As I mentioned in my last post, Pace, Friend or Foe, one great way to drive a novel’s pace and keep people reading, is to end your chapters with a cliffhanger. Most people are familiar with the cliffhanger at the end of a novel (encouraging you to buy the next book in the series) or with TV shows where the storyline continues from week to week. However, you can use the same principle for a chapter ending. The key to using this story device is to make sure the cliffhanger is relevant to the plot. Also that you keep the teaser information brief, unexpected, exciting, and/or mysterious.
1. The provocative question. This works for a character’s internal question, a narrative question, or a question exchanged between two or more characters. The question is the easiest method to master and tends to focus on the “W” questions, Who, What, Where, When, and Why. I find the W questions low on the cliffhanger scale, but they’re an old standby. This style works best when the question is one the reader is already considering.
2. The statement of fact or accusation. Use this cliffhanger for one character to confront another with damaging information or to announce some life changing news. “I’m pregnant.” This cliffhanger will usually create emotional tension, and drive the story toward a new short or long-term goal or plot complication. It also works for a plot reversal or setback.
3. The description of the next chapter’s opening setting. This is a mystery technique, often used to unveil a dead body at the end of a chapter. This type of cliffhanger often leads to an introspective phase of the story. You don’t have to kill off a character to make this one work, you can also fill the room with streamers and balloons. The descriptive cliffhanger marks the start of a new storyline, or a reversal.
4. The demand for action or response. This cliffhanger centers on an event the characters can’t ignore, and may include elements of danger. The classic example is a police officer knocking at the front door. The demand for action works great for leading into a major event, or an event that drives a group into action, such as a river flooding over its banks. The demand for action always precedes a dramatic part of the story, or you’re not using it correctly. Be careful of using a fake demand for action, (an anticlimactic problem) the reader can interpret that as cheating.
5. The kiss, the almost kiss and the slap in the face. This method is the romance writer’s workhorse and helps heighten the character’s emotional tension. Variations of this one are the mistaken identity reveal, or the refused gift. This one works best early in the novel when the characters are still a bit unsure of each other.
6. The mystery/missing object. We’ve all read these cliffhangers, it’s the old trunk in the attic, the long-lost letter that slipped behind the china hutch; or any other object of significance. Make sure you do not try to trick the reader with this one either, the missing letter should never turn out to be a shopping list, unless something very incriminating (strychnine) is on it. This is a suspense style of cliffhanger, good for revealing a major clue. This method works great at the start of the ending climax, but you can also use it for a mid book complication.
7. Foreshadowing. You can use this cliffhanger when the characters are at a crossroad, or a big change in the plot is coming. Foreshadowing works great for building suspense at any stage of a book.
8. The pledge/declaration. This one is commonly an internal commitment for action on the part of a lead character. “I will avenge my father’s death.” Antagonists also use them when they vow to create mayhem or take revenge. This is a dramatically charged cliffhanger, and it always follows some emotional catharsis or a feeling of being cornered. This cliffhanger always changes the character’s path in a profound way. This method can work early or late in a novel. You should not use this for a minor decision and you really only get one shot at this type of cliffhanger. If you over use the pledge your character looks uncommitted.
The one thing you must never do with a cliffhanger chapter ending is use it to trick your readers, or to cover up a dragging story.
Up Next from Robin… Write Fast or Write Well: Can You Have it Both Ways? Lessons From The NaNoWriMo Trenches