Cliffhanger May Be A Four-Letter Word

June 10, 2013 at 8:13 pm (Writing) (, , , , )

There are a number of words in the English language (or, honestly, probably any language) that have been used so loosely, so borderline inaccurately, for so long, the perceived meaning has started to shift. We actually have words for that (how cool is that?): connotation and denotation.

Remember those from ninth grade English?

Denotation is the literal definition of any given word. The dictionary definition, if you will. It’s the meaning that doesn’t shift much over time, or at least, is much more slow to shift. Like, a glove is an accessory/article of clothing worn over the hand with individual fingers.

Connotation is the not necessarily slang, but it’s the perceived meaning of a word. Much more so than denotation, connotation reflects the current culture. In this case, a glove isn’t only an article of clothing on the hand, it’s also a slang term for condom.

…well, I guess we know my mind’s in the gutter on a pretty regular basis.

Why do I bring up connotation and denotation? Because there are some words we use on a regular basis in talking about books that we use incorrectly.

Like dystopia. It’s become rather a catch-all for genuine dystopia, post-apocalyptic, evil modern regime, and some genre-benders that only partially fit within the definition. We use it to describe just about everything grim and touching on anything loosely governmental. BUT. The definition of dystopia (and don’t trust Merriam-Webster online, their definition sucks) is a society built upon utopian principles that, through innate human error, political or spiritual corruption, a/o self-initiated disaster, decays into something nearly a parody of its original, idealistic principles.

Here’s where we tie back into the title: cliffhanger is another term that’s experienced a shift between original and perceived meaning. We hear it being used for anything that makes you want more, anything that ends abruptly in such a way as to leave you intensely craving more.

The thing is, the original (and accurate) definition of cliffhanger is contained within the phrase itself. Cliffhanger. It came about as radio and television shows developed, and they’d leave you at the end of a week’s episode with someone literally hanging off a cliff. Does he make it? Or does he fall? Will she celebrate a rescue? Or have to plan a funeral? Do the humans understand Lassie? Or does Timmy finally drown in that damn well? You’d be left with your character in genuine, life-threatening DANGER and then have to wait until next week’s episode to find out if he or she is okay.

Here’s an example where the meaning has blurred. (WARNING: SPOILERS FOR CATCHING FIRE BY SUZANNE COLLINS BELOW) If you talk to most people who’ve read Catching Fire, they call the ending a cliffhanger. What?! *gasp!* There’s no District 12 anymore?! *shock!* It’s not, though. A cliffhanger, that is, it’s sort of a shock if you haven’t been paying attention to the repeated stories of the 13th District that wasn’t really mentioned at all in the first book. It’s not a cliffhanger because it’s not leaving us in the middle of active (or if you’re a Tom Clancy fan, clear and present) danger. Katniss and a handful of others have been rescued from the arena, they’re on their way to promised safety, the main action of the second book is finished. The “There is no District Twelve, Katniss” is the lead-in to the next book, a way to spark the interest that naturally wanes as the resolution ties neatly together, a way to keep you chomping at the bit for the next installment. It’s the carrot dangling from the end of the stick.

But it’s not dangling over the end of a cliff.

On my second What I’ve Been Reading post, The Streelight Reader asked me if The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater ends in a cliffhanger, and I had to think about what to answer. (Don’t worry, NO SPOILERS) Because, by the current definition of cliffhanger, by the connotation of the word…sure, it’s a bit abrupt, it’s a definite lead in to the next book, and it’s a pair of sentences that make your heart skip few beats as you stare at the page.

But I wouldn’t call it a cliffhanger.

One of the things I love about Maggie Stiefvater’s books, especially the two we’ve seen thus far in the Raven Cycle, is that each book has its own story. The series has an arching story, an overall goal and way of getting there, but the individual books aren’t merely installments. Each book has its own arc, has its own threads that mostly resolve and tie back together even as they form a pattern within the larger story.

Do you remember those friendship bracelets that little kids make with embroidery floss? (Or not so little kids, given that I made one right before BEA) There’s one that’s called, among other names, a Triple Diamond. Hang on, let me throw in a picture:

Bracelet

It uses twenty strands of floss in five different colors, knotting in chevrons and inverted chevrons to form the diamonds, and you have to be able to knot both left and right, sometimes switching direction in the middle of a knot. The overall design, the finished pattern, is like the series. The story of the Raven Cycle is that completed work, with all those individual diamonds linking together into a cohesive creation. But every thread, every color, every individual knot, those are the elements of the books on their own. Just as the main characters can each be assigned a thread color and we can call it that character’s path through the series, we can also call those threads individual plot elements. They have to resolve in every set in order to continue through the rest of the books.

So the black thread (let’s call it Ronan) can’t just dangle off into nothingness and still be fully present through the resolution of the series. His smaller stories, his episodes, HAVE to resolve within each set.

The Dream Thieves is not merely a continuation of the quest for Glendower. It’s not merely a second installment, continuing the same story and trudging relentlessly onward. This is its own book, its own story, a set of snarls and knots that resolves into a part of the larger pattern, even as the threads set themselves for the next block of pattern. Without that preparation, without those two sentences that make your gut clench with wonder and anticipation and just a bit of fear, things would just kind of…fizzle…after the necessary resolution of those smaller threads.

But we’re not left in the middle of something. We’re not left with our Raven Boys (including Blue) in imminent peril. We’re not left with them over the lip of a cliff, literal or metaphorical. Instead, we’re left with a clue- the frame of a question that hasn’t yet found its voice or shuffled the words into the right order to follow the transition from declarative to inquisitive. That question, once it’s found, will be the starting block for the third book (and seriously, can’t wait; if I haven’t scared you off with grammar and craft-based-analogies, READ THESE BOOKS IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY), but it’s necessarily built off the resolution of the book two story.

This is a very long answer to what’s probably a simple question, Streetlight Reader, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, as I see the word cliffhanger more and more in book reviews.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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2 Comments

  1. Christine said,

    You’ve convinced me. Getting The Raven Boys on my nook :)

    • Dot Hutchison said,

      I hope you love it! It is one of the very few books where, when someone asks me about it, I genuinely cannot muster intelligible speech for a few minutes, because my brain overloads on all the remembered awesome.

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