Do you love a good cliffhanger? Most readers do. Whether they entail a twist that hits us like a tidal wave or employ a more subtle revelation, cliffhangers keep readers eagerly turning the pages—even if we’re not all entirely sure of a cliffhanger’s meaning.
But what is the definition of cliffhanger? And how can we, as writers, master the use of cliffhangers to write a book that holds readers all the way to the very end?
In this article, we’ll dig deep into what a real cliffhanger is, what it does, and how you can create consistently potent cliffhangers in your own writing.
Have you ever felt cheated when reading a book? Like the author held back information that would have enhanced your reading experience? Or neglected to include all the relevant details that would have allowed you to solve the mystery? Did the sequence of events in the story feel…off?
Think about this:
What if J.K. Rowling neglected to have Hagrid tell Harry about his parents’ deaths until the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone?
What if the writers of Die Hard had let Hans Gruber discover Holly was John McClane’s wife right up front?
What if Suzanne Collins had forgotten to alert readers to a rule change allowing tributes from the same district to win as a team in The Hunger Games?
Leaving out these vital pieces of information—or putting them in the wrong place—would have robbed these stories of a full measure of suspense. This would have dulled the impact of their final scenes.
As a writer, you never want readers to feel cheated or disappointed by your book. But how can you make sure you include all the relevant pieces of the puzzle, in the right order, to sustain suspense and satisfy your reader?
As a writer, you know building a foundation for your story, like a hook and sympathetic character, will allow you to grab readers right out of the starting gate. But once you’ve done this, do you know how to raise the stakes?
While a high stakes beginning grabs readers, it will only excite you and your reader for a few scenes. Without elevating stakes, your reader’s excitement about the plot will wear off if nothing bigger happens. Any interest in your story as a whole will flatten.
It’s human nature. We become inured. But you can avoid this happening by making the path of your book less like that flatland racetrack, and more like a jagged mountain range. With ups, downs, and an overall rise to the finish.
In this article, the word of the day is “stakes.”
As your story’s conflict progresses, the risks to your main character must intensify, keeping the reader invested in turning pages to find out what happens. Once you’ve laid the foundation for high suspense and captured your reader’s attention, you need to up the ante. Similar to the stakes of a hand of poker.
Finding ways to do this is not always easy, but when you put forth the effort, the results can be spectacular!
And there are practical strategies and tips you can use to do this.
Recall a time you made an effort to get someone to like you. Did you try to get them to relate to you, or want to spend more time with you? It’s kind of the same way with the main character in your book. Readers finish books when they care about what happens to the protagonist. To accomplish this, you need to craft a sympathetic character.
When you write a book, you’re asking readers to invite your character into their homes, their hangouts, their lives. It’s important to create a protagonist your reader wants to spend time with and that they care about enough to stick around to find out what happens to them.
Without that vital concern, suspense cannot be sustained. And without suspense, the reader will lose interest in your story. I talked about this in depth in my post on suspense.
Today, let’s talk about how to make your readers like—if not love—your characters so that you can sustain suspense in your book.