When you put your writing out there for others to read, what do you hope will happen? If you’re like most writers, you want readers to get pulled into your story and keep turning pages to the end. You want your story to be un-put-downable.
It’s no secret that the time-tested method of using cliffhangers at the end of your chapters or scenes is a sure-fire way to make that happen. But what a lot of writers don’t realize is that the cliffhanger ending is only half the equation.
The cliffhanger is the hook that makes the reader turn the page, but if you don’t have a solid line supporting them across the gap and a sinker that pulls them deep into the next scene or chapter, your fish is likely to wriggle off and swim away.
The Other Half
The chapter-ending cliffhanger is your hook, and the beginning of the next chapter is the sinker. Done right, they’ll create a line of connection for the reader, moving her smoothly from one to the other.
The key to making that connection lies in correctly structuring the cliffhanger and then solidly grounding your reader in the following scene. That means orienting her immediately and pulling her down deep, like a sinker on a fishing line. The scene following a cliffhanger means a jump to another character’s POV, or a time change, or a different setting. It’s critical you draw your reader deep into the new situation with the very first paragraph.
The best method for doing this is by quickly establishing POV, using the specific types of details discussed in my article on Point of View Magic.
Boosting Your Awareness
The cliffhanger “wheel” has already been invented. As writers, we need to figure out how to harvest the power of the wheel for our own writing. The trick to this is awareness and practice.
So, how do we become more aware of cliffhangers? We read.
I once took a class from Kristine Kathryn Rusch on how to read like a writer. She and her husband, writer Dean Wesley Smith, firmly assert that if you want to learn how to write well, you must read first like a reader. We are all readers first. It is our love of reading that turned us toward writing. So, when we read a book, we should approach it as a reader, paying attention to the qualities and details that readers notice and appreciate.
Then, after you finish a book that you particularly enjoyed, go back and study it, focusing on certain aspects that you admired about it. One of those aspects should be the cliffhangers. Learn how to analyze the different types and note how the author used them to nail down reader attention and carry it through to the next scene.
How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?
We all know the answer is practice, and that’s what we’re all about at The Write Practice. One way to practice cliffhanger skills and get them into your writer’s toolbox is by using what Dean calls “typing in” exercises.
Take that book you enjoyed as a reader and identify the cliffhangers that pulled you along through the story. Then type them into manuscript format, just as the original writer did however long ago.
Doing this puts the technique into your “front brain,” your more conscious, analytical processing center. But with repetition and practice, these skills move into your “back brain,” where you’ll draw upon them automatically as you write your stories. You won’t copy the words, but you’ll emulate the methods of successful writers.
There are many types of cliffhangers, and the scope of this article merely skims the surface. Several years ago, I took an online Cliffhanger course with Dean (you can sign up for an archived version of the class here). Most of what I share in this post I learned from him.
I’ll touch on some of the basics of cliffhangers and we’ll take a look at four types we can use in our writing: peril cuts, blackouts, character-based, and emotional. I’ll be using lots of examples from books and movies, so take heed of this great big SPOILER ALERT!
6 Cliffhanger Basics
What makes cliffhangers so powerful? How do they keep us on the edge of our seats, frantically turning pages? Take a look at these six cliffhanger basics for what makes the magic work.
1. The Wave
The plotline of a story involves highs and lows, like waves, and each character has their own wave. Cliffhangers often occur at the peak or in the trough of these highs and lows.
Think about how an event may tip the balance in favor of one character while signifying the doom of another character.
2. The Layer Effect
Cliffhangers can work on multiple levels. If you rely solely on physical cliffhangers, hitting on only one story cylinder, they often come off as thin. Which is okay once in a while, but you want to avoid a string of thin cliffhangers.
Combine different types of cliffhangers to layer on greater effect. More on this below.
3. The Setup
Make sure everything is in place to make the cliffhanger work. Example: Trapped in a haunted house, Steve and Carly go through a harrowing near-death scrape. They finally escape and run to the car, ready to speed to safety. Cliffhanger: Carly realizes the keys are in her purse which she put down while perusing a cupboard in the house.
Make sure the reader knows, in advance, where the purse is but has forgotten about it. Like Carly did.
4. The Overshoot
Be careful that you don’t write past the cliffhanger. Watch for the best point in a scene, cut it there, and jump to the next scene.
It can be easy to miss, and writing past a cliffhanger dilutes the effect and disappoints the reader.
5. The Kicker Line
Employ the power of a kicker line—a short sentence or two that acts like a punch to the gut. This is a super incentive to get readers to turn the page.
6. The Jump Cut
To really make a cliffhanger work, you’ve got to jump away, beginning the next scene with another viewpoint character or a lapse in time or in a different setting.
4 Types of Cliffhangers
Where should you pause your story for maximum cliffhanger effect? Mix and match these four types of cliffhanger to keep readers turning the pages.
This is what everyone thinks of when they hear the word cliffhanger. It’s a type of physical cliffhanger that’s exactly what it sounds like: pushing your character off a cliff and letting him dangle there on a skinny branch that’s splintering under his weight. To use this cliffhanger:
- Look for the point of greatest peril and cut the action there.
- Do not resolve immediately. Jump to another character, time, or setting.
- When you come back to resolve the situation, make it worse.
I pulled books off my shelves to find examples of these. For this one, I used Whiteout, by Ken Follett:
Kit has stolen some deadly bio-samples from his father’s research lab in order to sell them to a group of terrorists. A huge winter storm shuts down roads and isolates Kit, his accomplices, members of the lab security team, and the family gathered for the holiday. A high-stakes battle ensues. Just as it seems the good guys might have the upper hand, Kit shows up and turns the tide once again.
Kit’s voice rang out: “Nobody move!”
Toni spun around, leveling the gun. Kit stood in the doorway. He had no gun, but he was holding a simple glass perfume spray in his hand as if it were a weapon. Toni recognized the bottle that she had seen, on the security video, being filled with Madoba-2.
Kit said, “This contains the virus. One squirt will kill you.”
Everyone stood still.
Because it’s a physical (and therefore visual) maneuver, movies use this one a lot. I’ll bet you can think of dozens of film and television examples. The Walking Dead is chock full of them.
This is when the viewpoint character loses consciousness — faints, is drugged or poisoned, smacked over the head, or even killed. On screen, it’s usually a fade to black, and you can often think of it that way in your writing. To use this cliffhanger:
- Make sure, when you come back to this character, that you’ve jumped ahead in time.
- Come back to the situation fairly soon. If you leave it too long, readers will forget, and wake-up scenes are difficult to make engaging.
- When you come back, immediately ground your reader in the setting and answer questions about how the character survived the blackout and what happened during the elapsed time.
- If your viewpoint character dies, you must have other characters in place to carry the story, unless that’s the end.
The book I used for this example is Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth:
Alais carries, concealed on her person, a package of the utmost importance — a book which contains information that will either preserve the world, or destroy it, depending on whose hands it is in. She is alone, traveling through the dark woods, the only one her father would trust as courier.
There was malice in the darkness, she could smell it, feel it. Alais walked faster, certain now she was being followed. She could hear the soft shuffle of feet and the sound of heavy breathing.
“Who’s there?” she called.
Without warning, a rough and callused hand, reeking of ale, clamped itself over her mouth. She cried out as she felt a sudden, sharp blow on the back of her head and she fell.
It seemed to take a long time for her to reach the ground. Then there were hands crawling all over her, like rats in a cellar, until they found what they wanted.
“Aqui es.” Here it is.
It was the last thing Alais heard before the blackness closed over her.
For a movie example of this one, think of the scene in the train on The Prisoner of Azkaban, when the dementor sucks the life out of Harry Potter until he blacks out. This is also an example of layering. The Harry Potter cliffhanger uses elements of the peril cut and the plot reveal types to make it even stronger.
There are three sub-categories I’ll talk about here.
The character reveal: When the cliffhanger divulges something significant about a character. For example, think about the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they jump off the cliff into the raging river below. Kid doesn’t want to do it and throws out all kinds of excuses why they shouldn’t until Butch accuses him of being afraid to jump. Kid denies it, but admits he can’t swim. That reveals something about his character and adds a whole new level of danger to the situation.
The plot reveal: This is when the cliffhanger discloses a plot point that has great impact. For instance, the example I gave above, with Steve, Carly, the purse, the keys, and the haunted house.
Reveal to reader: This type of cliffhanger tips the reader off while leaving the characters in the dark, creating a lovely bit of dramatic irony. Ira Levin’s tense novel A Kiss Before Dying serves up a dilly when two-thirds of the way through the book he lets the reader know who the killer is and we get to watch while he burrows his insidious way into the lives of the other characters who have no idea.
For an example that also appears in a movie, remember the scene in The Hunger Games when Katniss climbs up a tree to spend the night, wondering what’s become of Peeta. A hapless tribute builds a fire nearby and Katniss watches as the brutal faction murders the girl and sets up camp under Katniss’s tree. She listens to their conversation and is shocked to hear Peeta’s voice among them, declaring that he intends to finish off someone they attempted to kill earlier.
This is a startling character reveal, albeit a misleading one.
This is the most common type of cliffhanger, and they are often subtle but very effective. They get the reader to turn the page though they probably couldn’t say why. When using an emotional cliffhanger, consider that:
- The emotion can come from the main character, another character, or the reader.
- Any emotion can function as the cliffhanger.
- Ground the reader solidly inside the head of the viewpoint character with POV magic. If you don’t do this, the emotion can come across as ridiculous.
- The emotion can come at a non-viewpoint character and the cliffhanger is the viewpoint character’s opinion regarding the expressed emotion.
For a movie example, let’s go back to Katniss, this time at the end of Catching Fire after Gage tells her that District 12 has been destroyed. The camera closes in on her face and we see the despair and agony in her teary eyes, making us want to know what will happen next.
A Few Final Words
The best way to pull off a successful cliffhanger is to be aware of what the reader wants. Study genre conventions and think about what you want, as a reader. Readers crave answers to their story questions and they’ll keep turning the pages to get them, but you have to anticipate when they need the information and give it to them before they get fed up.
My belief is that to be the best writer you can be, make it all about serving your reader.
Think about cliffhanger examples from your favorite books and movies. What types are they? How does the writer bridge the gap into the next scene? Share what you discover in the comments section.
For today’s practice, you have two options.
The Typing In Challenge
When I took Dean Wesley Smith’s Cliffhanger class, he gave “typing in” assignments, instructing us to find book examples of the various types of cliffhangers and type them into manuscript format. Then we were to write a short analysis of why the cliffhanger worked and describe the opening of the following scene. I’m passing the challenge to you.
Turn to your bookshelf and find a cliffhanger in a book you’ve read. If you’re not sure where to start, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are both rife with cliffhangers.
Then, identify an example of a peril cut, blackout, character-based, or emotional cliffhanger and retype it on your computer.
Once you’ve typed it up, analyze it. Why did it work? How did the opening of the following chapter pull you along?
Write Your Own Cliffhanger
Don’t have a cliffhanger-filled book at hand? Try writing your own. Use characters from your work in progress, or try this prompt: Jane was sneaking through the castle when . . .
Whether you’re retyping a published cliffhanger or crafting your own, practice for fifteen minutes. Then post your analysis/writing practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to provide feedback for your fellow writers!