You probably know what a cliffhanger is–a surprise or story twist that leaves the reader hanging at the chapter’s end, so they are compelled to turn to the next page. Sort of like every episode of Lost ended with one character or another in dire straits… Compelling you to queue up the next episode IMMEDIATELY.
Photo from Adam Kubalica, Flickr Creative Commons
But how seriously should we take this whole cliffhanger concept? I mean, how many surprises and plot twists can an author pull out of her hat without going overboard?
The answer: More than you think. That’s because surprises don’t always have to be huge. Small surprises can also effectively engage your reader’s curiosity. They don’t even have to be real–you can create a cliffhanger from an event that seems alarming at the end of one chapter, only to be revealed as a non-event at the start of the next. (Avoid overusing this type of “false alarm” cliffhanger, though, or you’ll annoy your readers!)
If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, Great, but how do you DO IT?
I need something more than “make it a cliffhanger!” when I’m trying to crank up tension at my chapter’s end. What I need is a list of possibilities, ideas to help me start brainstorming.
Something Unexpected Happens
The first, most obvious type of cliffhanger is when Something Unexpected Happens.
Cliffhangers can involve someone:
- Someone takes an action
- Someone reacts to something
- Someone arrives
- Someone leaves
Someone turned the key in the dead bolt of the apartment’s front door and swung it open.” – end of Chapter 18, Jim Butcher’s Storm Front
Cliffhangers can involve something:
- Something happens, on its own timeline or in response to something the character did
- Something fails to happen
- Something changes
- Something fails to change
Note that “something happening” doesn’t always have to be huge.
That cliffhanging something can simply be a new piece of information:
- The character learns something
- The character notices something
- The character figures something out
“That was the key… It was time to talk to Monica Sells.” – end of Chapter 19, Storm Front
- The character decides something
I narrowed my eyes. I needed a few things from my apartment… And after that, I was going to have a serious talk with one of Chicago’s gangsters.” – end of Chapter 16, Storm Front
- The character remembers something…or doesn’t remember something
It kept nagging at me, even as I fell asleep. What had I forgotten? And another, less sensible question – who had been on the line who hadn’t wanted to speak to Murphy? Had Monica Sells tried to call me back? Why would she call me off the case and tell me to keep the money?…” – end of Chapter 12, Storm Front
- The character feels something
And I walked away from Murphy, whom I couldn’t talk to, and from Linda, whom I couldn’t protect, my head aching, weary to my bones, and feeling like a total piece of shit.” – end of Chapter 15, Storm Front
- The character reacts internally to events.
“Paranoid? Probably. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.” – end of Chapter 1, Storm Front
- The character makes an urgent demand
“Get me there five minutes ago.” The cabbie blinked at the money, shrugged, and said, “Crazies. Cabbies get all the crazies.” Then he tore out into the street, leaving a cloud of smoke behind us.” – end of Chapter 21, Storm Front
Cliffhangers Near the Climax
Every single chapter of those books had to end with a cliffhanger. It was the law. A chapter would finish with “Tash stepped off the spaceship and heard a blood-curdling scream!” Then you’d read the next chapter and it would say “But apparently it was just a bird.”
—Daniel Wallace on the Galaxy of Fear series
Sometimes the cliffhanger is simply a statement, from your main character or another character, that reinforces scene tension:
Her words fell with the weight of conviction, simple truth. “There’s nothing anyone can do, now.”” – end of Chapter 20, Storm Front
Summing up the situation can also create a cliffhanger by reminding your reader of everything that’s gone wrong for your hero.
I still felt sick, could still see Gimpy Lawrence’s eyes as he died. I could still hear Linda Randall’s husky laughter in my head. I still regretted lying to Murphy and I still had no intentions of telling her any more than I already had. I still didn’t know who was trying to kill me. I still had no defense to present to the white counsel.
“Let’s face it, Harry,” I told myself. “You’re still screwed.”” – end of Chapter 17, Storm Front
Sometimes this includes a sentence of commentary from your hero:
I took the keys and walked up, out of the light and shelter of McAnally’s and into the storm, my bridges burning behind me.” – end of Chapter 23, Storm Front
Similarly, the chapter ending provides an opportunity to paint a picture of the dire situation that lies ahead.
And so, I walked through a spectral landscape littered with skulls, into the teeth of the coming storm, house covered in malevolent power, throbbing with savage and feral mystic strength. I walked forward to face a murderous opponent who had all the advantages and who stood prepared and willing to kill me from where he stood within the heart of his own destructive power, while I was armed with nothing more than my own skill and wit and experience.
Do I have a great job or what?” – end of Chapter 24, Storm Front
Cliffhangers keeps your readers reading by building story tension…when they’re done right. Have any questions or more awesome examples? Please share in the comments!