ONE OF THE BEST compliments on my writing I get is, as one reader wrote to me, “You bitch! I was up reading your
book all night!”
Why couldn’t she put it down? Simple—End-of-Chapter Cliffhangers.
Cliffhangers serve two purposes—to keep a reader reading, and to beef up a sagging second act. As author Elizabeth Lowell once told me, when things get saggy, “blow up a dog.”
Not literally, of course—I’ve found that you can kill off people all day long in your books and readers come back for more—kill so much as a cockroach and you’ll get hate mail long after your book goes out of print.
What she means by blowing up a dog is creating a cliffhanger—what I call, running your hero up a tree . . . then burn the tree. Susan Elizabeth Phillips is a master at this—she leaves the reader wondering how in the world the hero will get his girl back.
JK Rowling is, well, a genius at this. And everything else, for that matter—but who else makes you read 700 pages straight through and chomp at the bit for more?
And cliffhangers are great for when you find yourself without any obvious next step.
You are nearing the halfway mark and don’t know what to do with the story next. The last week is easy-it’s the ending, the big climax and resolution-but this middle section needs some help to keep it going.
The answer is to come up with an event, perhaps one of the three you just created, and delay paying it off. Set up the event so that readers truly don’t know if things will work out. There has to be a question in readers’ minds about what will happen next. Some classic cliffhangers include:
- The Ticking Time Bomb (the hero must do something in a certain amount of time, and readers don’t know if it is possible to accomplish)
* Remember that every plot should have at least three big events, regardless of if it is a character- or plot-driven story.
- The character on the verge of making a hasty major decision (perhaps she doesn’t have all the information yet and readers want her to wait, but it doesn’t look like she will)
- The big interruption
-either in the form of another character or an event, that throws the heroine offtrack (the heroine is about to find her husband upstairs cheating with another woman when her neighbor stops by to talk, keeping her downstairs, and readers don’t know if she will go upstairs and finally learn the truth- ringing phones and tea kettles usually fall into this category, and for this reason should be avoided
- The unexpected problem that pops up just when the resolution seems on the horizon (the hero and heroine seem likely to get together, which would mean “the end,” when numerous problems are dropped into their laps, and readers now question if it will work out)
The goal here is to leave readers wondering about what could possibly happen next, so that they won’t be able to put the book down. You have to be careful that you make this seem seamless, though. It has to feel natural and organic to the plot; otherwise, readers will get upset with you and feel manipulated.
So when and how do you cut back to the cliffhanger? That’s another choice you have to make on your own. You don’t want to wait too long, or it will seem as if the entire plot has come to a screeching halt.
If you go back too quickly, you will lose your opportunity to keep readers hooked. This is why writing is an art form. You have to feel the story, feel the pacing, understand the genre. and make these decisions-Watch a dramatic TV show to see how they use cliffhangers before commercial breaks, or watch some movie trailers to see how they try to entice you into the theater.