Keeping the Suspense Alive: 5 Tips to Write a Perfect Cliffhanger
If you’re lucky enough to have someone reading your book, you should do everything within your power to create a plot that keeps them engaged. A perfect way to achieve that is by creating a well-constructed cliffhanger.
We live in a world where there is a constant battle for our attention. Thus, if you want to create fiction that people love (or, at the very least, fiction that people actually read), you will need to know how to build suspense and intrigue. As Dr. Seuss said, “Every page is a cliffhanger–you’ve got to force [the reader] to turn it.”
By the end of this article, you will leave better prepared to write a perfect cliffhanger for your story that’ll keep your readers hooked all the way.
What Is a Cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is a powerful literary tool that is used to keep readers engaged and interested in a story. By creating suspense and withholding information, a well-constructed cliffhanger can motivate readers to keep turning the pages in search of resolution.
It’s important, however, to avoid clichéd tropes and make sure that the stakes are high enough to keep readers invested in the story. Additionally, a good cliffhanger should be part of a well-crafted story with fully-developed characters and a complete plot arc.
Why We Love Cliffhangers
Since the birth of literature, cliffhangers have been a method used to keep the reader intrigued in a story. As the audience, we seek closure when engaged in stories about characters that we care about. A cliffhanger offers the reader the promise of closure in exchange for their patience and continued dedication to the story.
This is a win-win for the audience. They’re enjoying the process of filling in the blanks of what might happen while safe in the knowledge of knowing that all of their questions will eventually be answered.
In an article discussing the popularity of the cliffhanger, the BBC echoes our point. They wrote. “It’s human instinct to crave resolution…. [However], left to wait, our imaginations run riot… encouraging us to personalize the narrative and deepen our connection with [a story’s] characters.”
The Biggest Mistake to Avoid When Writing Cliffhangers
Most writers know that suspense is an essential element for stories to be engaging. Thus, the cliffhanger is an obvious tool for constructing fiction.
However, inexperienced authors tend to rely on clichéd tropes when building their cliffhangers. For instance, how many ticking time bombs, unsolved murders, and characters in precarious states of health have you read about over the years?
The answer is undoubtedly a high number. Albeit, some of those stories hold their own when we talk about the perfect examples of cliffhangers.
Thus, tropes aren’t necessarily the problem. The problem is when the story hasn’t built a world where you care about the character experiencing those clichéd scenarios. Thus, if you are going to use a cliffhanger (clichéd or not) as a plot device, it has to exist within a well-crafted story with characters that the reader actually cares about.
5 Tips For Writing The Perfect Cliffhanger
Now that you know a little bit more about cliffhangers, let’s take a look at how to construct the perfect one for your next story.
1. Provide a Question – Then Withhold the Answer
In its most basic form, a cliffhanger is when the reader wants to know an answer that’s not immediately forthcoming. Outside of literature, think of all of the times you have been on the edge of your seat watching a TV show only to see the words ‘to be continued’ flash in front of your eyes.
Knowing a cliffhanger is an unanswered question allows you to think about how you can format one within the structure of your book. When discussing the subject of cliffhangers, Masterclass touches on the importance of recognizing that cliffhangers are questions where the reader continues turning the pages to find an answer. They said, “[Writers build] questions around a particular subject. In the end, they withhold vital information from the reader, thus propelling them to keep turning the pages.”
The latter part of that quote brings us to the second portion of this tip – withhold the answer.
A cliffhanger requires the readers to be left seeking resolution. Thus, if you give them both a question and immediately provide an answer, you are not writing a cliffhanger. Instead, you are merely giving the audience detail.
2. Ensure That the Stakes Are High
It’s not important to the reader whether or not your protagonist is going to have a cup of tea with their breakfast. Thus, posing the question of whether they will drink it is not a cliffhanger. However, if you have previously shared details of the contents of that cup being poisoned, then there will be suspense as your character picks it up and considers sipping.
The difference between those two scenarios is that the first one involves a mundane action with no obvious consequences or peril. Whereas the latter one (with the poisoned tea) involves suspense and events that can affect the story as a whole.
To write cliffhangers, you have to ensure that the answer to the question can change the course of the story as a whole. That is not to say that all cliffhangers must be life or death, but quality cliffhangers aren’t based on issues with no consequence.
3. Finish Your Plot Arcs
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A writer should not approach the craft of writing a cliffhanger by simply leaving out one of those elements. And while readers have a love/hate relationship with cliffhangers (turning the page in desperation to find out what’s going to happen next). However, they also hate incomplete stories.
Fantasy author M.D. Massey made this point when he wrote, “While it might seem unfair to some readers to leave a plot thread hanging at the end of a novel, this is very different from a failure to resolve the main storyline.”
Professional editing service provider, Proofed, echoed this point, stating, “Even if you end on a cliffhanger, your novel still needs to feel finished. Simply stopping before the grand finale where the hero confronts the villain won’t work: it will feel incomplete, like you’re just teasing the reader.”
4. Write a Cliffhanger That Serves the Plot
There’s a key difference between creative writing (ie: writing for your own fulfillment) and market-led writing of the sort likely to end in publication. The difference is simply this: to serve a market, you can’t write a particular sequence just because you feel a creative need to do so. In market-led writing, every decision you make has to be led by the reader.
This means that your cliffhanger can’t just be a plot device that you fall back on when you don’t know how to end your story. Instead, it should serve your plot, allowing the story to move forward in the direction that you–and your market–desire.
This point is supported by Industrial Scripts, who wrote that the “worst uses of cliffhanger endings appear in narratives in which the writer didn’t know how else to end the [work].”
To summarise this tip, don’t write cliffhangers just for the sake of a cliffhanger. Instead, have a clear plan of how a suspenseful question can help serve you and the plot of your story.
5. Remember Consistency When Choosing a Cliffhanger
The list of options for creating your cliffhanger is endless. However, when choosing one, you should always consider the course of the story as a whole and the type of novel that you’re writing.
For instance, you can put a character in a perilous situation where it’s literally life or death. However, that may not make sense if the rest of your book is a modern city love story. Likewise, having a character produce a ticking time bomb during a historical drama is unlikely to feel natural to your audience if it’s not mentioned prior to the event.
Thus, understanding that readers require consistency within a story is an important point to note when constructing your cliffhanger.
Examples of Great Cliffhangers
The art of the cliffhanger is a skill mastered by great writers, making literature an excellent source of inspiration. So let’s have a look at some of the greatest suspense storytelling examples!
Thomas Hardy – A Pair of Blue Eyes
The term ‘cliffhanger’ is linked back to the 1870s and Thomas Hardy’s serialized novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. That story was published in Tinsley’s Magazine, with a different installment in each edition. The term came from when one installment concluded with protagonist Henry Knight literally hanging off a cliff.
J.K Rowling – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Followers of the Harry Potter novels were left on edge after Rowling finished this book with the death of Albus Dumbledore and the rise of the antagonist, Severus Snape. Readers were left on the edge of their seats, anxiously awaiting the following installment.
William Shakespeare – The Tempest
In Act 1, Scene 1 of The Tempest, a ship gets caught in a storm and the audience is left unsure if everyone on board survives. This attention-grabbing plot device ensured that the readers were invested in the story from the beginning.
Charles Dickens – Serial novels
When fans of literature think of cliffhangers, Dickens is one of the first names that come into their minds. His serial novels were often produced in weekly installments, with his characters’ well-being often left in peril at the end of each installment, only for them to be saved in the next.
Cliffhangers For More Than Fiction
The ability to amplify suspense has always been a valuable tool for fiction. However, cliffhangers work for virtually all types of writing. In fact, the cliffhanger is now a popular subject matter in many online writing courses.
For instance, consider content marketing. Here it can be used to entice readers back to your page after they finish reading one of your blogs. A company in this sphere, Copyblogger, has previously discussed this, stating, “You’ll hook readers with a terrific headline … but you’ll get them to read your next piece with the way you wrap it all up. Every piece of content has to leave them wanting more.”
Keep your readers on the edge of their seats by creating a clever cliffhanger. With the right question and a tantalizingly withheld answer, you can raise the stakes and keep your readers engaged in your story. Just remember to avoid clichéd tropes and to create fully developed characters and a complete plot arc to really grab your readers’ attention.
By following these tips, you can create a story that will keep your readers turning pages long into the night. So, take a deep breath, grab your pen, and craft the perfect cliffhanger that will leave your readers dying to know what happens next!
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