A button is a term used in television writing, and it’s a technique used basically to keep you so interested in the show that you’ll come back after the commercials. The oldest use of buttons in movies are the old serials, which were usually divided up into twelve or so chapters, with each chapter ending with a cliffhanger. And television does pretty much the same thing. You have the commercial cliffhangers, the weekly cliffhangers and the season cliffhangers.
For those who were around and cognizant during Dallas, the most famous cliffhanger of all is “who shot JR?” The season ended with JR being shot by an unseen assailant, and everyone went nuts, rocketing Dallas into the stratosphere of popular television shows. A more recent show (although not THAT recent) is Alias. I had never watched this show before and just finished up the 1st season. Wow. Not only is it well acted and directed, it’s smartly written and shot. An all around great show that I watch for inspiration simply because I think the writing is so smart. Alias is the perfect show to illustrate all the best tricks of writing that television/movie writers use.
Now most hour long shows are divided up into four parts. Back in the old Quinn Martin days, with shows like The Fugitive, they even labeled the shows Act I, Act II, Act III, Act IV. Don’t get confused by this and think it’s some new kind of structure. These were just labels. The shows were still constructed using three acts.
Anyway, at the end of each “act” a show goes to commercial. And right before it goes to commercial, something happens — some story point, some piece of action, some line of dialogue, some revelation — that prevents you from changing the channel. And that story point, that piece of action, dialogue, revelation is the “button.”
Obviously, books are the perfect place to do this. If you read one of my thrillers, you’ll find that I end almost every chapter with some kind of button. Something that kicks things up a bit and makes the reader think, “Oh, shit. Just one more chapter and I’ll go to bed.”
And, of course, that’s what I want them to think. The best emails I ever get are the ones in which the reader tells me she’s mad at me because I made her stay up all night. I’m a manipulative bastard.
But buttons aren’t limited to thrillers. Love stories are full of them. Mysteries. Literary fiction. Sometimes they can be in your face and sometimes they can be subtle. The key is to give the reader enough of a kick to keep them wanting to read.
So, where can we find examples?
Well, a lot of you are probably already doing this in your own books and screenplays. You might not call them buttons, but you know they’re there. And you purposely structure your chapters so they’ll end on a question or a revelation, etc.
But, if you’re new to the concept, I invite you to take a look at an excerpt from one of my books. The buttons in Kiss Her Goodbye are not exactly in your face, but they’re definitely there:
The first chapter ends with a guard being shot, and we know things are very serious. You’ll also note that the scene has a Leave Early feel to it.
The second chapter ends with the main bad guy showing up and announcing his intentions, and the third chapter ends with the hero about to call the bad guy on the phone.
Hopefully, these will serve as good enough examples, but be sure to look at other books, movies and television shows and see if you can recognize the buttons at the ends of the chapters.