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Cliffhanging: Not Always What It Seems

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

Cliffhangers: these are your heart-pounding, reader-teasing, big moments of twist, right?

Well, not always.

Though the sudden interjection of action-packed surprise or suspense is what most people think of when they hear the word “cliffhanger,” our scenes don’t (read: shouldn’t) always end with an earth-shattering moment to keep readers turning the page.

On the contrary, cliffhangers are more often simple reveals of information or changes in perspective than they are teases of action or the arrival of an antagonistic force. Let’s explore each of these options below, starting with the most well known type of cliffhanger in order to better contrast it with the others.

Impending Action

These are the cliffhangers that most people think of when they hear the term. This could be anything including a final paragraph (or even line) where any of the following occur.

  • a burning smell coming from one room over
  • a cry for help heard over the horizon
  • the sight of the airplane’s oxygen masks deploying
  • the souring taste of a poisoned treat dissolving on the tongue (we’re assuming the character didn’t know it was poisoned when they ate it)
  • the heat of a dragon’s breath landing on a character’s shoulder

In any event, the idea is that something major is about to happen once the reader turns the page.

Cliffhangers of this variety certainly serve a purpose when used well, but if every chapter or scene ends with one of these, we as writers may fall into the trap of always having things turned up to eleven.

Yes, we want to have tension on the page, but if the only kind of tension we put to use is the threat of physical or emotional violence and upheaval, we can quickly tire out our readers (and characters!). After a while, it even becomes predictable, which defeats one of the purposes of a cliffhanger in the first place.

So what else can we use as cliffhangers? Let’s explore the notion of introducing new information instead of teasing impending action.

New Information

Presenting readers with new information can also be an effective use of a cliffhanger. There are even three different ways we can do this, each of which will allow us to create either 1) greater mystery, 2) increased suspense, or 3) dramatic irony that we can use to compel our readers onward.

Mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony really do warrant a post unto themselves (and I’ll throw one at you next week), so for now let’s put this in different terms.

What can we as the writer reveal at the end of a scene to get a reader thinking she can both anticipate the action and want to know whether her hunch will be confirmed?

Achieving both is critical. If our reader has a prediction about the consequences of new information, but doesn’t care whether she’s right or not (ie. the stakes aren’t high enough), that doesn’t do us as writers any good. And we need our readers to be anticipating the action (ie. making predictions of their own) before they can become curious as to whether they’ll be correct.

For an example of this, let’s juxtapose the two paragraph endings below.

… I knelt, running my fingers over the slab. The dry earth upon it compacted beneath my fingernails, the stone itself still cool from the shade of the great oak above.

I should’ve expected it, but a lump still formed in my throat when I saw the date.

She would’ve been eight years old next week.

versus

… I knelt, running my fingers over the slab. The dry earth upon it compacted beneath my fingernails, the stone itself still cool from the shade of the great oak above.

I should’ve expected it, but a lump still formed in my throat when I saw the date.

My pet ferret: she would’ve been eight years old next week.

Okay. Well. Huh.

In our first example, the final line—though clearly indicating someone’s (or I suppose, something(?)’s) life came to an end—remains ambiguous enough to keep a reader wanting more. Was this someone’s daughter? A niece? Who knows?

The second example answers this question immediately: it’s the perspective character’s deceased pet ferret.

Of course, we should all mourn our pets (R.I.P. Jimmie “Jaime El Gato” Campbell), but the second example lacks the same punch as the first. Why? Because though new information is revealed, readers 1) have fewer options where it comes to making predictions and 2) are less likely (probably) to care about the story of a boy and his dead pet ferret than they are about an adult and a child taken well before her time.

No offense to ferret owners, of course.

Essentially, the goal with the introduction of new information as a cliffhanger is to get the reader thinking he or she can anticipate what’s coming next. Let them put their prediction machine to work in a way that will make them feel smart.

I mean, they are smart, but it never hurts to remind them.

Change in Perspective

A final way to put cliffhangers to work without introducing an alien invasion or the eruption of a volcano is by showing readers that the perspective character has had a change in perspective. In other words, we as writers suggest a growth moment for the character.

These growth moments can vary widely, from the challenge of a core belief to seeing a former (or perhaps still current) antagonist in a new light.

The goal here is to have readers suspect they are witnessing a growth moment, and then have them want to turn the page to see if the character’s actions change based on this perceived shift in thought.

Actions speak louder than words, they say, and keeping this in mind is imperative when it comes to introducing possible changes in perspective. In keeping with the theme of making sure our readers feel smart, it’s nice to validate their predictions from time to time by having our characters take actions that are in line with this changed perspective.

That’s not to say we can’t challenge readers’ assumptions by having a character fail to take action based on a perceived growth moment. In fact, a bit of a struggle to change one’s ways is often compelling. Still, if a pattern emerges wherein a character sees things differently but never changes their behavior, growth moments can become tiresome for our readers. If they begin to feel as though they don’t quite “get” our protagonist or that there’s no interest in real change, readers can develop character-fatigue.

And when readers get character-fatigue, they stop reading.

Think of it this way: if you have a friend who keeps making the same mistakes, recognizes they’re doing so, and still keeps making the mistakes thinking they can get away with apologizing later, how long are you going to remain friends with them?

We can’t let our characters become that friend to our readers. We can let our characters get away with dissonance sometimes (there’s a reason unlikable protagonists exist, after all), but everyone reaches their limit with the unlikable eventually.

At any rate, if we can tease possible shifts in perspective that encourage readers to want to see whether our characters follow through on them, we’ve made effective use of this third type of cliffhanger.


Like what you’ve read here? Want to explore similar topics more in-depth? Check out the Writing Your Novel page for further reading, or join the conversation on Twitter, where I’m always willing to engage on topics like these.

Until next time: write on and write well.

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