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BS Writing Advice: Cliffhangers! Cliffhangers! Cliffhangers!

A week or so ago, in preparation for Halloween, one of the writing sites I follow posted an article about how to write suspenseful stories. You've got your unexpected twists, your unanswered questions, and of course, our wonderful old friends, cliffhangers!

Everyone loves cliffhangers. They keep readers turning the pages. The poor saps will be reading in bed, intending to turn off their Nooks in a few minutes and go to sleep. They just want to stop at a nice clean chapter break...and then BOOM! Fred goes off a cliff. He's just hanging there, dangling, his tie flying in the wind. His shoe falls off and splashes onto the sharp rocks 100 feet below. His grip slips and...Chapter End.

No! The suspense! We must keep going! Screw sleep; screw work tomorrow; we must know what happened to Fred! Haha. Now we have them. Now our curious readers will be forced to buy the next chapter.

Except—wait a minute—they already have it.

The cliffhanger trick was invented for the sale of serials. Those old black-and-white Friday night movie serials, magazine short story serials, comic series, television series...they thrive on the cliffhanger. Audiences have to make the decision to go out and buy the next comic or tune in to the next show, and a cliffhanger can push them in the right direction. But within the chapters of a book, we don't have to woo anyone back. We don't have to artificially create tension and promise to resolve it if they fork over another 50¢ for the next installment. They've already bought the whole kit and caboodle.

Some writers and editors are under the bizarre impression that the only reason anyone will keep reading past a chapter break is if there's something spectacular at stake. Fred's about to die...they don't know whether Brittany made it out of the burning warehouse...will Tim kiss Sally or not? If these novelists were writing for TV, I'm sure they'd make the stations big bucks—but they're not. They don't have to worry about keeping the ratings up from week to week. The main reasons a reader will stick with a book don't have anything to do with where we strategically place the chapter breaks. They'll keep reading because...

  • They like the setting and the characters. They're immersed in the world you've built for them and want to return to it ASAP.
  • You've constructed a well-paced story and they want to see how it develops.
  • They bought this book for $11.99 and by Jove, they're going to get their money's worth by reading the whole damn thing.

When people gush that they "couldn't put such-and-such book down," they usually mean the first and second list items above. They don't mean the author put a chapter break in the middle of every big scene. They don't mean they were tricked into tethering themselves to their Kindles because the author withheld critical information and dangled it like a carrot on a stick throughout the entire novel. They mean they loved the experience and wanted more of it.

What's even worse advice than telling writers to put cliffhangers at the end of every chapter? Telling them to refuse to resolve it in the next one. The article I perused proposed this precisely.

A twist on the cliffhanger is when you are using multiple narrators or points-of-view. Then Chapter 1 ends on a cliffhanger for Herman, and Chapter 2 takes up Mildred's story, which ends in a cliffhanger. That leaves you free to catch up Herman's story for Chapter 3, which—of course—ends on a cliffhanger, too. This sort of leap-frogging characters and making sure each chapter ends with something held in suspense (i.e. what happens next?) makes for reader satisfaction.

"Reader satisfaction"? Let me tell you what I, as a reader, feel when writers do this to me. Remember the football gag in the Peanuts comics? Lucy would put a football down and tell Charlie Brown to kick it. Charlie would run up, but when he took a swing she would pull it out of the way and grin. Then he would fly into the air yelling "Aaugh!" and fall "Wump!" on his back. Yeah. It feels a lot like that. Only, when an author pulls resolutions out from under me, time and time again, it's the book that goes flying.

I'm not universally against cliffhangers in novels. I like cliffhangers, really. They add a little spice and surprise now and again. But it's BS to tell writers to put them at the end of every chapter because, supposedly, readers won't have a reason to turn the page without them.


Lara Britt (November 4, 2012, 4:10 pm)

Thank you for this. I look at is an the adrenaline equivalent of an insulin-induced coma. Pretty soon you hit a tipping point...or a book-throwing moment. This is especially true when points one and two are not measure up to expectation. I'm going to share your link on a forum on my writer's site.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) (November 7, 2012, 1:07 pm)

Love. This.

Especially the bit about (not) buying the next installment.

I watch a lot of TV, so I will admit to "scene closer" lines, and even leap-frogging, but I've never been good at quitting in the middle of a scene.

The nice part is that my beta readers have thanked me for it (they're responsible folks who like to get to work on time, rested), and I'd get nervous hearing their gratitude about being able to sleep.

So I adore your list of three *other* reasons readers keep reading.

Think I'll get back to just telling my story, rather than freaking about where to break it so I don't lose followers.

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