Cliffhangers: the noble art of ‘just one more chapter’

If I had to describe my childhood in a single vignette, it’d be along the following lines: bowl-cut boy in shaggy pyjamas, curled up in a makeshift blanket fort, book in one hand and flashlight in another. Countless nights did I spend like that, engrossed in my stories, faintly muttering that sleep was for the weak and there’s no time like the present. I, like many others, had fallen victim to that most glorious of literary devices: the cliffhanger.

Of course, getting your reader to keep turning the pages is no easy feat. While most of us would love to spend our days reading books by the fireplace, the reality of everyday life is often a lot less glorious. There’s chores to be done; deadlines to be met — and every once in a while, we’re even expected to acknowledge the very existence of our loved ones. With every word you write, you’re essentially competing for your reader’s attention. Here’s how to make the cliffhanger the deadliest weapon in your arsenal.

Get people’s hopes up

It may sound straightforward, but a good cliffhanger starts with making sure you have a high enough cliff. As a rule of thumb, every chapter you write should move the story forward — meaning that either something noteworthy happens, or your characters somehow grow and learn. A chapter opening is the perfect place to raise the stakes, and give the reader an idea of what your characters will be up against in the next however-many-words. Whether there’s trophies to be won or dragons to be slain or patriarchies to be smashed — the more you pique your reader’s interest, the faster they’ll end up turning the pages

Toy with their feelings

Once you’ve clearly set the stakes for the chapter, the cat-and-mouse game begins. Your readers are a clever bunch, after all, and they’ll subconsciously try to predict where the story is headed. Good writing is about knowing what your reader knows, and then staying one step ahead like the mastermind you are. So lean in a little; let them think they’ve figured you out — then pull the rug out from under them just as they finish the chapter.

Leave some stones unturned

Of course, be mindful of the tightrope you’re walking, and avoid frustrating your readers so much that your novel ends up going airborne. I like to think of chapters as the different courses in a fancy meal: each should be just enough to give your readers a taste, but not so much as to leave them completely full and satisfied. Answer some of your reader’s questions, but not all; give them some closure, but not enough — and if you can pull it off, have every solution come with a new set of complications.

Less is more

For all their dramatic wording, good cliffhangers aren’t necessarily about life-or-death situations. It’s tempting to end every chapter with some major plot twist or a Darth Vader-style reveal, but there’s only so many gasps your readers can muster before they start losing interest. It’s far more powerful to make small changes to the things we care about deeply: your characters, their relationships — really anything that makes our hearts skip a little. The more you manage to make us care, the less shock and awe you’ll need to keep us on the edge of our seats.

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    Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Semicolon enthusiast.

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    Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Semicolon enthusiast.

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