Writing Tip Tuesdays Chapter 7: Cliffhangers
Oh dear, a cliffhanger! A scourge to readers and a best friend to writers. We love them, you hate them, and they always work to keep the suspense going.
Or . . . do they?
Before we start, let me say that I’m notorious on FanFiction for writing cliffhangers. Still, some of what I have to say might surprise those of you who’ve read my work.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been on FanFiction for quite a while, and one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of new writers will pull out cliffhangers and in an author’s note say, “Mwahaha! I’m so evil I pulled a cliffie on all of u!” To be entirely honest, I was guilty of this for several months after I joined. However, I’ve learned and moved on, and I think it’s time other writers do too.
I don’t know what about cliffhangers makes them so appealing to first-time writers. Maybe they see the big-shot authors pulling them out at the end of books and think that’s a good idea for them to try. Maybe they think it’s a good, cheap way to grab more readers. Maybe they’re bored with the story and want to do something “exciting.”
Before we get into how to write cliffhangers, let’s figure out what a cliffhanger really is. To the dictionary!
an ending to an episode of a serial drama that leaves the audience in suspense.
• a story or event with a strong element of suspense: the game was a cliffhanger right up to the final buzzer.
The cliffhanger is the chew-your-fingernails-down-to-the-nub chapter ending that makes you want to stay up another thirty minutes past your bedtime to figure out what happens in the next chapter. Or it’s the book ending that makes you cry because the next book in the series isn’t out yet. It’s something that gives you a strong emotion, especially one of fear and dread. It’s the sense of, “Oh no! There’s no way the character is getting out of this one!”
After writing on FanFiction for a while, I’ve decided there’re three different kinds of cliffhangers writers use:
1. The Sentence Cliffhanger
Setup: It’s a dark and spooky night, and for some reason, unbeknownst to anyone, two teenagers are spending the night in a haunted house in the middle of nowhere. There are a bunch of strange sounds and weird flashes of light, and the kids are just about convinced that ghosts are real at this point.
Cliffhanger: There was a knock at the door, and Frank and Peter jumped. “Y-You want to get that?” Peter asked. Frank nodded numbly and stood, walking to the door. He opened it, gasped, and screamed. Peter looked around him to see who was at the door, and it was . . .
I do not, under virtually any circumstances, advocate this kind of cliffhanger. That sucks for everyone and you know it. It’s not only mean, it’s downright cruel. It’s also poor writing. This is an example of what I like to call “false suspense.”
Joe entered the kitchen to take the pizza out of the oven. But when he opened the oven door, he saw . . .
Really? This situation is not suspenseful at all. The only reason there’s any sliver of suspense is because I didn’t finish the sentence. That’s it. It’s a cheep way to make people scared when you know your story isn’t working. If you need to chop off a sentence ending to make your story suspenseful, I guarantee you that your story is not suspenseful.
Also, this usually ends up badly when you start the next chapter. It’s too easy to create an anticlimax (whether you intended one or not) and will only make your readers angrier.
. . . that the pizza still wasn’t done! Joe set the timer for two more minutes and walked back into the living room.
2. The Shock Cliffhanger
Setup: A young girl is trying to sneak out of her house to follow the directions in a journal she found in the woods. She needs to get to the edge of the forest, but getting out the front door will be the hardest part.
Cliffhanger: Megan stepped lightly down the stairs, book clutched in her fingers and her heart thumping in her chest. She got to the bottom and reached for the doorknob. Suddenly, all the lights came on. “What are you doing up so late, honey?” Drat.
This cliffhanger is essentially the same as the sentence cliffhanger, except the sentence is finished. This one is shaky. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the context. If the story is suspenseful, the cliffhanger works. If not . . .
I sat down on the couch and flipped on the TV. I turned it to Disney Channel to watch the new Dog With a Blog, but when I got to it, I realized that I had the time wrong! The show had already finished half an hour ago! What would I do now?
Maybe you feel sorry for this poor person. Most likely you go, “So? It’ll be on again tomorrow!” But in no way do you feel dread or suspense for their situation. It’s not a big deal, and you certainly don’t want to waste emotion on it.
It depends on the writer. Some people can pull of shock cliffhangers, but new writers should practice with them–keeping in mind that they’re not as easy as they seem.
3. The Unexpected Cliffhanger
Setup: During a battle, a battalion of troops marches on a fort and takes the enemy captive. The troops are sure of their victory and are celebrating.
Cliffhanger: “Good job, men,” the commanded said. “Tomorrow we head for the capital.” The men cheered and some sneered at the captives. As the men celebrated, a loud explosion interrupted them. With shouts and war cries, enemy guerrillas invaded the captured fort. “We’ve got you surrounded!” their leader snarled. “Surrender or die.”
This one is similar to the shock cliffhanger, except it’s something you didn’t see coming at all. With the girl sneaking out, you had a pretty good feeling that the girl would be caught. You didn’t want it to happen, but you weren’t entirely shocked when it did.
A good story uses the unexpected to keep the story interesting and, you guessed it, suspenseful. It’s the surprise, the shock, the complete upset of order that determines how angry, scared, and worried your readers are. It’s the kind of thing that makes them leap up out of their seats with a terrified/furious, “What?!”
Eh, probably not the best classification scheme, but I think you get the gist of it.
Here’s the thing: A cliffhanger is only as good as the story it’s placed it. If the story has suspense, and your cliffhanger is placed in a good spot to create mystery and confusion, it’ll do just fine. If your story is weak and you think a cliffhanger will fix that . . . well, let me tell you right now that it won’t.
Think of the cliffhangers like jump scares in a horror movie. If they’re well-timed and frightening enough, they can be terrifying, even brilliant. But if they happen every single time the main character turns around, and the rest of the movie is pretty dull without them, they won’t have quite the same effect. They become the only way the movie makes you scared, at which point it’s not really a horror movie at all. In essence, don’t make cliffhangers a cheap way to garner suspense for your story. They may work for a moment, but your reader will soon be disappointed again.
The thing is, if you’re writing a good suspense story, you won’t even need to try to write cliffhangers. They’ll come naturally as part of the plot. Every chapter ends with a kind of “cliffhanger” because your characters are constantly in awful situations and can’t seem to catch a break. If your story works, the cliffhangers will just happen.
Now, all that being said, cliffhangers are wonderful tools to terrify your reader and make them more interested in reading your work. They add a level of mystery and are wonderful for creating suspense. You only need to be careful about using them carelessly. Too many in all the wrong places–and for the sole reason of creating suspense, whether they fit with the plot or not–will make experienced readers shake their heads in disgust. You may be able to reel in less knowledge readers with the false suspense you create, but it won’t last for long, unfortunately. Trust me; I know all this from experience.
So remember everyone, write cliffhangers well and carefully, and let them come naturally as part of the story, otherwise . . .