What is a cliffhanger? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, it’s an ending to an episode of a serial drama that leaves the audience in suspense. It comes from the 1930s when film serials were very popular. To keep people coming back episodes ended with characters in desperate situations, including literally hanging off a cliff.
In talking about cliffhangers, Sol Stein wrote, “The writer’s duty is to set up something that cries for a resolution and then to act irresponsibly
James Scott Bell in his excellent book on the craft, Conflict and Suspense, defines the cliffhanger as “any moment of unresolved danger, either outside or inside the character. It can come at the end of scene, but almost never at the end of a book.”
We’ve all heard cliffhangers are great things to keep the reader turning pages.
They are. If used wisely.
For a cliffhanger to be effective, we must first do our best to get the reader bonded with our main character and his death struggle. Our hero must face death in some form. It can be physical, professional, psychological, relational, or spiritual. Actually, if we can get our protag to face more than one kind of death, so much the better. Make the stakes as high as possible and then raise them.
Why is this important with cliffhangers? Because we want the reader thinking about the character, not our technique. We want readers focused on the story, not the author.
The other key to effective cliffhangers is to not force them into the narrative. For example, ending a scene or chapter in the middle of a dialogue and then picking right up in the next scene or chapter. Just because you read in a book or heard at a conference we have to use cliffhangers doesn’t give us carte blanche to drop them in wherever we like. We need to use them judiciously and in keeping with the flow of the story. Otherwise, they can come across as manipulative. They don’t need to be at the end of every scene or chapter. Too many of them and they lose their power.
Next week, we’ll explore some actual cliffhangers. How about that—I ended a blog on cliffhangers with a cliffhanger.