Have you ever read a Goosebump book by R.L. Stine? Maybe when you were a kid? Remember how they were structured? At the end of every chapter, there is a cliffhanger. You know, to keep your young mind reading.
R.L. Stine was a master at doing this, however, as we got older, we became more suspect — you can only trick us so many times with a “sound coming from behind a door” page-turning trick, and have it turn out to be a cat or something else inconsequential.
Last line in Chapter 26: I suddenly felt a chill. A dark shadow slid over me. And I realized I wasn’t alone in the house.
First paragraphs of Chapter 27: I spun around with a gasp.
Was it Shockro? Some other scary creature?
A tall figure leaned over me. I squinted in the darkness, struggling to see his face.
“Dad?” I cried as he came into focus. “Dad I’m so glad to see you.”
-Shocker on Shock Street – RL Stine
You can do better. Yes, better than RL Stine.
When you write your compelling story, you can structure it in much of the same way as a Goosebump book. A cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. However, not every cliffhanger should be life or death. There needs to be a variety. You need to balance it.
The 10-Episode Structure
The structure I want to share with you today is taken from modern day 10-episode-seasons-television series, such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.
At the end of every one of these episodes, you get emotionally invested. You have to keep watching. It’s not even a question. However, the only reason that you are emotionally attached to the story is that each chapter or episode itself has a Freytag’s pyramid to build up the tension.
When it is done well and when you reach the end — call it a cliffhanger or call it a hook, either way — you are hanging on until the very end of the season (for an ultimate hook that gets you anticipating the next one).
So like a novel, a television season has a story arch. From episode 1 to episode 10, John Snow or Walter White goes through an inevitable and surprising change.
What’s interesting is the way each episode when pulled out of the rest, can be analyzed and found to have its own story arch.
So you have the season’s story arch, which spans all 10 episodes and looks something like this:
And, each episode within itself will have its own story arch. Like this.
So each episode should begin with an inciting incident, followed by a raising action, culminating in a climax, and then a denouement where you can hint at the next inciting incident, which is why we never return to the same level of drama as the beginning. Things have changed.
Take, season one of Game of Thrones. I use this example because this season is as close to the book as you will find in any adaptation.
There are two main stories happening:
A) Ned becoming the hand of the king
B) Dany becoming Khal Drogo’s wife.
Game of Thrones (Season One) Endings Breakdown
Episode one: We start off by introducing all the characters and what their objectives are. Robert Baratheon arrives and encourages Eddard to leaves Winterfell. And that is the main conflict in the episode, will Ned leave his life or not. We find out that he does, and the episode ends with Bran getting pushed out of the castle window by Jamie. That is an epic cliffhanger.
Each episode after that offers a little more details and increases the stakes. Each ending with another cliffhanger.
Episode 2 ends with Bran waking up (oh no, is he going to reveal who pushed him?)
Episode 3 ends a shot of Ned watching Arya train, the sounds of real blades clashing, echoing in his head. (uh oh, he’s getting worried… what’s going to happen to him)
Episode 4 ends with Catelyn Stark arresting Tyrion Lannister in a tavern, accusing him of being the one who hired the assassin to kill Bran, concealing the Lannister’s secret. (this is surely a mistake, but is it?)
Episode 5 ends with a battle between Ned and Jamie out on the streets, Jamie has discovered that his brother has been captured. Ned ends up being stabbed in the knee.
Episode 6 ends with the B story about Daenerys in Essos. Remember what I said about building cliffhangers with variety. This is what’s happening, now it follows another character. The Dorathkis give her brother a golden crown, pouring gold on his head, thus freeing her from Viserys. And so the plot thickens on that end.
Episode 7 ends with Joffrey claiming the throne after his father’s death and Ned accusing Joffrey of not being the rightful heir. Thus watches his men get slaughtered and Ned arrested for treason. (at this point, we still think Ned is the good guy and he can surely get out of this mess).
Episode 8 ends with Sansa begging mercy for her father to Joffrey. And Joffrey seems reasonable, offering that all Ned will have to do is confess his crime. (oh good, surely Ned will come to his senses)
Episode 9 ends with Ned having his head chopped off. (this is probably the most intense cliffhanger in the history of television.)
Episode 10 ends with Daenerys’ dragons hatching in the fire of Khal Drogo’s pyre.
End of season 1.
In the end, the story we set out to understand is made clear. We find out about Ned Stark’s journey as the hand of the king and we find out Daenerys experience as Khal Drogo’s wife, a Khaleesi. But as two stories are resolved, many more are revealed.
Once you have the first draft of your story, you can start breaking it apart like a television series. Finding the micro story arch within the macro story. Once you have that you can create little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter or part, increasing the stakes each time.
Give this exercise a try and let me know how it turns out in the comments.
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