by Ruth Harris
We all know the pleasure of getting lost in a book.
We have all experienced that compulsion to turn the page to find out what happens next.
In fact, that irresistible urge to keep reading—to turn the page—might be one of the reasons we wanted to be writers.
Just one more.
Just ask James Patterson or Lee Child who have kept millions up reader to stay up way past their bedtime to read just one more page, one more chapter.
How do they do it?
What’s the source of their magic power?
The secret ingredient—in addition to Patterson’s short chapter and Child’s larger-than-life hero—is the cliffhanger, which has a long and (mostly) honorable history.
From Scheherazade to New Jersey.
In One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade tells a series of stories to King Shahryār. In order to save herself from the fate of his previous wives—he executed them!—Scheherazade ended each night’s story at an exciting point before it was over.
The King spared her life because he had to find out how the story ended!
Scheherazade, a great storyteller, used the cliffhanger to save herself from execution.
Cliffhangers were prominent in the Victorian serial novel that emerged in the 1840s, with many associating the form with Charles Dickens whose The Old Curiosity Shop caused riots—literally—as fans waited to read the next episode.
During the 1910s, Fort Lee, New Jersey was a center of film production. Its cliffs facing New York and the Hudson River were frequently used as film locations, notably in The Perils of Pauline, a serial which would end suddenly with the Pauline character literally hanging from a cliff.
From the soap operas of vintage radio to present-day tv and streaming services, cliffhangers have continued to glue millions to a story to find out “what comes next.”
Fortunately, unlike Scheherazade, we don’t have to come up with cliffhangers to save ourselves from the electric chair or lethal injections, but we do want our readers to turn the page. We want those five-star reviews that say “I couldn’t put it down.”
Cliffhangers help do the job and what worked for Scheherazade in the Arab world in 14th Century still works today.
So what, exactly, is a cliffhanger?
You can spot them at the end of every episode in a streaming show and in every tv show before the break to commercial.
You think screenwriters, producers and showrunners are going to take a chance of losing you while you go to the kitchen for a cookie and a glass of
wine milk? You think Netflix or Hulu or HBO want you to forget to check in for the next episode? Really?
The cliffhanger exists to provoke suspense that creates the urgent need in the reader or the viewer to find out what happens next.
Chapter endings are just as important as beginnings.
Cliffhangers raise a question to which the reader—even a King—must find the answer.
Chapters and even scenes must end on a note of irresolution—subtle, suspenseful, dramatic, and—why not?—sometimes Over The Top.
The reader must find out—and the only way to find out is to turn the page and keep reading or tune in next week/play the next episode.
While the cliffhanger is commonly associated with mysteries and thrillers, the infinitely adaptable cliffhanger works in every genre from mystery and thriller to romance, sci fi and literary fiction.
The cliffhanger is the offer the reader can’t refuse.
Cliffhangers give a story energy and irresistible forward propulsion.
Ye olde cliffhanger skillfully employed will keep your reader reading.
- Will they kiss? Or not?
- Are the aliens on Planet WTF-15q friendly? Or not?
- Is the hero’s new laser-printed spaceship galaxy-worthy? Or not?
- Will the new golden retriever in the neighborhood help the owner of the yarn shop ID the killer?
- Why is the new golden retriever sniffing around in the handyman’s back yard?
The cliffhanger is the hero with a thousand faces.
There are lots of ways to write a cliffhanger. Here are a few approaches.
The interrupted conversation.
- “I love you,” says Throckmorton. Before Susannah can reply, the doorbell rings/the butler enters with tea/a royal carriage is spotted through the window.
- Where was creepy Curtis on the night of the murder? Before the suspect can answer the investigator’s question, a bullet whizzes past.
The unread letter/email/text.
- The protag opens the envelope/fires up his computer/looks at her phone, but before he or she can read the letter/email/text, the baby howls and the protag must attend to the child that minute. A crucial communication goes unread—and maybe even gets lost. At least for a while..
- The protag has just hit reply when the rabid serial killer/ex with stalker tendencies/professor who is mentoring the protag shuts down the power/hacks the protag’s email account/the protag’s computer bursts into flames and All Is Lost.
- The unanswered question.
- How did the murder weapon get into Sally’s car?
- Who found the murder weapon?
- Why was s/he snooping around in Sally’s car?
Mistakes, errors, eff-ups.
- Mistaken identity—Was that really Elvis she saw in line for the ladies’ room?
- Mistaken identity leading to erroneous conclusion—Dick sees Sue with Jim and is sure she is a) more interested in Jim and he (Dick) has no chance with her b) or she is cheating on him (Dick).
- Is that a space ship under a tarp in her back yard or is the protag hallucinating? Or drunk?
Lies and damn lies.
- Did Sally lie about her whereabouts on the night of the murder?
- Why did Sally lie about her whereabouts on that night?
- Did Sally really see Elvis in the line for the ladies’ room?
- Was she drunk?
- Is Sally the unreliable narrator?
- Is the President/Ambassador/gorgeous computer expert a double agent?
- A good guy or bad guy?
- Is the good guy/gal really good? S/he seems good. So far. But what’s with the weird thing that looks like an appendix floating in blue liquid in his/her fridge?
- Is the villain really that bad? Not when he does something (seemingly) out of character.
- She’s still young/inexperienced/idealistic enough to think every romance follows a smooth path to a happy ending.
- He’s a rookie. It’s the World Series. He’s facing the league’s most formidable pitcher. The manager wonders: can the rook really hit a 100-mph fastball?
- While Charles is in the kitchen putting dishes into the dishwasher, Linda is in the bedroom loading the gun.
- Holy bleep! Now what? Does Linda fire the gun? Or give it to Charles to fend off the intruder? Does she go into the kitchen and point the gun at Charles? Does she pull trigger? Is the gun properly loaded? Does Charles defend himself with a kitchen knife? Or a cast iron skillet?
In genres like women’s fiction, romance and literary fiction, the cliffhanger will be gentler, more internal.
- A summing up leads to a new perspective.
- Is that dorky misfit, Mr. Wrong, really the Mr. Right the heroine has been looking for all along?
- A thoughtful reassessment of the situation in the face of new information.
- An internal shift the result of a casual encounter or advice from a trusted parent/pastor/colleague.
- The internal shift an also be the result of an accident, health crisis, health scare.
- The death of a significant person—a relative, lover, ex-lover, or even a famous person—can have powerful impact.
- A psychological or emotional revelation that sets the character or plot in a new direction.
- A new opportunity with an unexpected consequence. A trip to a dude ranch with its wide horizons resets the protagonist’s approach to his misbehaving sixth grade class / her obsession with the five pounds she’s been trying (and, so far, failing) to lose.
Cliffhanger Rule #1. Always end a scene or a chapter before it’s finished.
Ending every scene or chapter on an unresolved note will leave the reader in suspense—and a reader in suspense will turn the page.
You can handle unresolved scenes and chapter through dialogue, narrative or indirect narrative.
Cliffhanger Rule #2: Break down your plot into bite-sized pieces.
Just as a chef does not serve appetizers, main and dessert at the same time, the savvy author portions out the story in small, delicious, snack-sized servings—scenes and chapters.
Each little tidbit add to the progress of the story as each unresolved scene lures the reader on.
Cliffhanger Rule #3: Use all the elements of craft.
Create powerful cliffhangers through dialogue, narrative or indirect narrative.
Cliffhanger Rule #4: Cliffhangers are everywhere.
Once you become aware of the ubiquity of cliffhangers, you will see them everywhere. In every bestseller. In every popular tv show.
Cliffhanger Rule #5: Cliffhangers are basic to good storytelling.
Cliffhangers come in (at least) a thousand different versions. Learn to use them all.
- The cliffhanger can be a reversal.
- A surprise.
- A shock.
- An action beat.
- An interrupted conversation.
- A sudden, unexpected threat.
- A sudden, unexpected kiss.
- Or a sudden, unexpected inheritance.
- The car/plane/drone spinning out of control.
- A question—literal or implicit.
- Reveal something new about a characters.
- A plot twist.
- As subtle as a hint, a change in the weather, or the haunting, faint trace of a familiar, but evocative perfume.
- A minor glitch or a major setback.
- A reframing of the character’s original quest.
Cliffhanger Rule #6: No Cheating.
The missing/unread email/text/DM cannot be a grocery list—unless it contains Novichok (Russian nerve agent)—or a cheating husband’s passwords.
The secret formula the hero must find, the one that’s written in invisible ink concealed in a guarded underground bunker, cannot turn out to be a recipe for your mom’s homemade red pepper hummus.
You make a promise, you keep a promise!
Or else readers will revolt.
Cliffhanger Rule #7: The cliffhanger is addictive.
The only known side effect of the cliffhanger is creating a SuperFan.
The writer—aka the pusher—must leave every scene or chapter on a note of irresolution. The cliffhanger, subtle or not, gentle or in-your-face, governs whether or not the reader turns the page and stays up to read “just one more chapter.”
Do it right, and they’ll hate you in the morning.
They’ll buy your next book.
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