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Regarding evil cliffhangers

November 7, 2008
Posted at 6:43 pm

Recently, with the posting of two books that explore the phenomenon of memory loss and how it might affect the lives of people, I have gotten a lot of mail about the cliffhangers I incorporate into the story. I'll give you a few examples.

"You are a mean, cruel, evil person."

"I can't BELIEVE you left it there! What a sadist!"

"Damn you and your infernal cliffhangers!"

And my personal favorite:


OK, some of you have made yourselves perfectly clear about what you think about cliffhangers. So I thought maybe I should make MYself perfectly clear about why I do them.

I DO write cliffhangers into my work intentionally, by the way. It's no accident.

A little history first, mostly for those of you under forty. The oldsters probably lived what I'm going to talk about briefly.

I was raised in the fifties, during a time after a couple of wars, which were after the Great Depression. A lot of people had gone through some really tough times, and done without a lot of things they'd like to have had.

By the fifties life was pretty good, because the economy was booming, innovation was moving forward at a dizzying pace, and personal wealth was beginning to crawl toward the point where more people had it than didn't. At least in the United States.

Back then, you took charity only if you absolutely had to have it. It embarrassed you to be given something that you'd rather work to earn. I knew lots of people who didn't generate much trash, because they found ways to recycle it right there in the house.

There were TV repairmen, and watch repairmen, and Maytag repairmen and shoe repairmen. In fact, you could get almost anything repaired if it broke. You took it to the repairman and left it there.

Then you waited.

In however long he said it would take, it got fixed, and then you went in and got it back. There were still blacksmiths, though they worked mostly in farming areas, and worked on the new horses - tractors and combines.

Back then, you put things on layaway, which meant you paid something down, and the store put the item on a shelf in the back somewhere.

Then you waited.

You came in every so often and paid some more on it, until it was paid for, and then they got it off the shelf and gave it to you. Just about every Christmas and Birthday present I got until 1968 was bought on layaway.

And, speaking of presents, they appeared under the Christmas tree weeks in advance of the big day. You didn't shake them (they might break) and you didn't ask "What did you get me?"

You waited.

Anticipation was a big part of Christmas and birthdays. You dreamed of what might be in those packages. You hoped for what might be revealed when you were finally able to open them. You hoped for things.

We didn't open presents on Christmas Eve. Sometimes that was a religious decision, such as in our house. Sometimes it wasn't, based on some other reason, but by and large the tradition was to wait ... to anticipate ... to revel in the joy of hope. And then celebrate wildly on the day you had been waiting for.

What you saw at the movie house back then was different too. Flash Gordon took you on a wild ride for half an hour and then got into some kind of terrible trouble before the words "TO BE CONTINUED" flashed on the screen and there were moans from the whole audience.

You had to wait.

You had to go back the next week and spend another fifteen cents to see what happened. And then there would be a cliffhanger at the end of THAT episode too.

And by the way, another thing you had to wait for was sex. Of course not all young people did. In fact, based on some of the stories I now hear from readers, there was a LOT less waiting going on back then than our parents believed. But SOME of us (meaning me) had to wait ... to anticipate ... to dream about what a breast ... and other things ... might feel like. A lot of women waited until they got married.

You see, I was raised in a world full of cliffhangers and anticipation. I soaked in it, and the fantasies you read today are the results of a mind that spent hours and hours dreaming about what might be in that box under the tree. I was raised in a world where something cool had to be worked for, and paid for over time before you actually got to hold it, or use it, or play with it.

And I was raised in a world where sometimes, when you opened the box, it was socks, or a shirt, or a new pair of jeans.

You didn't always get what you wanted ... what you'd dreamed of ... what you had ached for.

If you wanted it badly enough, you went out and mowed enough lawns, or raked enough leaves, or shoveled enough snow to earn the money to go buy it yourself.

Now ... let's look at the world of today.

Today's world is one in which there is almost no anticipation to soak in at all. The youth of today see something, ask for it, and, quite often, it is bought for them. They carry it on their lap in the car ride home. They don't have to work for it.

Today's world is one in which "self actualization" and "self esteem" are of paramount importance in the raising of a child. What that seems to mean is that you meet their needs immediately, so they can feel "actualized." We are teaching them that if they want something, they ask for it, and it appears, because they "deserve it."

That's translated into young people applying for a job and expecting to be highly paid immediately, and the boss within a month. After all, haven't they been told constantly how talented and special they are, for the last quarter of a century?

When I was growing up, if you didn't pass your tests, you were held back a grade, to take that grade over again until you DID pass your tests.

Imagine if somebody suggested doing that now? No child left behind was invented long ago, by parents who didn't want to have to deal with the stigma of having a child who couldn't, or wouldn't learn in school. That only applied to ten or fifteen percent of kids at the most ... back then. What is it now?

Now we have high school graduates who can't read a job application, because they never learned how to read, because they were never left behind.

Young people today live in a world of instant gratification. They don't have to wait for anything.

Except my next chapter.

As you contemplate what a mean, horrible, evil, sucky man I am, to tease you like that, and force you to use your brain to think about what might happen in the story, just take a deep breath.

You can send me all the nasty notes you want. I'm aware that most of you are saying these things in perfectly good humor, and that you don't actually MEAN that I suck. But if somebody comes up to you and says "Man! Who beat the crap out of you with an ugly stick today?" and then says "Just kidding!" you still can't help but think that there was something that precipitated that comment. On some level, they really DO think you're ugly.

If it sounds like I'm complaining, you might get the wrong idea. I'm not complaining that people want to see more of the story. I'm complaining because a lot of them don't get the POINT of the cliffhanger.

It's not to tease you.

OK, it's to tease you. But more importantly it's to make you think. Each of those cliff hangers is an attempt to get your imagination to run crazy, anticipating what might be in the box under the tree, and yes, even hoping that it might be a particular thing.

Anticipation is the stress of being alive, and loving it, because all things are possible.

Of course, when you open the box, it may be socks. But there is always another box. You can create boxes of anticipation in your own life if you just stop flashing your credit card every single time you see something you want. Save for it. Put the money in a jar, until you have enough to pay for it. Some stores are even going back to the layaway program, thanks to the economic meltdown caused by people who had to have the instant gratification of having a house they couldn't afford. Now they can't get credit any more, so layaway has been dragged out of the closet, dusted off, and used as a marketing tool.

You don't have to have everything RIGHT NOW! I didn't, and I survived for over five decades. I have a credit score of over 800. I can get all the credit in the world, even in this economy. But the REASON I have that credit score is because I know how to wait until I can afford whatever it is that I think I want.

I only have two more things to say on the matter.

First, I purely love you guys and gals who write to me and tell me what you think is going to happen, or what you hope is going to happen. You're using your brain and, as a extra benefit, you give me ideas for future stories. Thank you for playing the game.

Lastly, if you think this is all a bunch of horse shit, and that I'm really just a mean, evil, low down, teasing, torturing SOB ...

Well, you have two choices.

You can wait until the story is completely posted to read it. I know of at least 25 or 30 people who do that.

Or you can just deal with it.

I just can't WAIT to get the feedback on this blog entry! Write NOW! Pen me something IMMEDIATELY!