Cliffhangers. Either you love them or you hate them.
They’re a good element to play with if you want to make sure someone keeps reading your story. What are they, really? Why do some people hate them? How can you minimize the number of people who will likely despise you for your cliffhanger fetish?
What is a cliffhanger?
In simple terms, a cliffhanger is a literary mechanism that gives a story suspense. When a T.V. episode or chapter of a book ends on a cliffhanger, it is meant to persuade you to come back next week for the next episode or continue reading into the next chapter.
When a suspenseful moment builds up in a story and abruptly stops just before something new is revealed or explained, that’s a cliffhanger. The story “leaves you hanging” until the rest of the story can unfold at a later time.
When you find cliffhangers at the ends of books, the book is most commonly part of a series. The umbrella story arc can end in suspense, because there is another part of the story that will come after. This is a great technique for writers, but for some reason, is not as popular with readers who have to wait usually a year or so before the next book in a series is released.
Why do cliffhangers upset people?
Honestly? Because people are impatient and literally get “hung up” on small details in stories. So much so that an otherwise good story is potentially “ruined” by a book’s ending (something I don’t understand, but maybe someone can explain it to me).
People don’t appreciate feeling like they’re missing out. So it probably has something to do with not wanting to live another second without having all their questions answered. To me, this is one of the most enjoyable parts of reading: having to wait to find out what happens next. But there are some who will find any small reason to complain, and this just happens to be a semi-reasonable medium through which to satisfy that need.
How do you write a cliffhanger – the “right” way?
- Make sure every new question you present along the way is preceded by an answer to a different question. So before you break the news that so-and-so might be cheating, you first have to resolve the plot point that comes before that. Lead the reader on too long of a string and they’ll get frustrated. You’re familiar with the feeling if you’ve been a “Pretty Little Liars” fan since its premiere.
- Give at least a few hints as to what’s coming next. Don’t just leave them without any clue as to what they can expect in the future. Give them a taste, but nothing more.
- End with a revelation. For some reason, the first thing that come to mind for me here was someone walking into a room, finding a dead body and that’s the end of the book. ANYWAY, if an entire book is about where so-and-so’s body is, and the book ends with someone finding that body, there is, strangely, an overwhelming sense of satisfaction there. We finally have the answer. Not all the answers, but it might just be enough to cancel the unanswered questions out. For now.
- Remember that writing a good, suspenseful story is more important than pleasing everyone. If a few readers can’t handle it, there’s plenty more who won’t mind.
Practice writing small cliffhangers at the ends of chapters to get a better idea of how cliffhangers can better fit into your personal style of writing.
Love them or hate them, you’ll find them everywhere. Might as well get used to them.
Image courtesy of Alex Ranaldi/flickr.com.