Writing Corner: Cliffhangers

Two of the things that keeps people reading your story are mystery and tension: not only things that the readers doesn’t know but very important things to the characters: things that could make or break their whole lives even.

One way to do this is with cliffhangers. A cliffhanger is when the story stops at a very tense point (such as when a character is hanging from a cliff). This makes the reader want to keep reading to find out what happens. Cliffhangers are usually used in action or thriller stories that have high tension in them, but the same principles can be used in most types of stories. We’re going to look at three types of cliffhangers here.

1. Chapter Cliffhangers

This is the simplest type of cliffhanger since it is resolved right away. This is when you end a chapter in a tense place so the reader will keep reading to the next chapter. Since the end of a chapter is a good place to stop reading, using this kind of cliffhanger effectively can create a page-turner, where the reader gets pulled into the story and just keeps reading.

You should avoid always having the highest tension points of your story being at the end of chapters, however. That makes it seem like you are just using the tense points to keep the reader reading, not because they are important to the story.

2. Plot Line Cliffhangers

This is when you have multiple plot threads going in a story and you stop one on a cliffhanger. For example, let’s say that you are writing a story where the characters are exploring a lost jungle temple. They split up and one of them goes into the dungeon, sees glowing eyes in the dark, then gets hit on the head. Then we go back to the other character and follow them. This is a cliffhanger since we want to know what happened to the first person. The reader doesn’t know when they will learn about what happened, so they will keep reading.

A couple of things to watch with this type of cliffhanger. First, you want to make sure that the second plot line is just as interesting as the one you stopped with the cliffhanger. Otherwise, characters might be tempted to skip the boring part to get back to the interesting story line. You don’t want to leave a battle scene on a cliffhanger to go talk about tax law for 30 pages.

Also, you don’t want to leave the cliffhanger too long or people might get frustrated or forget about it, which diminishes the impact of it. This all has to do with story pacing, which is know how fast to lay out the story.

We’ll get back to you in 100 pages. Just hang tight.

3. Episode Cliffhangers

I used the word episode since this could come in various forms, whether it’s at the end of a book or an installment of a serialized story. This is the biggest type of cliffhanger since the readers need to wait until the next book or episode comes out to find out what happens. This can be very frustrating for readers if they have to wait a long time but can also generate a lot of interest.

The book The Two Towers, which is the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy ends like this. Frodo has been captured by orcs on the border of Mordor and Sam is all alone and has to rescue him somehow. Back in 1954, readers had to wait a year to find out how they would escape.

Some points to consider for this type of cliffhanger are: since the cliffhanger is greater and you are making people wait longer for the resolution, make sure that the payoff is equally satisfying. It is very frustrating to a reader to wait a month or year to find out what happened and then either not have it addressed at all, or have it wrapped up in a few sentences. If it turns out to be all a dream, readers will not be pleased.

Also, like the last one, it’s important not to wait too long for the payoff of the cliffhanger. Readers might either give up in frustration or just forget about it.

In conclusion, not every story needs to have cliffhangers, but they can be a good way of increasing the tension in a story and pulling readers in and keeping them reading. What are your favorite examples of cliffhangers? Do you use them in your writing? Feel free to share in the comments.

If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at info@greenwalledtreehouse.com.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. The Empire Strikes Back kind of had a cliffhanger ending, and we had to wait three years for that to get resolved. Three years back then (I was in junior high) seemed like an eternity. And then we got ewoks. Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ewoks and gold bikini Leia, though. 🙂 I haven’t read the most recent Games of Thrones book, but I can’t imagine what it’s like waiting for those to come out.

      Like

  2. I love when you simply added…when a character is hanging off a cliff, and that wonderful illustration. Plainspoken explanations are really the best…one’s able to grasp and understand when it’s not coated in fancy, academic language. We all didn’t go to Yale, and as an avid reader, the writer who did, isn’t always so compelling.

    Liked by 1 person

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