How to Write a Cliffhanger That Doesn’t Tick Everybody Off

People don’t appreciate feeling like they’re missing out.

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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.

Am I the Only One Who Doesn’t Hate Cliffhangers At the End of Books?

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I’m going to be very transparent here for a second (aren’t I always?) and admit to you that, apparently, I am not like a lot of other readers.

I’ve wanted to write a post about cliffhangers for a long time, and there’s finally open space in my queue this week to squeeze one in. So naturally I started doing a little research to find out what the experts had to say about them, since I’ve never actually published a book, and can’t technically call myself an expert (yet).

What I found surprised me. And kind of scared me a little, honestly.

Apparently, a lot of people hate cliffhanger endings. With a deep, burning passion.

Which is alarming me only because, as a reader, I absolutely love them.

From what I’ve been reading, it seems like book lovers would much rather have all their questions answered by the end of a story than having to hang from a figurative cliff until the next book comes out.

A lot of reasoning seems to point toward the fact that people don’t want to wait months or years to find out what happens next.

I don’t know if it makes me sound naïve, but I’m really struggling here. I don’t understand this at all. And I’ve been reading, and writing, for a long time, as I’m sure many of you have.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t just read for the sake of reading a good story. I read for the emotional stimuli, too (or the mental, if we’re talking The Da Vinci Code or something). When a book ends on a cliffhanger, of course I have the typical “I need to know what happens next” reaction.

But at the same time, I already know they’ve hooked me. I know that when I do get to read the next book, it’s going to be great. But then … I just move on. I start a new book. Do I think about all my leftover unanswered questions from the last book? Occasionally. But I love that feeling. It’s one metric I use to gauge whether I’ve read what I consider to be a “good book” or not.

At this point in my fiction writing “career,” I still only write for myself. So while I know it will change if/when I start working with an agent, right now, I care a lot less about what my potential readers want than I probably should. Ever since, well, a few months ago, I’ve planned to end my book on a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger portion of the story is already written, actually, even though the book itself isn’t finished yet (but I’m getting closer).

It’s not that I’m worried about what my readers think. What I’m most concerned about as I type this is not being able to, someday, sell a book with a cliffhanger because everyone apparently hates them so much.

I’m not being a hypocrite here. In the writing process you have to focus on one thing at a time, and I know I’ve written on the blog before about worrying about finishing your story before anything else. But I’m at that point where I’m so close to being done, my brain is already moving past it. I’m thinking ahead. Probably too much further ahead than I need to be.

I just don’t know what to think. I know I’m not the only writer who toys with the idea of a cliffhanger every now and then. But am I the only reader that thinks cliffhangers are not only acceptable … but attractive?

Even if I’m over-thinking this, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Yell at me.

Disagree with me.

Tell me I’m not crazy (or even that I am).

Or just type a smiley face. If you want.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and health. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist, Meg is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.