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. [Read more…]