Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Most of us have fallen victim to the cliffhanger. Either on your favorite television show or in your favorite book, cliffhangers are what make us continue watching or reading until 3am (It’s not just me, right? Right?!). We are always curious about what will happen next. As writers, your readers are just as curious, and a cliffhanger can be a great way to keep readers interested and begging for more.
But let’s start off with a definition, first.
1. a melodramatic or adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.
2. a single installment in a serial.
3. a suspenseful movie, novel, etc.
4. the suspenseful ending itself.
5. a situation or contest of which the outcome is suspensefully uncertain up to the very last moment
The game was a cliffhanger, but our team finally won.
Essentially, a cliffhanger puts the protagonist (usually) in a precarious situation and leaves them in that situation, which creates so much suspense that the reader feels the need to read the next chapter or go out and buy the next book to see what happens.
Here are few tips and tricks on how to set up a cliffhanger in your story:
Tip 1. A cliffhanger should be abrupt
Abruptness is a major requirement for an effective cliffhanger. When a cliffhanger drags and takes too many sentences to execute then it’s really not a cliffhanger anymore. You want to shock and surprise the reader then end your chapter or book immediately, leaving the situation unresolved.
Tip 2. Cliffhangers should come at the end of the plot
A cliffhanger has to be strategically placed at the end of the plot or a chapter for full effect. Placing a cliffhanger in the middle or start of the plot would completely undermine the purpose of the cliffhanger, which is to create a feeling of suspense and shock in the mind of the reader that leads them to turn the page or buy the next book to find out what happens next.
Tip 3. Crafting a cliffhanger
A writer must be proficient at creating cliffhangers as it is crucial to the buildup of a story. Not all cliffhangers have to be life or death situations, but to be effective the author must create problems worth caring about. A cliffhanger could feature a student anticipating his grade score and finding out that he fails, or a girl struggling with how to tell her parents she’s pregnant and the parents finding out anyways. There are countless opportunities to create cliffhangers in a story; all that is required is being able to create problems and setbacks that make for an intriguing plot. Depending on the story, cliffhangers should evolve naturally and fit seamlessly into the story for a captivating effect.
Tip 4. Use shorter sentence length to increase pace and tension
Sentence length and structure can dramatically alter the mood of a certain passage. Long, flowing sentences often achieve a lyrical effect while short, abrupt, or even choppy sentences speed up the flow making the reader process their meaning quicker. Varying sentence length can also build suspense for your reader too. It can help make moments of suspense and terror more intense.
Tip 5. Use constraints that complicate characters’ goals
When a character must achieve an seemingly impossible task or has a very limited time table to achieve their goal, tension is increased. Think about when you procrastinate on a project. The closer you get to the deadline, the more tension you feel, the more stressed you are at the amount of work you have to accomplished. Giving your character a limitation or a constraint will create just as must tension for them and for the reader. Also, think about physical constraints or mental constraints you could put on your characters to up the suspense. Stress them out a bit!
Now that you know what a cliffhanger is and have a few tips under your belt on how to set up an effective cliffhanger in your story, it’s time to write one. The Writer’s Workout currently has an open call for submissions for our new anthology, Tales from the Cliff. The only requirement: the story must have a cliffhanger in it. You have your task, writers, now go off and write!
For more information, check out writersworkout.net/publications.