WRITING CRAFT: CREATING CLIFFHANGERS by Rayne Hall
To keep the reader going, turning page after page even when she meant to do the dishes or go to sleep, place an exciting hook at the end of every scene.
State the character’s goal at the beginning of the scene, if possible something important and urgent, for example Henry Hero had to save Princess Helga before the Victor Villain threw her to the crocodiles or Miss Hester Hopeful must catch a husband at this ball or remain a spinster forever. By stating this goal at the beginning of the scene, you placed the reader in suspense about “Will the PoV achieve the goal?” Will Henry get there in time? Will Hester meet and enchant the right man?
The end of the scene should answer this question – but preferably not with a straight “yes” because that would end the tension. The reader, her curiosity satisfied, would put the book away and wash the dishes.
A much better scene ending is “Yes, the PoV achieves the goal, but… a new complication has arisen, and she must deal with it.” Yes, Henry Hero got there on time, but got captured, and now the Villain is going to feed him to crocodiles as well. Yes, Hester meets a handsome man at the ball who is clearly enchanted with her, but he’s a rakehell and a rogue, not suitable husband material.
Another good one is “She achieved only part of her goal, and to get the rest, she has to do something dangerous.” Sometimes you can even end a scene like this: “No, she did not achieve her goal, and her situation has become worse than before.”
PoV in Peril
A scene which ends where the point-of-view character is in acute trouble with no obvious way out (such as dangling from a cliff top, about to fall as soon as her arms’ strength gives out) is called a “cliffhanger” and it’s a sure way to make the reader turn to the next page. Even if she decides to take a break and do the dishes, she’ll return to the book soon because she simply must find out how the PoV gets out of this.
This technique works superbly with scary scenes. Put your PoV in a dangerous situation – if not dangling from a cliff, then about to be carved up by the serial killer or devoured by the dragon – describe her situation using the senses. End the scene there.
The next scene starts where the previous one left off, and shows how your heroine manages to pull herself up the cliff, escape the serial killer, or defeat the dragon. She may achieve this on her own, or with help from a rescuer.
Raise the Tension Higher Still
If your novel uses multiple points of view – that is, one PoV per scene, but not the same for the whole novel – you can raise the tension to almost unbearable levels. Leave the heroine hanging from the cliff and switch to a different PoV, showing what someone else is doing somewhere else, if possible something connected to the cliffhanger situation. This could be a police officer investigating the heroine’s abduction, or the distraught husband discovering his wife’s disappearance.
Then, in the scene after that, you return to your heroine in peril, and show her rescue.
Not every scene needs a cliffhanger handing, but you can use several in your novel, especially at the end of a chapter.
If you’re working on a thriller, your readers will love your cliffhangers.
If you show your PoV in peril at the end of the scene, you need to show how she gets out of it. Show this as live action, not in summary. Readers feel cheated by summaries like “Helga massaged her bruises from yesterday’s misadventure. She had been lucky to be rescued by a passing ranger.”
Authors of book series sometimes end each book with a cliffhanger, so the reader has to buy the sequel to find out what happens next. This is a dangerous strategy. Some readers, impatient to continue, will buy the next book at once. But other readers will feel frustrated to be left dangling with an unresolved situation. They may hate the author for cheating them and write scathing reviews.
It may be better to end the book with the acute danger over and the book’s main conflict resolved, and to keep the reader in suspense with a character hook.