Nothing rings sweeter to an author’s heart than these words. The moment a reader becomes so invested in a story that nothing is more important than reading to the end – It’s monumental!
We call these page turners “cliffhangers” – remember “who shot J. R.?” The 1980s season cliffhanger for Dallas kicked off a new era for television. More so, it kept watchers drooling to know what happened next, assuring Dallas a knockout for the next season’s opener.
There are different schools of thought on the subject of cliffhangers, but for me . . . I love them and I practice them at the end of most chapters of a novel. Why? It’s a challenge for me as a writer and a ring-in-the-nose for my reader that allows me to clip on the rope and continue to pull them deeper into the story.
Some authors insist cliffhangers are unnecessary if you write a compelling story, but a compelling story should be filled with exhilaration and “take-your-breath realizations” that drive your reader into a deeper investment in the characters. Carefully placed cliffhangers are the icing on an already compelling story.
The question is, exactly what is a cliffhanger and how do you insert them into your chapter without leaving a cheesy taste for your reader? First off, a cliffhanger is not always something earth shattering. In fact, the most effective cliffhangers come when the author leaves the reader holding on to a character’s thought or motivation. It’s the “what if” factor or ratcheting up the tension – something unexpected happens. . . or fails to happen, a new thought or change of thought process.
For example, your character makes a decision: Owen knew the answer. He held the key in his hand all along . . . talk to Ericka. Just talk to Ericka.
With a cliffhanger like this at the end of a chapter, the reader suddenly experiences the same “ahhh” moment as the character, wetting their desire to know what follows the decision to talk to Ericka.
Perhaps it’s a moment when the character realizes something important.
Example: I flipped open the worn pages of his Bible and pressed my finger against the words. I had my proof. My vindication right in the lines of the Good Book. An eye for an eye. “How’s this Daddy? An eye for an eye . . .”
A good cliffhanger acts as a lure. It proves to be just as valuable as the opening hook in paragraph one of the first chapter. Sometimes the perfect cliffhanger is a simple statement from a character that reinforces the chapter’s tension.
For example: There was nothing left to say. When the gavel hit the desk, guilty rang through the courtroom.
Equally as important as utilizing a cliffhanger is knowing not to overuse them. Remember, when your reader is deeply invested in your story, their heart races, they wiggle in their chair with the intensity of the scene so there are times, very important times, that you give the reader the opportunity for a breath. Let them relax for a second.
I loved the television show 24. But after two seasons, I began to say, “Just how many more times can Jack Bauer save the world?” Instead of my interest growing stronger, I began to feel like there was no end to the dire situations that the nation faced. I was tired and frustrated when the show ended. And poor Jack Bauer, how could the man ever rest? This was the result of never allowing the watcher to experience a moment of hope. Angst is wonderful, but too much . . . gives your reader ulcers.
As you place cliffhangers at the end of chapters, carefully assess the intensity of the chapters prior and post. Ask yourself the question, “Can my reader take a breath?” If not – give them one. As much as we love drama and action, we need to experience some hope and peace. These strategically placed sentences, enrich your readers experience.
In a conference class under the late Ron Benrey, he shared his thoughts on the importance of a good cliffhanger. “A good story. . .a really good story, piques every sense and emotion of the reader, not once, but over and over. Carefully placed cliffhangers bring the story to life. It’s like the character reaches from the pages of the book, takes the reader by the wrist and yanks them into a fictional bubble which refuses to let them escape. This, and this alone, gives the reader an experience they long for.”As you study your chapters, carefully assess how you can apply a good solid cliffhanger. Decide what type of emotion you need to tweak and then jump on it. Learn to make your readers hunger for the next page and give them the pleasure. When they purchase your book, read it, and close the cover, they should have received reading experience they deserve. Your best hope as a writer, is an email that asks you for “more.” When that happens – it’s a win-win for you and for the reader.
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