Your protagonist dangles precipitatously off the edge of a cliff by two fingers. A mother must choose which one of her kids to save.
Ah, the cliffhanger.
Using a cliffhanger or hook is a powerful way to end individual scenes or collective chapters in your story.
“Cliffhangers, like little else, infuse writing with narrative tension, almost daring the reader not to flip the page.” – Christopher Kokoski
However, cliffhangers are also rife with misunderstanding and misuse.
In fact, there are five common ways writers consistently mess up with cliffhangers.
Here they are.
The Cliffhanger Snob
Sometimes writers mistakenly believe the cliffhangers lack the artistic sophistication necessary to be used by “real” authors.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Well my main focus here on my blog is commercial and genre writing, authors of all predilection have relied on this literary device to pump excitement into their work.
In fact, the most common type of writer who refuses to use cliffhangers are the unpublished.
The Cliffhanger Addict
At the other extreme, there are writers who think every conversation and interaction in the story should end in a cliffhanger.
These writers pen stories that are nothing more than a series of crises leaving little room for anything else.
The best writers, the bestsellers throughout history, have most commonly employed a mixed variety of techniques, Cliffhangers being one of them but not the only one.
To be fair, these writers do use cliffhangers. They just don’t maximize their cliffhangers.
The most common way this is expressed on the page is that the cliffhanger is rushed.
A cliffhanger that might benefit from five pages is whittled down to five words.
It’s almost as if the author is in a rush to get on with the story and so doesn’t press deep enough into the emotional tension to find the magic – the literary “oneness” that often explodes during a cliffhanger.
This is a great way to commit what I call cliffhanger suicide – or, cliffhangericide.
In this error, a writer designs a masterful and complex problem but instead of showing the character struggling, maybe failing, or through great effort solving the complication, the writer instead skips ahead to when the problem has already been solved.
If the writer explains the solution at all, it is often through dialogue or copious amounts of dreaded backstory.
Cliffhangers with Strangers
The final common mistake with cliffhangers is putting a character we don’t know or care about in one.
Although there are examples of this type of cliffhanger in published work, it’s a difficult thing to pull off even for the best authors.
Unless you have very good reason to do so, I implore you to avoid this error.
Cliffhangers work most powerfully when they are experienced by fictional people the readers have come to love.
5 Ways To Rock Cliffhangers
- Consider cliffhangers at the end of every scene and chapter (especially at the beginning and near the end of the novel)
- Don’t use cliffhangers every time
- Draw out the cliffhanger – stay with it until you find the magic
- Dramatize the struggle to solve (or not solve) the cliffhanger
- Involve characters the readers love