What Is a Cliffhanger and Why Should You Write Them?

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What Is a Cliffhanger and Why You Should Write Them

In today’s world of short attention span and so many distractions, it’s crucial for a writer to know how to grasp the reader’s attention from page one.

But when you learn how to make your reader turn the first page, the danger is still there. If they’re not interested, they will abandon your book. So you need more tricks up your sleeve to make them keep reading. And one of those tricks is a good cliffhanger.

But what is a cliffhanger and how do you write them effectively?

Today’s post is all about that. It will tell you everything you need to know about writing amazing cliffhangers to grab your reader’s attention from the very start of your book till its last page.

What is a cliffhanger and why should you use it in your story?

A cliffhanger is a plot device where you create a high-tension scene without any resolution. One way to create such a scene is to put your protagonist in some kind of mystery or trouble (or troubled mystery or mysterious trouble).

Imagine your brave knight suddenly running into the dragon on the balcony of a princess’ castle. Or your software engineer learns that his latest development in artificial intelligence has become possessed by the foul demon! Or your spy kills the mad scientist who threatens to destroy the planet, only to find out that it was a robot dummy and the actual mad scientist is coming out of a closet (literally) with a gun pointed right at your spy’s face.

In one word, the possibilities are endless. Have fun making up troubles for your characters. And when you got them into trouble, guess what’s next? Right, just leave them be! Well, at least for now.

Another great way to create a cliffhanger is to focus on what your character learns or can’t remember, what they feel or notice or can’t pay attention to. For example, your brave knight looking for a princess to rescue suddenly notices a suspicious-looking man in the alley with a princess’s brooch in his hand. Or your spy finds the mad scientist’s bomb case and remembers that he can’t disarm it because that was the only test he failed in the academy. Or a pretty girl gets in her car and catches a glimpse of a stranger with… horns sticking out of his hat.

HORNS movie Daniel Radcliffe shot

So why would you do this to your characters and to your readers? It’s really simple. All these tensed and mysterious situations leave readers with only one question: What happens next? And they’re so wanting to find it out that they can’t even go to the bathroom or stop that short break and get back to work. They’re completely possessed by your story and want to read more.

Okay, now you know what a cliffhanger is and how it will make your story irresistible. But how do you write a cliffhanger so that it would grab your reader by the throat and never let go until the very last page?

Keep reading for some enlightening examples.

How to write a cliffhanger like an Atlantean

Usually, writers place cliffhangers at the end of the book when they’re writing a trilogy or a series. But you can leverage the untapped potential of this device ending all your chapters with a cliffhanger.

The Atlantis Gene A.G. Riddle

Placing cliffhangers at the end of the chapter is the technique often used by thriller and mystery writers. Just have a look at how good the Atlantis trilogy by A.G. Riddle has been doing. It’s a perfect example of a fast-paced thriller filled with cliffhangers to the brim so that you just can’t put the book down. Kudos, A.G. Riddle!

Here’s one of his cliffhangers from his second book The Atlantis Plague:

As Kate pulled the hat from her head, she got her first full view of the large room—what had been the dining room. She could barely believe the scene that spread out before her. “What is this?”

Martin spoke softly. “The world isn’t what they describe on the radio. This is the true shape of the Atlantis Plague.”

Thrilling, ha? Definitely raises questions you want answers to – and want them right now! So you will be reading further, breathlessly turning page after page.

Place a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter and don’t worry to exhaust your readers. Authors like A.G. Riddle take their readers on a mind-blowing roller-coaster trip and you don’t have time to even catch your breath. But that works perfectly! You feel like you’re into actual mystery and thriller, danger at your heels.

Writing cliffhangers like a Greek god

Another great example of how to write a gripping cliffhanger comes from Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians book cover

Rick Riordan is a master of not only ending his chapters with mysteries and questions in the air, but he also knows how to start the chapters so that from the very first line you get the craving to read them through.

Look at one of his beginnings from The Lightning Thief:

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.

And another one:

Mythologically speaking, if there’s anything I hate worse than trios of old ladies, it’s bulls. Last summer, I fought the Minotaur on top of Half-Blood Hill. This time what I saw up there was even worse: two bulls. And not just regular bulls—bronze ones the size of elephants. And even that wasn’t bad enough. Naturally they had to breathe fire, too.

That’s how pros do it and that’s how you should start your own chapters. Throw in some compelling idea or a shocking fact or a question for readers. Grab them with that idea and let them know they can find out more in the following chapter (or in a few chapters).

Once you got their attention from the start, lead them to some action (I don’t mean explosions here; I mean something interesting should be happening in the following scenes) in line with the opening promise. You can answer some of the questions here or address that problem you raised in the beginning. On the other hand, you can just mention it again and don’t have to reveal the secret because you plan to do it sometime later – that’s okay. But remember to fulfill your promises.

In the end of the chapter, place another shocker and end the chapter abruptly. Your readers will be screaming for more!

Here’s an example of a nice cliffhanger from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series:

I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom and I would never get to have our afternoon talk.

In fact, I wouldn’t be seeing home for a long, long time.

As I stepped outside, I glanced at the brownstone building across the street. Just for a second I saw a dark shape in the morning sunlight – a human silhouette against the brick wall, a shadow that belonged to no one.

Then it rippled and vanished.

And another one:

“No time!” Annabeth opened her door. “We have to get out now.”

I was about to ask why, when I looked up at Half-Blood Hill and understood.

At the crest of the hill was a group of campers. And they were under attack.

I bet you want to find out who that mysterious silhouette was and who attacked the camp and if they will be able to win or not. That’s the power of a great cliffhanger in action.

How to write a cliffhanger like a wizard

Terry Pratchett doesn’t use chapters in his books, only scene breaks without a title. It could be overwhelming and hard to follow, if not for his clever use of cliffhangers. He generally tells stories with a cast of characters, so he needs to switch between them frequently. And when one scene ends with a cliffhanger, the author makes sure you will be reading through other characters’ scenes just to know what happens next with this one.

The Light Fantastic Terry Pratchett book cover

But you see his genius here? Ending every scene with a cliffhanger, Terry Pratchett makes you want more of that character storyline, and that one, and that one too – basically making each character’s storyline irresistible.

Here’s just one example from The Light Fantastic (second book in his Discworld series):

He patted his nightshirt pockets distractedly and finally found what he was looking for lodged behind his ear. He put the soggy dogend in his mouth, called up mystical fire from between his fingers, and dragged hard on the wretched rollup until little blue lights flashed in front of his eyes. He coughed once or twice.

He was thinking very hard indeed.

He was trying to remember if any gods owed him any favors.

Now, someone could argue if it’s a cliffhanger at all. There’s no trouble occurring with the character, no sudden questions raised. But that half humorous, half ominous last line cleverly taps into our imagination, and we want to know if this character would find that gods did owe him a favor and what they would do and how they would do it.

It does more than just puts someone into trouble before our eyes or asks a mysterious question. It makes our imagination fly and look for the answers to the questions the author only hinted at. And then, of course, we want to know more of the story and flip those pages like crazy.

Isn’t it an example of a great cliffhanger?

Writing cliffhangers like a winner of a 75th Hunger Games!

Surely, there are many reasons to love Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. The unforgettable main heroine, vivid in its bleakness dystopian world, realistic motivations and emotions of characters, on-the-edge-of-your-seat pacing, shocking plot twists and revelations – I really could go on and on.

Writing cliffhangers like Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games book cover.

But the gem we’re focusing on right now is how Suzanne Collins did Hunger Games‘ cliffhangers. They are arranged throughout the books so cleverly that you have no chance of stopping for more than a few breaths after another chapter. You feel a vital need to know what happens next with Katniss Everdeen.

Let’s look at one of the cliffhangers from the middle of the first book of Hunger Games:

“I’m sure they didn’t notice anything but you. You should wear flames more often,” he says. “They suit you.” And then he gives me a smile that seems so genuinely sweet with just the right touch of shyness that unexpected warmth rushes through me.

A warning bell goes off in my head. Don’t be so stupid. Peeta is planning how to kill you, I remind myself. He is luring you in to make you easy prey. The more likable he is, the more deadly he is.

But because two can play at this game, I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on his bruise.

No, we don’t actually find the main character in a perilous situation at the moment, hanging from the edge of the cliff, under the gun or something. But, as Cheryl Reif stated in her awesome blog post about writing cliffhangers, “sometimes the cliffhanger is simply a statement, from your main character or another character, that reinforces scene tension.”

That is the type of a cliffhanger Suzanne Collins used here. This piece leaves a reader with plenty of questions: how Katniss will act further? Will she pretend she believes Peeta? Is Peeta really a bad guy telling lies under his smile? How will their relationship develop from this point when Katniss became determined to play him?

See? This chapter’s ending is crafted so brilliantly that it subtly hits so many marks and makes you keep reading and wanting more and more.

If it seems like not enough for you, read this shocker from the very end of Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games book:

I instinctively raise my hand to block his words but he catches it and holds on tightly.

“Don’t,” I whisper.

But Gale is not one to keep secrets from me. “Katniss, there is no District Twelve.”

Oooh, what a finale! Now you understand why you should put some effort and completely nail this technique?

Recap: How to write cliffhangers

Writing cliffhangers, mystery finale, lightbulbs in the dark

I strongly believe that today any writer who wants to write fiction for a living should use cliffhangers and take advantage of a reader’s psychology. Remember, all they want is to know more – so end your scenes, chapters, parts and especially volumes in the series with something that will so blow their mind they just won’t be able to stop reading you (or, if at the time you don’t have any sequels, they won’t be able to stop looking forward to your next book).

Skillfully crafted and carefully placed, cliffhangers make your book irresistible and definitely help in turning it in a real page-turner.

When you feel you’re getting closer to your chapter break, think a little ahead of time and imagine what will happen next. Now, what’s the most thrilling detail or feel or thought about it? Try to put on your reader’s moccasins and look at your text with their eyes. What would knock the breath out of them? What would raise a burning question in their mind? Where would the mystery bloom?

Okay, now stop right there. Craft your final sentence as if it’s a poem. Put so much feeling and strength into it that your readers, while reading it, would have to be seated and belted for their safety.

With these little tips, you will write masterful cliffhangers in no time. Sharp your pen and keep readers aboard, fellow writer!

Do you have something to say about writing cliffhangers? Have other tricks to make your readers dive in and keep turning pages? Share your secrets in comments below!

This post was inspired by the astounding Jenna Moreci and her vlog.

Featured image by Cam Adams via unsplash.com.

  • Lyn

    first of all your title does not make sense it has incorrect grammar, what is a cliffhanger and why you should write them? it should be “what a cliffhanger is and why you should…” without the question mark. Also, you did not explain why we should use them you went on a run on sentence explaining how to make them, I only came on here for the “why” which you did not provide me with but instead used a false and grammatically incorrect title. If I were you , I would read over your work and not be so careless

    • Thanks for your feedback, Lyn.

      First, I’m pretty sure I can use the title that way and it isn’t grammatically incorrect. Please check this example:

      https://www.reference.com/art-literature/cliffhanger-story-110a8597195310ac

      But I should correct the second part to “why should you write them”. Thanks for hinting at that!

      Second, the article actually tells you a couple times (in the beginning and in the end) why you should use cliffhangers. Also, the examples are there to help you figure it out better than any descriptions. But to make it clearer, I stressed out the why in the beginning brighter.

      Thanks for helping, again!