Cliffhangers. Writers love ‘em. Readers hate ‘em. So why use do we insist on using a tool that makes even the most peace-loving reader want to go all green and start raging? Because, when it’s done right, everyone loves a cliffhanger. Done right, it utilizes a particularly power-packed moment to end your scene leaving the reader with both a rush of satisfaction and an urgency that compels them go on. Right. This. Instant.
So how does it go wrong? Let’s start there. It started with that writing instructor or online blogger who told you that what you want are readers begging you with a single, desperate question. What happens next? So you get your protagonist hoisted up on that cliffside, hanging on by his fingernails, sweat popping on his brow. The stone begins to crumble against palms already broken and bleeding, and . . . . End Scene.
Wow. I’m just blogging here, and I’m actually irritated just writing that.
I’m going to suggest we need a new question. Let’s scrap the “what happens next” idea and take it a step further. Go ahead and show us what’s about to happen. It was, of course, going to be something dynamic, right? (Note: If you stop a cliffhanger short and then nothing dynamic happens when the story resumes, you have bigger problems than crafting the end of your scene.) So something dynamic happens, and you leave them with the new, better question. What the heck is the protagonist going to do now? How do they make it out when there is no good way out?
Example: Hit play on our desperate mountain climber. The protagonist catches a handhold, finds a perch for his foot. Oh, relief! Now he’s off and climbing again. He makes it to the top, except where there should have been clifftops and trees and scenic views, there is just a huge, blackened crater dropping straight down a hollow shaft. And, merciful heavens, is that lava beginning to rise? End scene.
What should have been safety has given way to an even greater danger. Relief has turned to horror, and we’re not out of the woods yet. So, for powerful cliffhangers, just make sure you follow a few simple tips.
Lower the boom. If you leave the reader guessing about that critical happening that is seconds away, they will, naturally, wonder what happens next. True. If you go ahead and give it to them, however, the drive to see how the character gets themselves (and the very invested reader) through this nightmarish happening will add an intensity that will be more likely to catapult them into the next chapter.
Give it a twist. If you are thinking of using a cliffhanger, what comes next had darned well better be good. That said, the “what happens next” should receive some planning and thought. Take the expected answer, give it a twist, pull it just off center, and let her rip. The unexpected will add to the pay-off as you lower the boom, and a smart writer will have the next scene ready and waiting for their now-rabid readership.
Experiment. Play with your stopping point. What if I stop here? How about here? Find the place that will give you the most impact. Here’s a walk-through of this concept.
Take the final battle scene for The Hobbit (referencing the first of the movie of the set here). Azog, the evil orc, and his orc posse have the would-be dwarf king, Thorin, and his band of adventurers cornered. The massive Azog tops the rise on his warg mount and meets Thorin’s eyes with a malevolent sneer. He’s got them now. End scene.
Do you know what happens next? Of course, you do. You’ve watched Thorin this entire movie, and you know that he is about to throw caution to the wind and charge into battle. And you’d be right. No guesswork whatsoever, so this is not a good stopping point. Resume scene.
Thorin charges into battle and is knocked the freak out. Bilbo Baggins is about to watch his friend get turned into warg chow. His eyes widen in a most understandable expression of horror. Oh, no! Thorin, wake up! Fight back! But he just lies there unconscious, waiting for the coupe de gras. End scene.
Do you know what happens next? Honestly, this could go either way. We know what should happen. Bilbo should rush in to save his friend. We also know that he is no match for Azog, so this is definitely a hero-making decision. Even better, we’re focusing on the actual protagonist now, so that’s a major plus. This would be a pretty decent place to stop, and, in fact, most people would stop here. But try one more time, and see what you think. Resume scene.
With nary a thought to himself, Bilbo Baggins of scenic, peaceful Bag End charges Azog in a rush of heroism and suicidal impulse. The brave and battle-trained dwarf king has just fallen to this beast of a villain, and, as Bilbo charges in with that little, glow-in-the-dark toothpick he calls a sword, we are certain of one thing. That hobbit is about to die. End scene.
He has made the unthinkable decision. Now, can he survive it? What the heck is he going to do now?
When writing your cliffhangers, don’t stop short. Toss your protagonist into the hottest water, and leave the reader praying they’ll find a way out when all sense says there simply is none.