Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Perils of Pauline, Among Others

By Chester Campbell

I like to use cliffhangers to close out chapters in my books. It keeps readers turning the page to learn what happens next. I suppose it came to me naturally, as I could be the poster boy for movie serials that brought swarms of kids to neighborhood theaters every Saturday in the 1930s. According to movie historians, the zenith of the series came in the mid-thirties, its prime audience boys between eight and fourteen. I turned eight in 1933 and hit fourteen in 1939.

The most famous serial was The Perils of Pauline, featuring the damsel in distress theme. It didn't really feature cliffhangers, however, with Pauline being saved at the end of each segment. I don't recall anyone hanging from a cliff, but there was a case where someone was about to go over a waterfall. The good guys I remember best were the cowboys, played by the likes of Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Harry Carey, and Tom Mix. Gene Autry came along and popularized the singing cowboy.

Jungle scenes provided the setting for many perilous plots with Tarzan, plus rugged outdoor heroes Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck. Early aviation series caught my fancy, such as Mystery Squadron and Ace Drummond. That would lead to my fascination with airplanes. The science fiction series made its debut with Flash Gordon, featuring Buster Crabbe and his sidekick, Jean Rogers. She was probably my first crush on a screen heroine (there would be many more as I matured).

What kept bringing us back every Saturday with our dimes and nickels was the keen desire to find out if the hero or heroine survived. The cliffhanger worked back then, and it still works now. Adults as well as kids are intrigued by the prospect of finding out what happens next.

In one form of the cliffhanger, you foreshadow the dire situation by letting the reader know the bad guy is lurking out there, awaiting his opportunity. That creates suspense as the hero heads into the trap, building tension as he goes. Though difficult to do in first person, I handle it by letting my protag see or hear signs that something is amiss. You can heighten the suspense by letting your character open Door Number One, then Door Number Two...

The one to avoid at all costs is the defenseless woman heading down the stairs into the dark basement. Unless, of course, she's a tormented mother trying to get away from her fiendish kids. But that's another story. If it fits with the plot, you can close one chapter with a cliffhanger and start the next with a totally different scene, working toward the resolution of the cliffhanger later on.

In a completely action-packed book, you could create highly tense endings for every chapter, but the reader might soon tire of grating her teeth. I often close a chapter with a question, which leaves what's next up in the air even if it isn't fraught with danger.

If you've run across especially effective hangers, tell us about them.


Karen Russell said...

I love cliffhangers, even though I hate them when I'm hanging. :D

The best old-time cliffhanger is the girl tied to the railroad tracks while the train approaches from the distance! I don't know who thought of that, but filmmakers got a lot of mileage from it.

Chester Campbell said...

Don't know if it was the first, but I think that girl on the tracks was one of Pauline's perils.

Beth Terrell said...

Chester, YOU are a master of cliffhanger chapter endings.