How to Write Cliffhanger Chapter Endings

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.

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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!)

Getting Practical

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.

So I asked myself, what do my favorite authors do to ratchet up the tension at the end of a chapter? Read on for a slew of great examples from Jim Butcher’s paranormal bestseller Storm Front.

 

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

For example,

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

As a story nears its climax, it can become progressively more difficult to throw in new plot twists and turns. At some point, your character may simply be on a difficult, but pretty much linear, trek towards the climax. Although you want to avoid predictability, you also don’t want to dump in surprises just for the sake of surprises.
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
So how do you end a chapter on a cliffhanging note if nothing new really happens? It turns out that the best writers have a few other cliffhanger tricks up their sleeves.

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!

5 Steps to a More Productive Year

I must have productivity on the brain. It seems like every blog post and Twitter link I click these days has something to do with

BUILDING HABITS!

Establishing a TIME-SAVING ROUTINE!

or FINDING YOUR PRODUCTIVITY SWEET SPOT!

Hmm…maybe this is delayed-onset guilt for not writing up New Years’ goals or resolutions this year?

Thomas8047_Flickr Photo – Thomas8047, Flickr Creative Commons

In any case, I doubt I’m the only one who’s a month into 2015 and wondering why I’m not getting more accomplished, so enjoy this terrific roundup of tips, tricks, and inspiration for getting more done this week!

Productivity Strategy #1. Find and use a few great time-savers & productivity tricks

  • Time-Savers for Writers: Ways to Automate and Delegate
  • 3 Weird Productivity Tricks You Probably Haven’t Tried Yet
  • Yes. I’m trying #4. Want to do #3~7 Insanely Productive Habits of Successful Young Entrepreneurs
  • 51 Life-Saving Holiday Hacks That Are Borderline Genius http://bzfd.it/1ytaeHc ” (via @JoannaShupe) (yes, I know this is about the holidays. But it’s awesome, and I’ll never remember it by the time next December rolls around, so you’re getting it now!)

Productivity Strategy #2. Commit to maintaining some white space in your life

  • Still recovering from the holiday crunch? This might help: “Adding More White Space To Your Life” bit.ly/1zVRulP

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Finding the “Why” in What You Do

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Photo from BK, Flickr Creative Commons

You may have noticed that things have been a little quiet here on the blog lately. Don’t worry–I promise not to bore you with some “sorry-I-haven’t-been-posting-but-let-me-tell-you-all-the-reasons-why” post. Suffice it to say that I ran smack into one of those crisis moments that narrows your view to the basics: family, friends, and whatever immediate demands the next moment brings.

I like to live in quiet denial that bad stuff happens. In my little fantasy world, my parents never age, my kids are never hurt, all dogs live forever, and natural disasters always keep a respectful distance.

It’s not that I really think any of this…it’s more that if I think too hard about loss and grief, I can work myself into an agony of worry over things that haven’t yet occurred. I find it helpful to give just enough attention to the possibility of pain that it helps me to appreciate what I have. Does that make sense? Acknowledge that life isn’t actually all lollipops and roses, because that can help you savor the good moments; but don’t live in terror of the day you’re going to lose something or–worse–someone important.

Not that I’m a fan of crises, but sometimes they bring a gift.

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Time Savers for Writers: Collaboration Tools

In case you missed it, I’ve been writing about how writers can collaborate with others (writers, readers, spouses, fans) to supercharge their creative process. You can read previous posts here and here.

If you’re working with other people, coordination is key

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e_monk, Flickr

There’s no question about it: collaboration has its downsides. It’s tough to keep lines of communication open when you’re working with someone else, to make sure that you’re on the same page.

Information can quickly get lost in a flood of emails flying back and forth.

Communication fails can derail your forward progress.

Meetings, phone calls, and instant messaging can suck up valuable time and plague you with interruptions.

How do you keep a project on track? How can you communicate effectively, without letting the communication process overwhelm you?

Tools

It turns out that there are several communication tools that can help you keep communications clear and organized. Even better, all the tools I’ve listed have free options–and yes, even their free versions are pretty darned terrific. Check ‘em out–you’re sure to find one that suits your organization and scheduling needs!

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