What is the secret ingredient that makes a reader love a book—any book?
Cliffhangers are where you leave a necessary piece of information unsaid at the end of a chapter or paragraph, and the reader can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Once you offer that tasty treat, however, you have to actually feed them in the next scene or chapter to hold their attention. Here’s how to write cliffhangers…and what follows.
How Do Cliffhangers Work?
Most writers put cliffhangers at the end of chapters or scenes. You might not realize what’s happening the first time you read a great novel but go back and reread. This time look at the technique the writer used. She probably left the reader hanging or curious or in the midst of some sort of action or about to undertake something new. Not everything has to feel like an action movie. A good will-they-or-won’t they is enough. The main thing is that you want the reader to wonder what happens next to the point that they read on to find out.
Mix it Up
The plot of a story comes in waves with highs and lows. Cliffhangers can occur at the peak of that wave or at its trough. Mix it up. It won’t be possible or even optimal to end with a car chase or the discovery of a body or a first kiss. Sometimes it could be a quieter moment of reflection that will also keep the reader reflecting into the next chapter too.
Types of Cliffhangers
The cliffhanger is where you, the author, would yell “Cut!” if you were directing the Netflix version of your story. This is where you want to have your character in the greatest level of peril: on the breaking tree branch, after the car hit them, as the bad guy reveals he has a gun.
Another option is to do more character-based cuts. You could cut after a major reveal—someone says something about themselves or another that’s crucial to the story. This might be a turning point because that information could change the way the other characters feels about that person.
A plot reveal is a time to call a cut. Make sure you do it at a time of maximal impact.
Finally, don’t forget emotional cliffhangers. These get me more than anything because I read to connect with characters and the things they’re going through. POV can create emotion by saying how the character feels or having her reveal it to someone else. These are the moment we crave because we turn pages to see how what happens impacts the protagonists. Don’t overlook these important parts of the story.
Once you create that cliffhanger, be sure to continue the story with the same intensity as you left off. This doesn’t mean the same pace–sometimes it’s better to follow action with some reflection. That said, keep the momentum going. If the cliffhanger is the hook, be sure to reel the reader in with what comes next.
Practice Makes Perfect
As always, reading more and practicing your craft will make you better at all elements of storytelling, especially keeping readers wanting more with cliffhangers.