Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How to Create Effective Cliffhangers

Cliff hangers are named thus because they evoke a sense of danger, as if hanging over the edge of a cliff. When used between chapters they create the "page turning effect" sought after by thrillers and other high octane genres. When used between books they can become distasteful if used improperly.

At that point, it's no longer a question of creative intent but business intent.  To end a book on a cliffhanger is to presume that the reader would buy the next book simply to find out what happens next, instead of the book's inherent quality. This is especially the case if it is tacked on at the end for the sole purpose of a cliffhanger instead of events leading up to something meaningful. It's like pushing a reader off a cliff and refusing to hand them a rope unless they pay for it.

I also call this "The Missing Epilogue"  because the problem could be corrected with a short epilogue. Something that shows the aftermath of the climax and closes up plot threads. It could even be a preview of the next book to increase anticipated sales, as long it closes the first book at the same time as opening the second.

It's about that sense of closure. For however many hundreds of pages, the plot is developed and brought to its climax, the highest point. After that, a reader expects some falling action and resolution. It doesn't have to resolve everything neatly (I've heard some authors don't like that for some reason, either creatively or out of a desire for realism)  but I want to see the fallout of the climax. Don't stop at the tail end of the climax because the reader wants to see more. To exploit that desire with a "buy the next book" line is a business decision and likely to antagonize the reader.

Indeed, as a volunteer book reviewer I've read several books like that. They cut off at the tail end of the climax or introduce something new on the last page; some last second twist to stir the reader into a frenzy and buy the next book. Instead, I've thought "Ick!" and downgraded their final rank in my review. I don't read sequels to books like this because they are likely to have similar endings, final book included.

Driving sales can be the only deliberate intention of a goading cliffhanger. If someone denies this then it means that they are sloppy, lazy, and/or lack the skill to resolve the conflict they created. Conflict is created, developed and then resolved; that's the basic structure of a story. I don't want to hear any "I have to leave it unresolved for the next book!" whining. A sufficiently skilled author can close a book's conflict while leaving the series' conflict open.

Here are four examples of such writers:

1. Isaac Hooke did this for his "Forever Gate" series.  The first one, for instance, ends the main narrative with a shocking twist and thus a cliffhanger because the reader does not know what's going on. However, the preview of the next book showed the aftermath of that twist and at the same time queues up the second one. This way the reader is not left hanging about the conclusion for the first and is instead excited for the second.

2. J.K. Rowling did a fantastic job of this in "Harry Potter". The conflict of the series was always about Harry clashing with Voldemort but the individual seven books each had their own conflict that was set up and resolved between the covers. The first book, for instance, has Voldemort attempting to restore himself with the Philosopher's Stone. While Harry prevents him from getting it, Evil Plan foiled, the evil wizard is still out there and he can try again.

3. Ranjit More does this in "The Underworld King" a little differently. There are two main conflicts; demons vs snake monsters and demons vs gods. It starts with the first and is primarily concerned with the first but the second is a significant plot thread. By the end of the book, the first conflict is resolved completely and the final lines signify that the second will be prominent in the next book. It's like shifting weight from one foot to the other.

4. The "Inspector Gadget" cartoon series. Every episode began with some Evil Plan by Dr. Claw and every episode ended with him shouting "I'll get you next time, Gadget! NEXT TIME!"

By using similar techniques as these four examples, a writer can engage their audience to a deeper degree and get them excited for the next adventure, without angering them with goading cliffhangers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Answering review request: "Underworld King"

Ranjit Moore asked me to read his novel "Underworld King". It's an epic starring a demon king from Hinduism and his struggles with other rulers of this universe. I will examine plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.



There are several plot threads here but everything starts with Shukracharya telling Drumila that naaga (serpent monsters) are about to invade his kingdom. Because internal politics make the kingdom indefensible, Shukracharya tells Drumila to move himself and his loyal subjects to the surface and establish a new kingdom.

 I like this part. Moving everyone is a complicated process of logistics, even for these omni-potent god-like characters. There's good detail here. It's also an interesting prospective on this type of premise. Other stories would have the king rally a group of warrior friends and stomp on the monsters 300 style. This is more politically nuanced; I have to say it's less exciting than the action-adventure route and so it won't hold the attention of adrenaline junkies. It was hard for me to get through the first few chapters. I find it better to read for the world building and political stuff than for the action itself because there is little at this stage.


Another plot thread is Shukracharya's attempts to breach the dimensional wall protecting the highest level of Heaven so Drumila can invade it. Because Drumila is invulnerable to divine weapons, the gods have to weaken him first, and to do this, they send a goddess disguised as a human to tire him out with excessive lovemaking.

I like this part and again it’s because the execution is unusual for this premise. In another story, this would be an excuse plot for a romance novel. The fighting would be in the background and the seduction would be the main plot. Here, it doesn't come up for fifty or so pages and is only prominent for a couple chapters. There's no smut or titillation. It is an important but minor plot thread in this tapestry.

I also like it for the perspective. It sounds like an audience surrogate set up that I've seen in a number of anime and other stories, but the angle is different. The audience is told the divine story upfront so there's no big reveal later and audience identification. Also, it’s funny. While Drumila and Shukracharya are talking over this supposedly human girl in a language she supposedly doesn't undestand about topics that she supposedly doesn't know about, she is pretending to be scared and silently snarking at them while thinking about how she's going to screw them over.

I have two complaints with this plot thread. I don't understand why the gods are focusing on Drumila, who is not interested in invasion and 99% invulnerable instead of Shukracharya, who is the one working on the ability to breach their defenses. My second problem has to do with Arundhati's love for Drumila. She claims he has a good heart, and he does, but I don't understand how she got that impression. As a devi, she first saw him slaughtering gods. As human, her first impression is sexual assault and then she spends several days having sex with him. Now, if she saw him in action outside the bedroom, I would understand, but she doesn't.


Overall the plot is good. There's a sound progression of events and the initial conflict is resolved. That is, the issue of the naaga invasion and Drumila’s new kingdom is settled. However, the end is not as neat as I prefer. It ends so swiftly after the climax that it’s like clipping the tail feathers off a bird with a kitchen knife.



There's a lot of grey in this cast. It's ogre demons vs snake demons vs gods but it plays out like three human nations going at it than celestial beings. Indeed, neither are more immune to things like sexual lust than humans despite their claims of superiority.


There is a wide cast of named characters here and most of them are made into individuals. I can recognize them by name but I cannot spell their names without looking them up; Asian Indian names and all. Below are three of them. 

Drumila, the Underworld King in question, is a good protagonist. He is because one can see his desire to be a good king and look after his subjects. He has the unenviable task of trying to ensure a functional society made up of nether creatures ruled by tamas, or in the language of Tvtropes, they’re Always Chaotic Evil.


Shukracharya is Drumila's spiritual advisor. He's a demon but he's also an enlightened sage. He has fantastic powers ranging from teleportation to self-replication to reviving the dead. He's also wise and mystical. Thinking about him in retrospect, he's like the Hindu version of Saurman. (but not as cool.)


Arundhati could have easily been a Mary Sue; daughter of The Creator, immensely powerful, bewitchingly beautiful (even as a human), reincarnated into a wealthy human family, and effortlessly drives the Underworld King to distraction. However, she's not a Mary Sue. She has a small role here. It's an important role, no doubt about that, but it is a small role and a supporting role.  Even when she decides act contrary to her father's plan, she can't do it alone and there are consequences to her actions.


No trouble with spelling or grammar but I'm off a mixed opinion of the index.  On one hand, I like seeing that extra detail and it works well for world building. This way the author can elaborate on some aspect of Hinduism without bogging down the story and I found many of them interesting. On the other hand, I think it is excessive. The index is ten pages long and most of the entries are more like translations than anything else. For instance, "dhanush" means "bow". It doesn't say anything else, like the kind of bow, and so I find this disruptive.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Underworld King" a B

Click here for the next review request: "Kindling Ashes"

Click here for the previous review request: "Elsbeth and the Call of the Castle Ghosties"






Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Difference Between "Fantasy" and "Wish Fulfillment"

There is a difference between Fantasy-The-Genre and  Fantasy-As-Wish-Fulfillment. The former is it's own genre and big enough to have its own subgenres. The later is not a genre but a trope used by the author for their own sake or to appeal to a certain kind of reader.  It is a unfortunate coincidence that a synonymy for  "supernatural" is also the word for anything that one wishes to happen, supernatural, mundane or otherwise.

I strongly object to those that call fantasy novels for Audience X something that Audience X fantasize about. This is due to the kinds of characters and plots they create.

Its purpose is not to tell a story but give someone something they want while simultaneously reminding them that they don't have whatever that is. It's empty and hollow because it contains nothing but a spotlight. It's often poorly written, possess shallow side characters and a vague world because the page-space is used to show how great the protagonist is. It feels like junk food.   I don't want genuine fantasy associated with these things.

A kid having magic powers can  be wishful fulfillment and fantasy at the same time, but it is always the later and not necessarily the former. Dark Fantasy, for instance, would be about a magically powerful kid in a dark setting that no one would want to go to. That's for getting scared. Wish fulfillment is like this one book whose review I read. (It will remain nameless because I don't want to name it in a such a context). It was about this superpowered kid whose parents allowed him to drive a car, by himself, with only a learner's permit. The first part of that sentence is Fantasy the genre and the second part is a fantasy that a teenager might have. If the superpower were mind control it would make sense but it's not, so it feels like it was put there because a potential reader for this book would want to do such a thing.

This sort of Wish Fulfillment fantasy can be seen among the "Three Varieties Of Protagonists ", for all of them can be used in pseudo wish granting. The Champion is everything the reader wishes they were, The Loser is everything they're glad they're not (or someone that could hypothetically sympathize with them) and the Everyman is a self-deception so they can believe these things are happening to them personally instead of a story book character. Regardless of the kind of protagonist, everything is subordinate to this protagonist and how this protagonist can cater to the reader. The internet has given a name to such a character: Mary Sue.

In a nut shell, the Mary Sue is a overly idealized character that is often an Author Avatar. They were originally found in fanfiction where they outshined all the canon characters and since then they have expanded to original series. They can be both "mundane" with their perfection (beautiful, rich, skilled at everything school/work has to offer etc) but also supernaturally (god-like power with many possible uses). Both of these can be called "fantasies" but more accurately they are both Wish Fulfillment with the later adding a supernatural element. There's a plot trope that truly combines them both.

It's called the  Vampire Werewolf Love Triangle . Here the protagonist can have a "special and exciting life" in addition to being fought over romantically.  There's a certain infamous book series built around this trope and whose author has admitted to making the protagonist as featureless as possible so girls could be better slot themselves into her place. Therefore, a genuine plot and character development do not occur.

That's my problem with all of the above.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Problem with Paid Reviews

Definitions first: I define Paid Reviews as "money for a review" and Solicited Reviews as "free book exchanged for review". This is the distinction between biased an unbiased.

The Problem with Paid Reviews is they are paid. This leads to three more problems.
1. They are fake
2. Money and Integrity can be at cross-purposes
3. Paid reviewers have less vested interest in genre preferences.

The first problem with paid reviews is that they are fake. Astro-turfing is the practice of artificial support that is supposed to look like genuine and intrinsic endorsement.  It's dishonest, it's distasteful, and ultimately it is counterproductive. Fake reviews make the author that buys them look bad; it's no different than buying copies of their own book to increase their rating. The only way around this is to make the review long, detailed and balanced. This way the reviewer has to actually the read the book they're reviewing, reflect on it, and then write a unique review that can't be copy/pasted to the next paying customer.

The second problem is the Four Point Scale. I read about it on Tvtropes and in a nutshell it's about the tendency to avoid writing critical reviews/low scores to avoid cutting into their bottom line/ratings. By keeping the review positive the reviewer can keep the author happy who then shares the review, which increases the reviewer's visibility and brings in more authors. As soon as money comes into the equation, it can become a factor against reviewer integrity. When money is absent then there is no conflict of interest.

The third problem with paid reviews has to do with genre preference. When the reviewer is reviewing for money in place of enjoyment then they don't care what genre they read. Different genre have different fans; a fantasy author is writing for fantasy fans, thriller for thriller, romance for romance etc. If I write a mystery novel then I do not care about the opinion of someone that does not read mystery novels. If I was the paid reviewer, my dis-interest in a given genre might color my perception and bias the review.

Nicola Matthews is working a similar article of her own and she's going to reblog this post along with Reviews Not Endorsements which covers reviewing style.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Answering Review Request: Elsbeth and the Call of the Castle Ghosties

Chris Palmer asked me to read a story written by him and J Bean Palmer, "Elsbeth and the Call of the Castle Ghosties". It's the third in a series but each one is a stand alone. It's about Elsbeth's ancestors calling her to old country to fight them against someone trying to steal the family's ancestral land. I will examine plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.


On the whole I have good things to say about the plot.

 The prologue, for instance, is fantastic. It encapsulates the premise in a concise and poetic manner while also wrapping it in the airs of an epic. This book is not an epic but this prologue made me eager to read the rest regardless.

The build up to the main action, traveling to Ireland, builds up that eagerness. An acquaintance of Elsbeth, the South Wind, blows her ship across the Atlantic Ocean. She knows something strange is happening because South Wind wouldn't do that on his own. It's a sense of mystery that drives the story forward. There's also an amusing explanation for how the kids survive the long trip: the boat belongs to Robert's Uncle Preston and Uncle Preston really likes peanut butter so there's this huge stash of it on the boat.

I like the event in Ireland itself too. There's a good development of events, some interesting world building and a plausible reason for why the kids are solving the problem instead of adults. Thus, no use of the Adults Are Useless trope.

It's the climax and resolution that I dislike. There's this Idiot Ball that leads to the climax which creates a forced crisis. Then it's like the ball breeds and lots of people are holding one. It's jarring. Because of this idiot ball, the sense of triumph afterward falls flat for me.

However, even here I liked how the crisis is resolved. It's clever, it's foreshadowed instead of an Ass Pull, and it's karmarific. My only gripe is the path there.


Characters are also good. 9 out of 10 times it's a good idea to show rather than tell when it comes to character development and that is the case here. Rather than talk about Lisa Lee being smart, the reader sees her give exposition on ocean currents or mentally calculate the odds of something happening.  Then there's this quote about Veronica. It fits her so "perfectly" that Tvtropes would call it an Establishing Character Moment:

"Veronica sped in right beside her on her perfectly clean new bike, perfectly dressed in crisp navy and white, perfectly prepared for a day at sea. In other words, perfectly Veronica." (2nd page of the 2nd chapter)

Gorgeous Banks also makes a good villain. He's introduced at the castle's doorstep, trying to charm his way inside while the local kids' parents are away. There's this sliminess to him and veiled menance. He convinces Robert to do something terrible for him by appealing to his love of treasure hunting.  When parents warn their children about the "bad stranger", this is the guy they're talking about.

The three ghosts are good too but my favorite is Durst. He is what happens when an epic hero becomes a grumpy old man. He's a sympathetic character but at the same time, the contrast is comical.

My problem with the characters is the drop in IQ of the heroes as they go into the climax. Also, Gorgeous Banks decays into a caricature of greedy polluters and evil bureaucrats around the same time.


For the grammar, I am of two minds: 1.) The many sentences starting with "and" or "but", among other things, make the book sound like it was written by a nine year old. 2.) The story is written for nine year olds from the perspective of a nine year old, and I am a Grammar Nazi.

Pacing, on the whole, is good. I feel like the plot spins its wheels in one specific spot, but this spot is short and easy to overlook.

If it weren't for the problems in the climax, I'd have no qualms about giving this book a B+, but as it stands I have those qualms.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Elsbeth and the Call of the Castle Ghosties" a C+

Click here for the next review request The "Underworld King"

Click here for the previous review request "Destiny of the Wulf"