Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hanging in There

cliffhanger--a suspense-generating device in which the immediate welfare (if not the life) of an individual hangs in the balance; a ticking-clock artifice at the end of which a character runs the risk of death; severe jeopardy left unresolved at chapter's end.

Most long term readers are aware of the concept of The Tales of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, in which a young queen extended her life for yet another day by telling her executioner/husband stories which left individuals in peril so great that the husband, driven by curiosity, had to hear the outcome. This was suspense with a vengence. Newspapers and magazines picked on this technique for telling stories in installments, each one ending with an impending disaster of considerable impact. Giving the device its name, Thomas Hardy, in 1873, published a novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, which had been serialized in Tinsley's Magazine.

Against a background of restoring truly ancient church architecture on the craggy, desolate southwest coast of England, A Pair of Blue Eyes features young Elfride, a vicar's daughter, secretly engaged to a young architect, the young architect himself, and Henry Knight, older, unaware of Elfride's secret engagement, palpably interested in Elfride, himself.

Sitting on a high cliff above the Bristol Channel with Henry, hopeful of a telescope view of the ship returning the young architect from India, they are pelted by a gust of wind, which blows Henry's hat toward the edge. He scrambles for it, but finds himself unable to scramble back to the spot where he sat with Elfride. Trying to help him, Elfride makes things progressively worse. "From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment of a hollow cylinder," Hardy wrot, "having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom, which enclosed the bay to the extent of nearly a semicircle, [Henry] could see the vertical face curving round on each side of him. He looked far down the facade, and realized more thoroughly how it threatened him."

Henry Knight is suspended by his arms from the side of a cliff where, "opposite [his] eyes was an embedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, [Henry] and this underling seemed to have met in their place of death."

Readers of Tinsley's Magazine had to wait a month to see how Hardy would extricate Henry from this place where the Trilobite was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had a body to save, as he himself had now."

Well, you argue, Elfride could go for help. But where, and how long could Henry hold on?

Thus was the cliffhanger born.

Particularly in a novel, a cliffhanger ending of one chapter presents a splendid opportunity to shift to another point of view, another time frame, another situation, playing the waiting game of suspense, where so much hangs in the balance.

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