We’ve likely all experienced it. We’re turning through the pages, desperate to find out if the main character will be okay… then we run out of pages.
You’ve read a book, and now something has been left unresolved, and you’re anxious for the next book/episode/movie. You need answers.
Sorry, it’s a cliffhanger.
In this post, we’ll be talking all about cliffhangers! Both their strengths and shortcomings. If you want to learn how to harness them to your story’s advantage, read on!
What is good about cliffhangers?
While they’re controversial, there’s something to be said for a good cliffhanger and what it can do for a story.
- Build tension: a good cliffhanger can leave readers or the audience poised on the edge of their seat. The tension is ratcheted up a level and new questions arise. Will everyone be okay? (that’s one of the most common ones) it keeps them turning the pages, and reading on.
- Drive anticipation for the next instalment: in a series, a cliffhanger can be used to ensure readers are desperate for the next book. It’s a final hook to convert them into fans of the series overall, rather than just a couple of the instalments.
- Boost hype about a story: If having people talk about the book is a goal, a cliffhanger can be an effective tool. Especially if there’s an established community around the story (or stories like it) already. People love to swap theories about what will happen next in a story, or what hidden details in the ending really mean. (It’s why Marvel’s post-credit scenes have become legendary, and why there’s a thriving ‘fan theory’ community online). A cliffhanger can help cover some of the timing challenges in a story’s next instalment, and the chatter can keep it on people’s radar.
What is bad about a cliffhanger?
Despite their merits, cliffhangers have to be one of the more risky moves an author can pull on their readers… here’re a couple of reasons why.
- Too long a wait: As mentioned above, it can be a long time before readers receive the next instalment in the story (especially for traditionally published books). New stories will come out in that time mean they might forget about, or not care enough to carry on with your series. When the next book does drop, readers will possibly need a recap for what happened at the very end of the previous book which can feel messy. In addition to this, investment or interest in the story may dip, especially if…
- A cliffhanger can cause frustration: For many readers, a cliffhanger can feel cheap and frustrating. Readers don’t want to feel ‘ripped-off’ and left completely without answers. After all, they’ve just spent hours with your book, they need to feel like there was a measure of satisfaction in the conclusion of the book.
- Lack of reward and investment pay-off: If there isn’t a good sense of satisfaction when the story ends, and the cliffhanger isn’t done well, readers may choose to disregard the next instalments entirely. Why? Ultimately this can boil down to a lack of trust. If a cliffhanger isn’t done well, readers might not want the answers to the questions posed at the end of the book, if they didn’t feel like the book they just read was worth it.
How to use cliffhangers effectively in your writing:
Cliffhangers don’t have to happen on the last page of the book (though traditionally that’s where you’ll find many of them). In fact, for many books, it’s better if they don’t.
Instead, consider using a cliffhanger as a chapter ending toward the middle or last third of your book. This might coincide somewhere around the midpoint of your novel (where things begin to go downhill for your character). This is often a place where authors struggle to maintain plot pacing and tension, so a well-placed cliffhanger could be a solution — especially as there’re enough pages still to go that readers know that they’ll receive answers.
Alternatively, a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter or section in the ‘all is lost’ beat (where things seemingly can’t get any worse for your character) or ‘dark night of the soul’ (where your character does some reflecting, makes a plan and essentially tries to lick their wounds) is a good option.
You also may wish to consider the placement of a cliffhanger within a book series as a whole. For a series of books that are quite long (5-8 books), a cliffhanger can maintain reader interest. This may also encourage fans to insist on getting their friends to read the books before the next instalment releases.
I generally wouldn’t recommend ending the first book in a series on a cliffhanger (it’s possible you haven’t built up enough trust with readers to pull off the move effectively). But a mid-series cliffhanger is definitely a worthwhile technique to consider. By that stage, readers will presumably be deeply invested in the characters and stories, so any cliffhanger will have a far greater effect.
Don’t overuse cliffhangers. Readers are clever, so if you’re ending every chapter (or book) with them, they’ll catch on quickly. To maintain its affect, a cliffhanger should be used sparingly — to use it as a technique too often renders it predictable (which is the opposite of the intended effect!)
One loose end, not the whole yarn ball
Your audience has just made it all the way through your book. They need some reward for their effort. With a cliffhanger, it’s best to ensure that the majority of the conflict raised in the story has been wrapped up. This gives readers a false sense of security, and when you reveal the thread that remains to be addressed, it will have a greater impact.
One of the best ways to learn how to write is to read. Some of my favourite authors who know how to use a cliffhanger include:
- Jay Kristoff
- Sarah J Maas
- Kate Quinn
- Taylor Jenkins Reid
- V.E Schwab
Look for the cliffhangers when you read, and take note of how they affect you as a reader, and what the author is trying to achieve.
Cliffhangers can be an effective tool for an author to retain interest, and evoke a particular experience for readers. While some readers aren’t a fan, when done well, a cliffhanger can add to a book and increase satisfaction with the story (or series) as a whole.
At the end of the day, you are the best judge as to whether your story needs a cliffhanger. Hopefully this post has given you some food for thought, and some ideas for how to use them effectively.
Do you enjoy cliffhangers? Share your view in the comments.
Just kidding… that’s the end of the post!
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