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No matter how great your story is, if your ending isn’t powerful enough to make readers gasp out loud, all the time and effort you spent writing your manuscript will have been for naught. Plotting a great cliffhanger is harder than it looks, but it helps to remember that the best cliffhangers are built on the mastery of a few basic principles. In this post, we’ll look at some of the fundamental elements of writing a great cliffhanger.
- 1 Pick the right ‘thing’ to be the cliffhanger
- 2 Use your series structure effectively
- 3 Limit flashbacks
- 4 Vary the pace
- 5 Add a subplot to respond to the cliffhanger
- 6 Know what is at stake
- 7 Make sure your story stands alone
- 8 Avoid stringing out the big reveal
- 9 Make the resolution satisfying
- 10 Appeal to the audience’s emotions
- 11 Never give the reader exactly what they want
- 12 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Pick the right ‘thing’ to be the cliffhanger
Not all plot developments are created equal, and not all of them automatically make for a great cliffhanger. If you’re aiming to create a truly exciting one, you’ll want to choose something that has a lot of emotional and narrative consequences. It should have real gravity to it— even when your book ends, this unanswered question needs to be something readers are still thinking about. That said, you’ll want to avoid dipping too frequently into the angst caused by an impending sacrifice, familial trial, or unwelcoming quest. The reader learns right away what it will be, and when you keep reminding them, you lose the impact each time.
Avoid specific plot developments where you know exactly what you’re aiming for — at least until if you’ve written beyond it. You can laugh when you look at the later sections of a work and see just how far off your estimates were, but it’s more heart-wrenching than amusing to have to stop partway since you didn’t leave yourself enough space to finish. And it’s almost impossible to be in control of a plot development plan. Events often aren’t so neat and tidy — which is important, since you should try to keep your story in their hands, and not pinned up for them.
Use your series structure effectively
In structuring a novel trilogy, you begin by creating an overarching setup — a concept, conflict, or continuity to act as a backbone for the series. The series structure typically isn’t communicated to the reader outright, but is instead used as a jumping off point for unexpected twists and deeper meanings. Next, you’ll find that you have to decide whether to end the first book of your series with a cliffhanger. Done incorrectly, a cliffhanger may alienate your readers. On the other hand, if you’re able to complete the setup and then create a compelling cliffhanger around which to wrap up the action, you’re guaranteed to force your readers to pick up the second book of your trilogy.
The perfect cliffhanger occurs at the end of every bigger conflict in each installment. Many first books in a trilogy are meant to be self-contained novella-sized novels. In the case of first installments, it makes sense to end your story at the height of the conflict introduced in your setup. The goal here is to leave the reader hungrily anticipation of a triumphant or tragic resolution in the sequel. The next installment sees the setup resolved — but not without complications. This is the primary driver of your second installment. When writing a second installment, make sure you avoid tying up too quickly. Instead, continue the conflict, but tie it into a secondary driver — it’s this secondary driver or thread that heightens in tension and the primary driver that resolves in the final book of your trilogy.
It’s easy to fall back on flashbacks in a story, especially since they can be a great way to fill in information about your characters or world. Unlike cliffhangers, though, flashbacks generally don’t have a direct benefit to the current story. If you overuse them, your story can wind up jumping to unrelated events because you’re afraid to resolve the current conflict. Flashbacks only really work when they can somehow help the character make decisions that will lead them to take the next story step. In some cases, flashbacks are unavoidable, but they’ll feel out of place if the hero doesn’t discover something from the flashback that they weren’t already aware of — for example, a traumatic clue that can’t be revealed in a normal narrative.
If you aren’t sure how to end a chapter, it can be easy to fall back on flashbacks. Remember that flashforwards are allowable, but only if you’re sure you can bring them back into the story in a surprising but satisfying way. A series of thematically linked flashforwards can have some reward if they add pace and urgency to the current plot, but don’t let them take over from the momentum of the story. Reading YA or children’s literature will give you excellent examples of how to write a great cliffhanger using foreshadowing correctly.
Vary the pace
When you begin, you need to carefully and deliberately slow down the pace at each key moment in your story. Remember, your goal here is to deliberately raise your reader’s expectations and then pay them off with the unexpected ending. If you raise your reader’s expectations too much and then don’t match them, your cliffhanger will fail. Similarly, if you don’t raise your reader’s expectations at all, then no matter how much you pay them off, you’ll just be disappointing them with a ho-hum ending. Instead, you have to be patient and subtle and build your reader’s expectations and excitement.
The most striking way of doing this is to vary your pace. An effective principle of pacing is that the line graph of a great action or thriller scene will look like a perfect bell curve — gaining speed and reaching the climax of the sequence, and then more smoothly, slowly, and agreeably, coming to a gentle end. Varying the pace of your action scenes this way is great for immersion, but it’s important to note that this same principle also applies even to, say, internal monologues or descriptions of scenery. It’s not that you should ever play a narrative moment for laughs or anything like that, but sometimes you’ll want to make your characters more nervous and uptight in their narration, and other times you’ll want them to reflect on how relaxed they are or enjoy the scenery.
Add a subplot to respond to the cliffhanger
When you make the important plot point for your story the climax at the end of your piece, your reader has nowhere left to turn. Panel by panel, you’ve moved the story to greater and greater heights, from issue to issue, and you’ve finally hit the big ending. There isn’t much your reader can do but stick around for the next episode now, is there? At the other extreme, leaving a cliffhanger completely unresolved at the end of a scene misuses the technique as a plot-device. A cliffhanger is meant to leave the audience hanging but allow them to know that wrapping up this particular story-thread will fit into the narrative at the next turning point. If the conflict doesn’t resolve, then the cliffhanger will never be fully satisfying, and the audience will grow frustrated.
Look for places in your narrative where the pace has slowed, and where you can add in an action-packed scene to start the adrenaline pumping. A great place to use a cliffhanger is before or after your main action set-piece, especially if there’s a conversation lingering afterward. Your protagonist can have just been handed the completing info he needs to carry out his plan, and he can be concluding his final conversation with the antagonist. Another opportunity to use a cliffhanger is while you’re still building the inciting incident — remember, there’s no such thing as too many cliffhangers, so don’t be afraid to make them a part of the regular rhythm of your narrative.
Know what is at stake
Anyone can create a story that ends in a cliffhanger — just exit stage left with the literal or figurative building in flames, or go all the way to the end of the story to create a convenient stopping place — but if you want to write a great cliffhanger you have to know what question you need to answer. A great cliffhanger depends on the reader understanding the stakes of each scene and the main plot. This means that you need to make sure characters and readers understand what is at stake in every scene. This value is the thing the protagonist will most lose if they fail to accomplish their goals.
To create stronger stakes and a great cliffhanger to end a chapter or section of your story, you can ask a series of story questions. You need to let the reader firmly understand the question before you answer it. In addition, if you are using a series of questions, each question has to be more pressing and more surprising than the one preceding it. Otherwise, the anxiety the reader feels about whether or not he or she will find out the answer to each question will level out into boredom. This strategy works well for stories of all lengths — the longer the story, the more questions and plot twists you can include.
Make sure your story stands alone
Cliffhangers work best when they’re followed by attentive readers who are invested in the character. In other words, never rely on a cliffhanger to make them interested in reading the next book. Cliffhangers only work if they’re woven into a story that provides enough entertainment — or resolution — on its own, so always consider that if you want to create a memorable cliffhanger. The best way to do this is to start with a three-act framework. Act three is where the conflict of your story best comes to a climax, but it’s also where the exposition and action tends to get muddy. Each twist or turn in your cliffhanger should play off the events of act three and give readers just enough information to keep them anxiously awaiting the next installment. It might be tempting to go for the big payoff at the end, but don’t give too much away. Save some of your cliffhanger for the denouement.
The three-act structure is incredibly versatile, and can be tweaked to accommodate a great number of stories, but it’s not the only way to write a story that you can then end with a cliffhanger. For example, you could do an episodic structure, pitting your main character against a different obstacle in each installment, or use a horizontal structure, telling a story from your character’s perspective in more or less chronological order. Just be aware of what kind of plotting model you’re employing, and make sure that you know where you’re going earlier in the book so that you can end in the perfect place.
Avoid stringing out the big reveal
Avoid teasing a big reveal by tapping into the worst writing habits. Bringing back multiple characters other than the focal character can create multiple storylines and misdirect the reader instead of building intrigue. You can use red herrings to throw the reader off the scent of your big secret and make them unsure if they’re meant to pay attention to a particular character. Accepting that a big twist is coming creates frustration and anticipation in the reader. A twist revealed that isn’t backed up by the narrative has no power. Ensure that your twist feels inevitable, to avoid giving unsatisfying answers in future books.
A great cliffhanger makes the reader keep reading. To make the reader want to find out what happens next, you have to introduce them to conflicts they want to see resolved — conflicts they want to see reinforced through the sequel. Consider the questions your reader will ask themselves as they reach the final cliffhanger in the first novel. How will they put themselves into your protagonist’s shoes? Readers want to see characters move, grow, and change, and they want resolutions they can feel good about. They want to know that the “final, fateful battle” will really send the story cliff-diving into the next journey. They want to know that the character will be touched, changed, and concerned because of what happened over the course of the novel.
Make the resolution satisfying
The cliffhanger’s main purpose is to make your audience impatient for your next installment. But don’t just walk away without giving them anything to bite into — give them a choice between two equally entertaining outcomes. If you spice your cliffhanger up with enough suspense, and give the stakes high enough, readers won’t be sure they can live through another installment until you come up with a way to resolve the clash of values, desires, or other opposites in an equally satisfying conclusion.
In terms of how you write the resolution, make sure to use the same epic-but-personal writing techniques you deployed in the rest of the plot. You can use your authorial voice to compelling effect in your resolutions, since you’re revealing how your characters resolve their conflicts — the manner in which they resolve them will stipulate how things turn out, but whether they manage to do so successfully at all is up to you.
Appeal to the audience’s emotions
While you might think of a cliffhanger as a cheap way to end a story, in its true sense it’s a device to keep readers keenly interested in the outcome of a story, because they fear for the character’s fate or want to find out how the story ends. By design, a cliffhanger ending poses an urgent question about a character in the story whom readers care about. When you stop to think about it, that’s the basis of every cliffhanger — it’s simply the specific question or element of conflict that makes it a cliffhanger, and it’s what’s going to keep the reader in suspense. The important thing to notice is the reader’s need for resolution, the belief that we’ll find it ultimately satisfying if we manage to discover the solution to the question. Remember that the success of your cliffhanger will depend on its emotional impact. Don’t hold story questions out of a sense of duty — if they truly do matter to the characters and themes, they’ll matter to your readers and their curiosity will compel them to keep reading.
In doing your research and writing, you’ve already probably given careful consideration to the questions that will drive your story’s plot — who, what, when, where, and why. But what about the questions that will drive your characters forward emotionally? What truly motivates your protagonist, and what kind of obstacles will drive them towards resolution and maturity? And what kind of struggle might prove the most difficult to your characters? If this is where your question lies, then you’re definitely succeeding on the emotional level that will attract readers and make them unable to put down your work. The important thing to note, however, is that the emotional level needs to be the foundation of your story, not a bonus gaming element tacked on as an afterthought. Your story must revolve around the character’s transformation and internal growth throughout the events of the plot, rather than the shoehorned insertion of a challenge that proves irresistible.
Never give the reader exactly what they want
Of course, the challenge for your cliffhanger ending is going to be managing to deliver the satisfying resolution the reader so desperately craves without undercutting the power this produces with a build-up. If you give them exactly what the reader wants all the time, then they will get all they want, and they will stop caring. The best cliffhangers challenge the reader to expect what’s going to happen next. If the protagonist is relying on a particular thing to happen, and that thing never comes, we know something has gone wrong — and we’re dying to know what we knew. That’s what makes cliffhangers effective. Crucially, a good plot twist feels inevitable after the fact, but offers no foreshadowing before it.
So create these expectations in the readers by carefully selecting central plot questions to answer through the course of your bloody middle and weary-making end, so that when they reach the climax, they will be dying for it to arrive — just before you deprive them with the ending they deserve. For this reason, it’s important that you maintain the story questions you set up in the beginning — they serve not only to create anticipation for the story, but also to direct the reader through your plot. You’ll want the twists at the end to be surprising, but also in keeping with the story you’ve been telling throughout, or you’ll invalidate whatever it was that made the reader want to read the next book in the first place.
Remember your main goal as an author, and as the creator of a story, is not only to deliver to readers on your plot promises, but also to maintain their long-term interest in the series. Writing a great cliffhanger is about making sure that come book two, the reader will want more. Keep the momentum going and they’ll be satisfied with the resolution. Plus, now you’ll know how to write a cliffhanger and be well on your way to creating an exciting series your readers will love.
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