter ends with another maid, who had been reluctant to talk, volunteering to tell her story.  In another transition, Minnie’s boss, Miss Celia, who until then had been a pathetic hanger-on trying to break into proper, racist, society, turns her back on it pretty definitively.  Another, in which Skeeter tells Minnie and Aibileen that the book is going to be published, ends with the three of them wondering how they will get through the explosion that is bound to follow.

These are all “Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . .” transitions, even though none of them involves immanent physical danger. In all three, battle lines are newly redrawn, and the outcome is left hanging.  Readers have to keep reading in order to find out what happens next. What makes them work is that the new developments arise out of who the characters are.

The tension between the maids’ desire to be heard and the fear of reprisal that gives drama to the first transition has been threaded through the book since the beginning.  In the second transition, the tension has been building for some time between Miss Celia’s desire to be taken seriously by Miss Hilly and her growing friendship with Millie.  Though the chapter ending resolves that tension, it opens new tensions, since it is the first sign that white society is beginning to leave Miss Hilly behind.  And in the third, the risks involved in writing and publishing the book have been present from the beginning.  The chapter ends when the dream of publishing becomes concrete and inevitable.

So if your plot is divided into several threads, try find an ending for each one that will leave readers hungering for more.  Just be careful not to force a bit of danger into the story where it doesn’t belong. More often than not, the ending you’re looking for will already be present in what you’ve written.  All you need to do is bring it to the surface to keep your readers’ interest alive while you shift to other things.

And above all, don’t be afraid to use a technique that has been overused by hacks in the past.  I’m all for avoiding clichés that are simply lazy storytelling, such as “With a mighty leap.”  But beneath the maiden-in-distress cliché, the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” transition accomplishes legitimate storytelling goals.  Used sparingly and well, it can add depth and drive to even the most literary of novels.

Can you think of other, good examples of the Meanwhile Transition?  Are there other techniques that have been unfairly relegated to hackdom?

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. says

    I love cliffhangers – I’m a sucker for them as a reader and I consciously put them in wherever I can as a writer. Thanks for the advice and encouragement. I was a bit afraid at the beginning that you were going to tell me I couldn’t use cliff hangers anymore. I was all like, “No, no, no don’t take away my cliff hangars!!”

    I will re-read them all to make sure they are responsible and not too obvious. My goal is to write a book that a reader finds nearly irresistible to put down in the wee hours of the morning.

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  2. says

    Another fairly recent example of the cliffhanger technique can be found in Murakami’s IQ84.

    Like Murakami, I have alternating POVs and though I have yet to tie anyone to the railroad toes, I certainly close several of the chapters in a state of tension.

    Lately watching TV I’ve wondered if transition switches aren’t a little too common. Not so obvious as a cliche sense, but simply overused. Your post is encouraging me to consider when it may be taking the easy way out.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

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    • says

      It’s tricky to hit the balance between transitions that generate tension and transitions that feel artificial. Actually, hitting that balance is true of most aspects of fiction.

      Those commercials where Malcolm McDowell and James Earl Jones declaim the most banal conversations in round, Shakespearean tones, for instance, show that dialogue is far removed from actual speech. Yet good dialogue, though artificial, feels natural. The timeline of a story is an artificial construct that, handled right, seems to flow organically. In a sense, all of storytelling is the art of creating an artificial construct that looks and feels natural.

      Hmmmmm. There may be another article in this. Thoughts?

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  3. Denise Willson says

    Hmm, Dave, you’ve got my mind spinning this morning. Gotta go pull out some of my favorite examples and skim through the pages, paying better attention to how that DO THAT!

    Thanks!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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    • says

      You know, one of the things that led me to become an editor was the habit of reading favorite books several times. That, coupled with a mechanical bent of mind (I’d always enjoyed taking things apart) let me analyze just how the writers I loved accomplished the effects they did. It’s a great way to learn technique.

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      • says

        I’ve started re-reading the delicious parts of books, parts I remember from books I’ve enjoyed as a reader, not a writer. The second read is when I am no longer innocent, choosing instead to study in order to absorb technique and style inspiration for my own writing.

        How I long to find and then to write those unforgettable delicious parts!

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  4. says

    Dave,
    I’m reading ‘the Magician King’ by Lev Grossman, who uses this technique beautifully. I was just marveling this morning how much fun I’m having trying to guess how it’ll all turn out. And also running in my head how to use this tool in my own story. The timing of your post couldn’t have been better for me. Thanks!

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  5. Carmel says

    I feel lost here on WU when people with mechanical minds are able to analyze a book and say how things were accomplished. Today, I’ll try not to wish my mind worked that way and take this wonderful advice with me instead:

    “It could be anything that opens up new possibilities in the story – anything that will make your readers willing to wait to see how it turns out.”

    Keep them reading!

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    • says

      It’s funny, Carmel. I used to feel the same way. Okay- I still feel that way from time to time. I didn’t start getting-the-hang of the mechanical thang…… until I started rereading my favorite series (N.A.T.) over and over again. I can’t break a story down mechanically yet, like many of the Jedi Masters here, but I’m moving closer to acquiring that skill a grain at a time (I’m working toward 10,000 hours). I think your comment states the gist of what Dave is talking about. The other parts of the post are examples explaining what to do and what not to in order to keep people reading. It sounds much better than saying, “Hey people stop using cliffhangers inappropriately. Take it down a notch or two, and do this instead.”

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    • says

      Carmel, I think it’s less a matter of how your mind works and more a matter of experience. You have to reach a certain level of expertise before many of these comments make sense to you, just as you have to be able to play an instrument at a certain level before you can understand comments about attack and phrasing. (I’m an organist, so I tend to see connections between writing and music.)

      In the meantime, keep reading, and enjoy. And if you have any questions, feel free to ask, here and on Facebook. That’s why we’re here.

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  6. says

    Superb post, Dave.

    I love how you approve the use of cliffhangers “subtly and responsibly”. In the rush for industry validation, authors can forget their obligations to readers. Those include creating pages that are fresh.

    I wouldn’t quibble with anything you say, but would add an extra caution. There’s a danger in thinking that all that keeps readers reading are changing plot circumstances. Train tracks devices definitely clunk, I agree, yet the subtle twist, striking revelation and urgent new question also fall into the realm of external circumstances (plot).

    There’s nothing wrong with those, of course, it’s just that the magicians slight-of-hand flourishes can over time become just that: obvious and empty gestures. They may excite curiosity but their emotional wallop can be low.

    Cliffhangers can occur inside POV characters too. I hesitate to say this, least art-minded novelists imagine I’m okay if nothing ever happens in their stories. Not so.

    If clearly marked, an internal change–which I believe actually happens in every scene–can also create forward-driving narrative tension. I think that’s what you mean when you say that a cliffhanger is “anything that opens up new possibilities in the story.”

    Thanks also for explaining the silent movie origins of the term. Mr. Dickens was on to something. Leave it to Hollywood to wear out the device. Then again, who’s to say we can’t reinvent it–“subtly and responsibly”.

    Have we ever met? I have a feeling that a beer or two would hardly be enough to get the conversation underway. Until then, thanks and see you here.

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    • says

      Thank you Donald. And thanks for the additional observations. You’re absolutely right, of course.

      We may have met back in the eighties, when I lived near New York City and was working for Renni Browne. Renni and I often went in to the city for various workshops (and the book fair in 1989, if I remember right).

      I’d love to share a beer with you. The only problem is, Ashfield, MA, where I’m living now, is about six and a half miles southeast of the middle of nowhere, which is in Heath.

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  7. says

    I recently read a book where the author’s goal must have been to keep the reader’s interest via cliffhangers. By the time I reached the fourth or fifth chapter, the device felt cartoonish. The book read like a race, which, to me, was empty and exhausting.

    I like your example of The Help, because in it, I didn’t even notice the scene switching technique.

    Yes, “subtly and responsibly” must be the way to do it. Thank you for helping to raise the bar for our writing — your words are always excellent and helpful.

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    • says

      They can get cartoonish, can’t they?

      The opposite extreme is to reject anything that even remotely resembles a cliffhanger ending, in the struggle to appear sophisticated. You wind up with books in which, as Donald said, nothing ever happens.

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  8. says

    Interesting about the scene cards. I think I even remember those in some of the older TV shows.

    Re scene endings: I wish I could remember who to credit, but the advice which has stuck with me is to make sure to weave in an element of disaster or discovery. Assuming that it is organic to the characters and situation, does that fit with your view?

    In Julia Spencer-Fleming’s I Shall Not Want, she has a cliffhanger structure with a twist. The first chapter takes place in the midstory. It’s action-filled, ends with a character in mortal danger, and then we cut to the story’s beginning with a low-key inciting incident and all. I remember being filled with both frustration and admiration, and of course, I had to keep reading. The technique gave extra meaning to a slower story beginning because I was always looking to spot the moment when things were about to head south.

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    • says

      I’ve seen prologues used like that to good effect, as well. You’re right, they are a variation on “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”

      By the way, I could not find the original silent-movie title card (though one of the installments in the Dickens serialization actually began with “Meanwhile . . .”). So kudos to Therese again for finding an appropriate illustration.

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  9. says

    This is a great post. I love the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” technique. I love weaving threads together. For instance, one of the things I like about Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series of mystery novels is the switching back and forth between characters. The stakes get higher as the novel progresses. Toward the end, each chapter is “back at the ranch,” as each character is inevitably moving toward the scary conclusion.

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  10. says

    Great post – of course we use stuff from every entertainer who has gone before us – don’t they still do Shakespeare – and Greek plays? We stand on the shoulders of giants.

    We have a saying in Spanish – ‘Cada cabeza es un mundo’ – every head is a world.

    There are three characters in Pride’s Children, each getting a turn as necessary, and each one of those turns chosen at a spot where something important to the total plot happens to the character.

    Each character has a different version of what’s going on – all at cross-purposes – and selecting those scenes, making each one advance the plot and still provide an internal change for the pov character at a very minimum is great fun (a la Maass).

    I repeat: I think I’m having more fun than any reader ever will (very selfish of me, I know) just leaving EACH somehow ‘tied to the tracks.’ While we go back to another, but not necessarily the ranch the reader really wanted, so she has to read further…

    Subtlety is the extra kicker – if it isn’t there, the scene isn’t finished. It always comes – though sometimes it seems to take a very long time to write it right.

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  11. says

    Good advice. My wife and I were huge “24” fans when the series first started out. And no one did cliffhangers like those writers. After a few seasons, though, it started to wear thin. Maybe we were just concerned that Jack Bauer could never use the restroom, but it seemed the writers were reaching more and more to come up with great cliffhangers. Heck, they did it at the end of every scene.

    I’m still a sucker for them in a novel, though. I’ll read three more chapters than I intended to just to find out what happened to the little dog who looked up at the end of chapter 6 to see semi-truck bearing down on him.

    I will heed your advice, though, and use the technique sparingly. It’s just too bad all the good sawmill scenes have been taken.

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    • says

      One of the things that deeply impressed me about Billy Bathgate is that it took one of the oldest cliches of the mob thriller — cement shoes — and brought it to real and horrifying life. So while everyone should look for the “meanwhile” transitions that involve subtleties of character development, it might be an interesting exercise to bring back the Sawmill scene.

      I never got caught up in 24. But Person of Interest (a personal favorite) has pulled of some very nice cliffhangers as well, many of them rooted in character development.

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  12. says

    Used with the same care as you suggested a writer use with cliffhangers, I think the twist ending is an effective technique.
    Thank you for this helpful article, Dave.

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  13. Ellie Anthony says

    This is such a great article, thanks Dave.

    I also find that by staying true to both the nature of the characters and the flow/pace of the story increasing the tension is a natural rather than forced build with logical transition points, making it more ‘believable’ for the reader to absorb. It doesn’t feel like something external has been deliberately thrown in to try and force an exclamation mark experience at the end of every chapter but the cliff hanger effect is still there.

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