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.

Adam Kubalica-FRAME2

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!

The Joys of Collaboration

COLLABORATE

A few weeks back, I told you about how working  with my brother-in-law and husband for two weeks of intense creative collaboration, putting together the framework for a transmedia storytelling project.

It was, in short, an awesome experience. Imagine working with a small group of people who are all excited about the same project, but all come into it with different professional backgrounds, different skillsets, and different ways of thinking. We’ve probably all heard about this sort of energized working environment, but usually in the context of startup companies.

Can writers create this type of idea-sparking meeting of the minds?

Apparently, yes. We can. Because those two weeks–although exhausting and demanding–were two of the best weeks of my life. They make me yearn to work with this sort of team on a more regular basis!

The only other place I’ve seen this sort of creative synergy is within my critique group, but never during the actual critique process. Instead, it seems to sneak in when two or three or four members start to brainstorm about how a story might play out differently, or what tidbit of backstory could bump a character’s motivation from blah to powerful.

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Why NaNoWriMo?

What Insane Person Tries to Write 50K Words in 30 Days?

One who wants to improve their ability to create!

This quick video explains why NaNoWriMo is worth doing and what you’ll gain from the experience.

This is for you if

  • You’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and want to know more
  • Your friend / classmate / significant other is participating in NaNoWriMo and you think they’re crazy
  • YOU are participating in NaNoWriMo…and you’re wondering if YOU are crazy
  • You know you thought this book-in-a-month thing was a good idea, but you can’t seem to remember why
  • You just need a good excuse to procrastinate because you don’t want to write :)

If you enjoy, please share!

This is also available as a Prezi (below) if you prefer to go through it without the narration.

Five Sure-Fire Ways to Beat the NaNoWriMo Blues

Only 1667 words

Participant-2014-Web-BannerYou’ve outlined — plus created character sketches, researched settings and historical context, and honed the details of your magic system.

Your freezer is filled with prepared foods — buying you more time at the page, time in which to pen (or type) those words every day, come what may.

You’re determined — just 1667 words a day and by November 30, you’ll have a NOVEL, 50,000 words strong.

Your plans are beautiful…except for one, small problem.

It’s now day 3 (or 5, or 17 — insert your day # here), and your plans aren’t going quite as anticipated.

Perhaps you’ve been at your computer for an hour already today. Maybe more. You’ve cranked out a measly, what — 500? 200? 150? — words. You’re never going to meet your day’s word count goal at this rate!

Worse, as panic sets in, that pathetic trickle of words threatens to dry up completely. Your stress is mounting, and stress is not a friend of flow.

Before you sink into despair — before you give up this crazy affair known as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated) — take heart, take a deep breath, and take a look at the tips that follow.

You might have forgotten to prepare your most important #NaNoWriMo asset: your mindset.

Prepare Your NaNoWriMo Mindset

It’s easy to overlook this most important tool for  NaNoWriMo success: a winning mindset. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you to give yourself a Rah-Rah, Go Team! pep talk. I’m not even going to tell you to think positive and banish those pessimistic “I can’t” thoughts from your vocabulary.

I WILL tell you to check out your mindset: do you have any of the following unwanted assumptions tagging along?

These assumptions are common and easy to make. They’re easy to miss, if you aren’t looking for them. And, unchecked, they can seriously damage your ability to benefit from (and yes, meet your word count goals during) NaNoWriMo.

Are any of them directing your writing this November? If so, it’s time to kick ‘em to the curb. You’ve got writing to do!

Assumption #1. I need to get the language perfect!

The pursuit of perfection — whether you’re trying to attain perfect language, perfect flow, perfect description, or something else — never fails to sabotage first draft writing efforts.

Truth is, you probably know about this stumbling block. You probably tell yourself not to strive for perfection yet, because you’re only writing a draft, and it’s okay for there to be mistakes or for the wording to be a little rough. You tell yourself these things. But do you listen? Or do you find yourself backtracking during the writing process, looking over previous paragraphs and letting your brain start pointing out flaws and edits that you need to make?

Watch out for that drive to be perfect! At best, it will slow down your NaNoWriMo writing productivity; at worst, it will slam your writing to a screeching halt.

Assumption #2. I need to write the story in order.

Most of us don’t necessarily feel the driving need to write a story in the same order in which events unfold but, until someone points out that there are other possibilities, most of us don’t consider that there are alternatives. I’m here to tell you that if you’re stuck on a scene, it’s perfectly okay to jump to a scene that occurs later in the story.

In fact, jumping to another scene often leads a writer to focus on writing the pivotal and climactic scenes first. Those are often the scenes that are clearest in the imagination. Writing them is often easier, even fun!

On top of that, writing any scene tends to reveal information about things like your plot, story world, and character motivations. The process of writing those compelling, “easier” scenes first often leaves you with a writing to-do list to inspire your next writing session.

Assumption #3. I have to finish this scene/chapter/whatever before moving on.

This is a variation on assumption #2. There can be many reasons for stalled writing. Read through the following list and — this is important — choose your best answer quickly, without taking in a lot of time to “logic” your way through them:

  1. Your brain is tired; you could probably take a break and come back to writing and it would go fine.
  2. The scene is a good idea; you’re just having a hard time finding your way through it.
  3. You don’t know enough (about the character’s motivation, the setting, etc.) to write the scene; you need to do more research.
  4. You have a feeling that this scene is going in the wrong direction, which is making it hard to write.
  5. The scene isn’t inspiring you and you’re not sure it ever will; deep down, you feel like there’s something irreparably wrong with it.

Sometimes, when you feel stuck, you just need to power through it. (My DH calls this the “beating your head against the wall” approach.)

However, that stuck feeling may be sending you information about some obstacle to writing flow. Identify the obstacle and you’ll solve your problem far more quickly than if you just try harder.

Assumption #4. I have to stick to my outline.

This one’s only relevant if you’re an outliner, not a seat-of-the-pants writer. It’s also an assumption I can speak to personally, since I tend to outline my stories in detail…and then resist getting off the outline’s planned track with all my might.

But if your muse is calling you to turn left when the outline says go right, then by all means check out that left-hand turn! You can always return to your outline if you don’t like where it takes you. Meanwhile, following your gut instinct (or intuition, or muse, or whatever you want to call it) is the best way to make unexpected creative connections.

Similarly, if following your outline makes you feel like you’re slogging through hip-deep mud, that can be a sign that you’re not heading in the right direction. Try asking “what if…?” questions.

  • What if your character cooperated with his abductor instead of fighting?
  • What if your antagonist felt unexpected sympathy for her victim?
  • What if that important message didn’t reach its destination?

What if your carefully planned story goes in the complete opposite direction of what you planned? You might be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Assumption #5. I shouldn’t write this scene, because I’m not sure it has a place in my final manuscript.

Don’t be afraid to write scenes, character descriptions, settings, and dialogues that probably won’t appear in the final story. Even if these are “only” backstory, if you feel drawn to write something — write it. In the long run, these writing side trips will help you create a richer story with greater depth.

Besides, you never know what will make its way into your final manuscript! Those scenes may end up appearing as memories, flashbacks, or daydreams that build character and provide additional story layers.

If you’re writing a story from a single point of view, you may be making this assumption unconsciously. Be open to the possibility of testing out key scenes with a different point-of-view narrator. Sometimes a different narrator can give your reader different insights into a story’s events. This technique can also be used to add narrative tension, provide critical backstory, or withhold information from your reader.

This isn’t a post on writing craft; if it were, I wouldn’t advise you to randomly change narrators during your story. However, during the first draft stage — which is what you’re writing during NaNoWriMo — experimenting with different narrative voices can be a powerful technique to help move your story forward.

Join the discussion: What hidden assumptions can sabotage YOUR first draft writing attempts?

P.S. For those of you working on NaNoWriMo this year, friend me! Username Cherylreif