Cliffhangers and Gamechangers

After I rattled on about dark moments and cliffhangers the other day, it occurred to me that there might be more comparisons to be made between television and novels (thereby justifiying my TV habit for another round).  Many series end their seasons as they might end any episode: they wrap up the current story and hope that the audience likes the show’s characters, plots, and ambience–a novelist might say voice–enough to come back for more.  Most novelists do the same.  A writer who sets multiple novels in her imaginary world may leave a few strands loose, to pick up in another book, but most commercial novels end with enough finality to satisfy the reader.

As I thought about some of the shows I’ve enjoyed lately, I realized there’s another way to end a season, with a gamechanger rather than a cliffhanger.  Take Castle.  And who wouldn’t?  Nathan Fillion–enough said?  He’s adorable.  Rick Castle is funny, smart, goofy, charming, successful, and he loves and respects the women in his life.  And he’s clearly been in love with Kate Beckett since very early in the series.  In last year’s season finale (a true cliffhanger which left Beckett with a bullet in her chest), he even told her so.  Not that easy, Rick.

By the end of this season’s last episode, the case was solved, and Castle was thoroughly fed up with Beckett’s attitude.  For her part, Beckett was thoroughly fed up with police procedure, turning in her badge and gun and stomping out into the rain.  And thinking about her life.  When she turned up, soaking wet, at Castle’s door, he asked, “What do you want?”  “You,” she said.  And they fell into each other’s arms like, well, like TV characters who’ve been kept apart by wicked writers for four years.

Okay, someone’s still out there trying to kill Beckett, but that’s nothing new, so it doesn’t qualify as a cliffhanger.  And there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind what happened after the closing credits.  No cliffhanger there, either.  But the events of those last few minutes will surely change the course of the story.  The captain may well ignore Beckett’s resignation, but no one will be able to ignore the change in the Castle/Beckett relationship.

This evening I watched the season finale of Glee.  Again, not a cliffhanger, nothing like the mid-season break, when Quinn was hit by a truck while driving and texting.  But tonight half the cast graduated, Rachel headed off to New York, Finn said he was joining the Army, and Sue–well, Sue said really nice things to and about several of the kids.  Sue will surely revert to her hilariously toxic self in the fall, but the make-up of the show choir is in for some big changes.

A reader might throw a cliffhanger novel against a wall (unless she is prepared for the idea that the third of six installments in a fantasy cycle is unlikely to tie up many loose ends), but a gamechanging ending shouldn’t be a problem.  After all, many romance novels end just that way–with a wedding.  If you don’t think that’s a gamechanging event, you’ve never been married.


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?