Dark Moments and Cliffhangers

Last week at lunch after the monthly West Houston RWA meeting, the conversation turned to a comparison of the Dark Moment in novels and the Cliffhanger Ending in series television.

Nobody wants to invest the time and effort of reading three or four hundred pages only to find an unresolved ending, with the possible exception of fans of long fantasy series.  ( I don’t include Janet Evanovich here–her cliffhangers only involve Stephanie Plum’s sex life, not the outcome of the novel’s plot.)  The television industry, however, often uses that Dark Moment, when every important character is in some sort of deep trouble, as a hook to bring the audience back for the next season.

That doesn’t always pay off.  The example my friend brought up, The Finder, won’t be back for a second season, so we’ll have to use our own imaginations to get the characters out of trouble.  A couple of years ago Stargate Universe ended with the crew going into stasis to attempt the crossing to another, safer galaxy.  But they were one pod short, and Eli Wallace stayed out in hopes of fixing one more pod before the oxygen ran out.  I prefer to think that he succeeded, and that the ancient ship found them a safe and habitable planet to settle, but we’ll never know what the show’s writers had planned.  I’ll bet if I looked, though, I could find plenty of fan fiction on the subject.

I probably watch too much television.  The box is usually on when I’m home, although right now it’s playing the smooth jazz Music Choice channel.  I like to tell myself that well written TV gives me insight into character and story structure.  Truth is, I enjoy it.  But I often find myself discussing some show or another with writer friends, so I’m not the only one.  This season several of the shows I follow have ended in cliffhangers of one sort or another.

Spoilers Ahead:  If you’ve missed any of these shows, be warned.  (I’m still catching up with House and Smash myself.)

Once Upon a Time, a show impossible to describe to anyone who has not watched it, ended with everyone getting what they wanted–for a moment.  But one character dropped that suspicious magic vial down the well, and here comes the purple cloud, bringing . . . well, we won’t know that until next fall .  Dark moment, happy resolution, new disaster.

Bones ended with nobody getting what they wanted, with the possible exception of the computer genius who framed Brennan for murder.  Now Brennan’s on the run with baby Christine, leaving Booth behind.  We know Brennan didn’t do what she’s accused of, despite a mountain of evidence.  We know who did, and how, and how hard it will be to prove.  But we also know the Jeffersonian team will solve it.  The question hanging here is How?

NCIS ended with everyone in dire physical danger as a car bomb blew in the front of the building, with most of the crew inside.  Even Ducky was in trouble, the victim of an apparent heart attack on the beach.  (I’d be more worried about him if I hadn’t read on several entertainment news sites that David McCallum has signed a contract for two more seasons.  I’d really hate to lose Ducky.)  NCIS has been known to kill off important characters more than once (Kate Todd, Mike Franks), but I hope the team will all be back in the fall.

There was an explosion on Hawaii Five-O, too, but that was only the dark moment.  The cliffhanger saw Kono sinking into the Pacific, her hands and feet bound with duct tape, while Chin raced home to find his wife barely alive.  As if that weren’t enough, there’s Steve opening a door in Japan and meeting . . . his long-dead mother?

I’m beginning to see odd patterns popping up.  On the finale of Grimm, another hard-to-explain series, Nick’s comatose fiancee (victim of a magic potion delivered via cat scratch) opens her eyes in a very scary manner, his police partner sits in his house clutching a shotgun and close to a nervous breakdown, and the woman who rescues Nick from an attacker claims to be . . . his long-dead mother.

Good heavens, what a fountain of disasters!  My own stories never involve explosions (wait, there was the potting shed incident in Paper Hearts), but sleeping beauty spells, magic potions, and missing grandmothers are all grist for my mill.  Someone on the run from a false accusation, that’s a good one.  Give them what they want, and then snatch it away–works every time.  See?  It’s all story structure.

How do you feel about cliffhangers?  Do you worry all summer?  File them away until the next season starts?  Or do they annoy you so much that you never watch the show again?

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill Chance
    May 20, 2012 @ 20:43:14

    I love cable series and the cliffhangers on these can be terrible because it might be years before it comes back in.

    Then there are those that get cancelled after a cliffhanger, like Carnivale. That discourages viewers, because they don’t want to invest the time only to be ignored and left hanging.

    Or there’s Babylon Five, that thought it was being cancelled, wrapped up its story early, then had a meaningless extention anyway.

    Great ideas, thanks for sharing.

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    • Kay Hudson
      May 20, 2012 @ 20:53:19

      I really try not to get involved in too many TV series, but it’s hard. I don’t subscribe to HBO or SHO–but I bought the DVD set of the first season of Game of Thrones (haven’t watched it yet). And right now I’m off to watch Mad Men. So many good shows hiding among the not-so-good stuff.

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  2. gerrybartlett
    May 21, 2012 @ 09:32:02

    Homework forever? So true. I’m a TV addict like you. Yes, it’s research and I take the income tax deduction too. I constantly get ideas for my books. Just think about how her FBI mate (I still think of him as Angel) reacted when Bones went missing.He was out of control with violence. It made me remember how true warriors react under stress when their “woman” is in harm’s way. Good stuff and I can use that right now. So you see? We HAVE to watch our shows. I love Smash too. Not sure how that figures in, Glee either, though I’m thinking about doing a YA, but I’m a sucker for anything with music. Hey, between the homework, we need to take a break and have some fun occasionally. Right?

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    • Kay Hudson
      May 21, 2012 @ 09:48:52

      Yes, Booth is the kind of Alpha Male I love, a warrior with a heart. I got behind on Smash and House because there were a lot of good shows on Monday night this year, not to mention my critique group meetings, but I have them stashed on my DVR. And before I go to bed I relax with fifty-year-old Perry Mason episodes. Maybe I’ll write a legal thriller . . .

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  3. Cheryl Bolen
    May 26, 2012 @ 22:01:56

    Man, do I love that art: Being a writer means having homework forever. I remember when I got my master’s degree (I was 33) and said I was never going back to school. I’d spent so many years going to college and always having assignments — whether they be writing or reading — hanging over my head. I wanted time to do all my fun stuff (mostly to read whatever I wanted). Well, the sign is right. The career path I’ve chosen (writing) is never ending. Pretty much 24/7. And I still don’t allow myself to read all those books I want to read…Not when I’ve got readers begging for the next installment and money to be made!

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