Know the Technique: Cliffhangers

Cliffhanger
noun

an ending  that leaves the audience in suspense.

Cliffhangers are those dreadfully wonderful things that most often occur at the end of a scene or a chapter specifically designed to inject a bunch of questions and/or thoughts into your mind. The hope is that with these new questions you’re dying to have answers for, you’ll turn the page and continue reading that next chapter in order to find more information on what’s just happened. They’re also quite often left at the end of books to make you dying to read the next instalment.

When well used, your readers won’t willingly put your book down. When done poorly, you’ll scare away readers that don’t like cliffhangers put in place to string them along and lie, or cause avoidable misunderstandings.

 

When SHOULD I use cliffhangers?

There isn’t really a time when you shouldn’t use a cliffhanger. As long as you’re using it at the end of a scene, chapter, or book, you’re technically using it “correctly”. However, correct usage and good usage aren’t the same thing when it comes to cliffhangers.

If you plan on using your cliffhanger to manipulate the reader into thinking something is going to happen, when in reality, nothing really is, rethink the purpose of your cliffhanger. This is tricking the reader, and I personally hate it, good intentions or not. Look at how your chapter is ending, and how the next chapter begins.

If you end your chapter like this:

“Mary hitched a breath when she felt something cold and wet rub against the back of her leg.”

And your next chapter starts with:

“She turned, her eyes wide with fear, anticipating some monstrosity creeping behind her. Instead, she found her little cousin had been poking her with a stick strung with soggy toilet paper.”

Poorly written, but kind of gives you an idea of the disappointment that you’re feeding a reader. When something like that ends the chapter, your reader is most likely hoping for something exciting to happen. You didn’t deliver. Of course it depends on the actual story, but this would be a suitable substitution:

“Her eyes widened as she turned, seeing the ghostly wraith stare down at her with hunger.”

Obviously this wouldn’t be viable if there weren’t wraiths in your story, but if you can’t deliver on the excitement/suspense you’ve created, don’t create it.

Tips for using cliffhangers:

1. Hold a middle ground.

Not all of your chapters should end in some epic omg wtf just happened!!?1! kind of cliffhanger. Usually the best cliffhangers are more subtle, where you really need to think about what you just read. Not something that most readers won’t grasp; more like something that both hints at and says what’s actually happening.

BUT there are still those times where a mega cliffhanger is justified. If you feel you can present your reader with a jaw dropping first chapter, there’s no harm in trying. Use them when necessary, and use them well.

2. Create a cliffhanger that gives the reader questions you can answer.

Let’s say you intend to have your main character revealed as a nephalem at the end of a chapter. Think through what your reader might think when you reveal that fact, and how the situation the character is in when it becomes known. Will you be able to provide answers that adequately answer those questions, be it in the next chapter, near the end of the book, or in a sequel? Looking at the story from a readers perspective can often show you what information they might be interested in learning.

3. Ease in to the cliffhanger.

Build the suspense from the beginning of the chapter if you’re expecting it to end as a cliffhanger. If you can make it so your reader can feel the anticipation growing inside them while they read, but not really notice any change in the story, that gives you the best opportunity to create a jaw-dropping cliffhanger.

Do this by releasing small targeted information that leads up to the end of the chapter or scene. When you reach the end, create a finale that pulls all of that information together and gives your reader the chance to think “ohhh….” and put everything in place themselves with a bit of guidance.

 

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