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Marginal Notes

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

A handful of plotting techniques have been so overused by generations of hack writers that they’ve picked up their own nicknames. Heavy foreshadowing (“If only she had known”) for instance, or getting your hero out of an impossible situation by an equally impossible plot twist (“With a mighty leap . . .”). These techniques are rightly mocked as awkward attempts to generate tension – plot mechanics at their creakiest. But another nicknamed technique has, I think, been unfairly relegated to cliché status—maintaining two parallel stories and ending your scenes so that you cut between them at moments that leave your readers hanging. Or, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”

The nickname dates to silent movies, when transitions were accomplished through title cards interspersed between scenes. In the earliest days, studios didn’t make new cards for each movie, but used a set of stock cards: “One Year Later,” “Comes the Dawn,” or “Wedding Bells.” “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch” was the card used most often when the action cut away from the heroine just as the log she was tied to was being fed into the sawmill.

The literary version of this technique dates back to at least Homer, but it was probably perfected in the nineteenth century, when most novels were serialized in newly-popular magazines. One of my favorite old bookstore finds is two bound volumes of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine from 1852/53. They contain a number of literary gems, such as a contemporary review of Moby Dick (“Beneath the whole story, the subtle, imaginative reader may perhaps find a pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life.”). They are also home of the first American serialization of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Since Dickens needed to keep readers interested enough to wait a month for the next chapter, nearly every installment ends with a cliffhanger – another silent movie term that made the leap to literature. For instance, the January, 1853, installment ends with Krook’s spontaneous combustion (with a woodcut), and readers have to wait until February to see the outcome. But for many of the transitions, Dickens ends at a critical moment, then picks up the next month’s installment with another thread, forcing readers to wait two or three months before circling back to the original. December, 1852, ends with the revelation that Miss Summerton is Lady Dedlock’s daughter. We don’t get back to Lady Dedlock until February. The gap may have left readers frustrated, but it certainly sold magazines.

Jumping from one thread to another at a critical moment lets you create a cliffhanger within your novel. Of course, if you use it thoughtlessly – if every transition you make involves the main character facing a moment of mortal peril, for instance – then your readers are going to see through the technique. But when you use it subtly and responsibly, this transition can be an effective way to increase your tension.

So how do you manage these transitions subtly? Remember, your critical point doesn’t have to involve your protagonist tied to the railroad tracks. It could be anything that opens up new possibilities in the story – anything that will make your readers willing to wait to see how it turns out.

Consider Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it tells the story of an aspiring young writer, Skeeter, in the depths of the Jim Crow south, struggling to write a book about the black maids who are such a feature of the white households she knows. Stockett jumps back and forth between three main threads, centered on Skeeter and two of the maids, Aibileen and Minnie.

How does Stockett make the transitions from one thread to another? In one chapter, Aibileen discovers that Miss Hilly, possibly the worst racist in town, has learned of Skeeter’s book. This raises the tension considerably, but the chapter ends with another maid, who had been reluctant to talk, volunteering to tell her story. In another, Minnie’s boss, Miss Celia, who until then had been a pathetic hanger-on trying to break into proper, racist, society, turns her back on it pretty definitively. Another, in which Skeeter tells Minnie and Aibileen that the book is going to be published, ends with the three of them wondering how they will get through the explosion that is bound to follow.

These are all “Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . .” transitions, even though none of them involves immanent physical danger. In all three, battle lines are newly redrawn, and the outcome is left hanging. Readers have to keep reading in order to find out what happens next. What makes them work is that the new developments arise out of who the characters are.

The tension between the maids’ desire to be heard and the fear of reprisal that gives drama to the first transition has been threaded through the book since the beginning. In the second transition, the tension has been building for some time between Miss Celia’s desire to be taken seriously by Miss Hilly and her growing friendship with Millie. Though the chapter ending resolves that tension, it opens new tensions, since it is the first sign that white society is beginning to leave Miss Hilly behind. And in the third, the risks involved in writing and publishing the book have been present from the beginning. The chapter ends when the dream of publishing becomes concrete and inevitable.

So if your plot is divided into several threads, try find an ending for each one that will leave readers hungering for more. Just be careful not to force a bit of danger into the story where it doesn’t belong. More often than not, the ending you’re looking for will already be present in what you’ve written. All you need to do is bring it to the surface to keep your readers’ interest alive while you shift to other things.

And above all, don’t be afraid to use a technique that has been overused by hacks in the past. I’m all for avoiding clichés that are simply lazy storytelling, such as “With a mighty leap.” But beneath the maiden-in-distress cliché, the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” transition accomplishes legitimate storytelling goals. Used sparingly and well, it can add depth and drive to even the most literary of novels.