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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Don't Hobbit your readers -- how to keep interest between installments

Today I'm coming to you not as just a writer, blogger, and would-be billionaire author. I am coming to you as a reader and movie-goer with a simple plea: Don't Hobbit* your readers.

I'm not talking about The Hobbit. I'm talking about The Hobbit -- the movie(s). As part of my Christmas celebration, I went and saw The Desolation of Smaug. I have not seen the first installment of this apparent trilogy of movies. (You remember when I discussed splitting a book into multiple movies? This is not an example of a merited case.) I was told I didn't need to. They were right, this movie is a fine set up to another movie all on its own. And ... that's kind of it. It's not that nothing happens. Plenty of things are done and actions are taken. But then the whole thing, the part of the movie that the entire theater had clearly been anticipating ... doesn't happen. Not in a Breaking Dawn "let's-just-not-even-fight" kinda way. In a "let's-make-the-most-frustrating-cliffhanger-ever-MERRY-CHRISTMAS-SUCKERS" kinda way.

Oh no! A big, scary sentient dragon! What's going to happen?
Nothing. Nothing's going to happen.

When the screen when black and credits started to roll, the entire theater groaned and started heckling the names rolling along the screen. I think that summarizes the whole thing nicely.

And the moral of this story? Well, the experience was so irritating that I've verb-ized it (kinda like I just did that): DON'T HOBBIT YOUR READERS.

We've all been there. We're enjoying a book, it's really clipping along, we're getting into the good part -- but there's suspiciously few pages left. "It's okay," we try to convince ourselves, "it's gonna resolve. It'll all make sense."

But of course, it doesn't all resolve. We've been left with the dreaded mid-series cliffhanger. Almost as bad as having to wait almost a year between part one and part two of season 5 of Breaking Bad. These cliffhangers aren't so bad when we're latecomers to the game and can just Netflix our way through the whole thing, or hop on Amazon and download book two to our Kindle. But when you're reading/watching in real time ... it's agony.

So how does one avoid Hobbiting if you're writing a series? You want the reader to be engaged, you want them to care enough to buy the second book -- how do you do it?

I have two letters and a word for you: J.K. Rowling.

"Wow, she's got a mad crush on J.K. Rowling," you say?

How dare you imply my love for her is so vapid and fleeting as a crush. Jo is my author soul mate. You'll never understand what we have.

But also, if you don't have a crush on her then maybe you should a little bit. If there's one thing that Rowling did and did exceptionally well, it was end her novels but keep the reader baited. Even her cliffhangiest of novels, The Half-Blood Prince, avoids the Hobbit effect.

So how do you Rowling it instead of Jackson it?

Cliffhanging: What you can learn from Harry Potter

  1. Give your protagonist an ongoing struggle.
    Harry had a lot of struggles at Hogwarts that may make you wonder where parents are so chill with sending their kids away there. The whole "it's the safest place" thing is kind of a strange argument when it seems to be Voldemort's primary target year-after-year. However, the big struggle of the series isn't contained in any single novel. It's a plot arc that runs through the whole series, and a smart way to keep readers hooked.
  2. Subplots should contribute to the overall struggle, but also create self-standing stories.
    And speaking of the plot arc, the yin to number 1's yang is the self-contained stories in each novel. In the scheme of things, the main struggle of each book is something like a subplot that informs the overarching plotline but also can exist separately. In book 1, they're trying to figure out what is hidden in the castle and, later, how to keep it safe. In book 2, they're trying to figure out what is attacking the students. Book 3 is Sirius Black, Book 4 the Triwizard Tournament, Book 5 figuring out what old moldy Voldy is up to, 6 is about what Malfoy's plotting and the Horcruxes, and 7 is the actual finale to the main plot. The point is, even without the main plotline and the buildup to the Wizarding World's second clash with the ultimate Dark Wizard, I would still care about who's attacking the students and who wins the Cup. These stories are interesting all one their own. 
  3. Resolve a major problem by the end of each novel.
    Having a stand alone type plot for each novel allows the reader to experience some resolution at the end of each book. This is the key to writing a strong series that doesn't just rely on cheap cliffhangers tricks to engage the reader's interest. Rather than the whole book feeling like the set up to the next of the series, we're given resolution to a major problem by the end of each novel. We can feel the series plot building, but we're not left wondering why we even bothered. 
  4. Make your characters engaging and dynamic.
    Okay, this is a huge piece of what makes a series successful. Plot is important, but one of the guaranteed ways to keep readers coming back is to make them care about the characters. If the reader wants to know what happens to Harry, then they'll keep coming back to find out. Rowling is often credited for having the books and the characters grow up with the reader throughout the series. She's certainly not the only author to do this (L'Engle and Pierce come to mind as other authors who've really mastered this) but her success is undeniable. For young adult series, in particular, character growth is extremely important. We're watching a character grow up, and we don't want them to make the same decisions at age 17 that they made at 11.
  5. Provide a tease of the future.
    And finally -- don't be afraid to tease your reader a little. At the end of your novel, remind the reader that there is a future, that there will be another installment. Do everything else and a little wink to the next book isn't irritating -- it's appetizing.

*Let me be extra, super clear: I have nothing against The Hobbit by Tolkien. I'm a major Tolkien fan. I also having nothing against the original LotR movie trilogy -- the opposite, I was a girl obsessed in high school. This criticism is solely related to The Hobbit movie trilogy.

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