While cliffhangers at the end of books tend to annoy and disappoint many readers (either they don’t want to wait a year to find out what happens next or they can’t handle unanswered questions for some reason), ending a book chapter or scene in a short story with a cliffhanger is, well, a different story.
It’s a tough, yet exciting skill to refine. Some stories that don’t have a whole lot of action and are rooted very heavily in character development and backstory need a different element to keep them moving (other than good writing and believable characters). Adding small cliffhangers to the ends of your chapters or scenes can work wonders, if you know how to set them up and execute them effectively.
Let’s go over how you might go about doing that, and then – WHAT – you’ll get the chance to practice! Our first writing challenge! Don’t worry, we’re not asking for much, you have enough writing to do already if you’re NaNoWriMo’ing.
Answer a question but ask two more
The key to writing a page-turner is to leave the reader wondering what’s going to happen next. Even more than that, you want them to literally not be able to stop reading because they need answers. What will frustrate a reader, though, is trying to read a story that raises more and more questions without answering a few of them along the way.
Give your reader tiny bursts of satisfaction within your chapters before you end them leaving more to be answered later. This is tricky in terms of pacing, since you have to figure out how to keep your book moving at just the right speed. It takes practice, and it might help to jot down the answers to the questions your story brings up so you can start working your way up to answering them.
Be careful with foreshadowing
Foreshadowing during your cliffhangers is a great technique to use, but how you use it depends on the tense of your story. You wouldn’t want to use a phrase like, “If I had known then” if your story is in the present-tense. How could your narrator look back on past events if they haven’t happened yet, right?
If you’re writing in the present-tense, you’ll need to be a bit clever in the way you insert the tiniest of hints into your prose. (Someone in my English class in high school actually asked me once how writers come up with these hints. I still have no idea. It just comes to you.) Writing in the past tense, you can hint at the fact that the future narrator knows what’s coming before everyone else does.
Let’s look at an example
I’ll return to my recently finished book for a second for an already-written example of one way to use an end-of-chapter cliffhanger. A little background: two students at the Academy disappear; one ends up coming back later not to pleased with our narrator. This line comes a few chapters before, at the end of a transitional scene (a literary bridge from one turning point to another).
I never once considered they might still be somewhere close, lurking in the shadows, waiting.
This story, told in the past-tense, has a lot of these foreshadowing snippets tacked onto the ends of chapters. The technique works in this case because the narrator is actually looking back on the events that led up to the present, in which she’s sitting down to write down her account of what happened.
The line asks a series of new questions as well: are they still around (likely), where are they and what are they waiting for?
Now let’s see you try it
Practice makes … better, right? Practicing different methods to end your chapters with a little suspense can really help us learn how to keep our readers guessing, whether the narrator knows what’s coming or not. So how about it? Let’s see what you can do.
In a comment at the end of this post, write a sentence (or a few, if you need a bit more buildup) similar to the one above. See if, in that one sentence or small paragraph, you can leave us going, “WHAT? WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?”
It can be something you’ve already written (bonus points if you’ve never showed it to anyone before) or something you come up with “on the spot.” It could even technically help you squeeze some more words in today, if you need them.
It doesn’t have to be “good” and nobody’s going to judge you (promise!). See what you can come up with. Add a little hint of mystery to your day and practice a super fun writing technique at the same time!
Write on! Good luck! DFTBA! May The Force be with you! Whichever salutation you prefer.
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.