The DNA of Bad Cliffhangers

www.ailastephensbooks.com (1)“Would you dare to walk with the beast on the dark side of the moon?”
– Demetri Daskova

The other day I was firing off what I had hoped would be the last few emails before I could punch out for the day and come home. It was all standard stuff: Warning about system updates, W-2 notices, meeting reminders. I was even chatting with a coworker friend of mine on the phone, indulging in a little light, office gossip. As she and I mused over trivialities, several emails piled up in my inbox in rapid succession.

See, if I’m on my office phone and someone calls me, an email automatically pops up telling me I am missing phone calls and from whom.

Missed call.
Missed call.
Missed call.
Missed call.
Missed call.
Missed call.

Within the span of thirty seconds, I had a total of six missed calls from my boss’s boss and my boss’s boss’s boss.

I hung up on my friend and started dialing.

No answer.

Where were they? They just called.

Another email pinged, from the boss’s boss: “I just called you twice. Don’t leave. We need to talk.”

Five minutes later, as I stared blankly at my computer screen, three stern knocks at my door were almost my undoing.

This is a true story, and after everything was settled (which, by the way, while I was being blamed for something, it turned out not to be my fault) it took a few minutes for my adrenaline to die down.

On my way home that day I couldn’t help but replay the events in my head and it dawned on me how perfectly this cliffhanger had been set up and it got me to thinking about how to build a successful cliffhanger…and how to build an unsuccessful one.

For the newbies in the back, what is a cliffhanger?

It’s a plot device where something happens suddenly and there is no immediate solution. (Like how I couldn’t figure out what the pandemonium was for) Sometimes there is a physical danger, sometimes the cliffhanger is emotional.

Authors want to construct a cliffhanger that compels their readers to keep reading in order to find out how the character is going to be affected. Will they die? Will they get the girl? Were they in the car crash? Did they get out before the house fire? Did they burn dinner? Did they have the dress in the right size? Did they get into their number one school?

I’ve read, or attempted to read, lots of Indie novels over the course of the last two years and one thing I’ve seen many authors forget is how and where to incorporate a cliffhanger.

Notice how I said I’ve attempted to read lots of Indie novels? Yeah. There’s a reason I, and many other readers, have put so many Indie books in the DNF pile.

Let’s look at some of the common issues I’ve had with cliffhangers in Indie novels.

1.| Not enough cliffhangers. I’ve tried to get through more than one Indie novel where the author seemed hellbent on waiting until they reached the climax to give any sort of cliffhanger. When someone is reading a novel, the place they are most likely to put it down to tend to other things is at the end of a chapter or at a scene break. I’m not saying every scene break needs a cliffhanger, but it might be a good idea to sprinkle in some mini-cliffhangers to spur readers on to the next scene, and definitely a good idea to do something at the end of each chapter that will captivate readers and make it hard to put the book down. If the writer doesn’t make it hard to put the book down, they make it easy not to pick up again.

2.| Repetitive cliffhangers. The one I have seen several Indie novels use over and over again is the will they/won’t they cliffhanger in more than a few chapters. Repeating the same cliffhanger creates the-boy-who-cried-wolf scenario and quickly leads to disinterest. I read a certain fan-fiction-turned-major-Hollywood-film and found myself thinking oh good, they’re fighting again. Look, they’re in love again, I wonder if they’ll argue again…yep, yep, there it is…well, this chapter is about to end, so I guess they’ll think about breaking up, yep.

Inversely, some cliffhangers are unsuccessful because they came from far out in left field. If an author is writing an epic western drama, and the first fifteen chapters give no indication of science fiction but then out of nowhere an alien spaceship lands in the middle of a shootout at high-noon…that’s just…no. The cliffhanger needs to make more sense than that.

3.| Not enough emotional development. Cliffhangers should happen to characters in which your readers have invested some time. A writer can’t expect readers to be all that concerned someone mentioned once, sixteen chapters ago, was shot…There should be enough of a bond between the reader and the character the writer is inflicting fear/pain/harm upon that finding out what happened is a necessity.

If at the end of a chapter a writer wants to entice me by having the great uncle I’ve never heard of call to say he’s coughing up blood, I’m going to be left with questions, yes, but not ones the author wants me to ask.

Let’s look at couple of examples:

A.

After shopping, Leslie walked her usual path home. She and Greg had worked out a lot of their issues and she looked forward to their night. As she waited for the crosswalk, she blacked out and hit her head on the asphalt, moments before the bus was due to arrive.

B.

Dangling her shopping bags from her index finger, Leslie’s heart skipped a beat thinking of what Greg’s reaction would be to her new lingerie. They had worked through so many issues, and he’d taken therapy much more seriously than she ever imagined. Maybe we have a chance, she thought while waiting for the crosswalk light to give her permission to cross. Eleven years. She still couldn’t believe they’d made it to their anniversary. Her thoughts drifted to what wine would pair best with their dinner when her lungs failed to draw in her next breath. She looked down at her arms which now felt like anvils. She dropped her bags and fell forward, her head bouncing on the road’s fresh asphalt.

Onlookers screamed as a bus screeched to a halt.

I won’t believe you if you say gave you a more emotional response.

I just made that shit up, but let’s pretend that is the end of an amazing chapter. My readers are thinking oh, no! What happened to her? Did the bus hit her? Is she dead? OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!

I’ve successfully created a cliffhanger my readers are invested in, and they’ve decided to forego finishing the laundry to keep reading. Is my job as an author done?

Nope. A successful cliffhanger must be followed by its resolution—and a bad resolution will ruin the cliffhanger. How might a resolution kill the cliffhanger, you ask?

4.| Rushed resolutions. Cliffhangers are supposed to be a swift kick in the groin. They happen and then the writer enters a page break. Your reader should feel a reaction. They need to think oh shit! What just happened? I need to know! And be inspired to turn the page.

I’ve seen Indies who write a decent cliffhanger and then resolve it before they start the next chapter or scene, leaving no sense of urgency to turn the page. We don’t want this.

The resolution should usually come in the next scene or chapter, but not right away. Milk this emotional thing your reader has going on for a little while. Get them invested in the chapter. If the resolution happens in the first sentence or two, the reader isn’t likely to keep going, as they will have gotten the instant satisfaction of knowing what happened next.

Which sounds like a chapter opening that will get the most out of this emotional buck?

A:

Sitting up in her hospital bed, Leslie stretched and took a sip of cool water. I wonder where Greg is, I’d like to do a crossword puzzle together.

B:

The incessant beeping of machinery would be Greg’s undoing. He couldn’t peel his eyes from his wife, her face was so swollen he barely recognized her. All he wanted in the world was to trade places with her. He had been the one who screwed things up for so long, it wasn’t fair she had to fight this battle, too.

Greg closed his eyes and pictured their last fight, the one where he came so close to hitting her. He was a different person then. Never again, he thought.

“Greggy,” Leslie said, her voice soft and scratchy—just like the doctor warned would happen from the feeding tube. “Greggy, where I am I?”

If really sounds better to you, then you’re going to love a lot of Indie books.

Does the resolution always need to occur in the next chapter? No. Delayed satisfaction can be a powerful tool, but it shouldn’t feel forgotten. Maybe Leslie doesn’t wake up in the next chapter. Maybe there are two or three chapters where it is touch-and-go, but if in the next chapter Greg is out drinking with his buddies and never once mentions his wife, and in the next two or three chapters he starts seeing some chick named Hildi and finally in that fourth chapter Greg gets the phone call his wife has woken up…readers are going to be a little angry.

An author can also delay gratification by giving the resolution in smaller doses. Leslie is awake, but can she remember who she is? Can she walk? Will she be in a wheelchair? Will she ever dance again?

5.| No resolution at all. This is the king of cliffhanger mistakes. A writer has successfully gotten his reader to turn the page, desperate to find out what happens next, and then nothing ever happens. The cliffhanger has turned into a loose end. A plot hole. When, if, the reader finishes the book, they are going to be bummed they never found out what happened. This is not a good feeling when one has finished a book.

But what about endings, you ask?

If an author is writing a stand alone book, I caution using a cliffhanger at the end because of the fact there will be no resolution and the reader will be left unsatisfied. I can’t think of a time this is a good idea. Feel free to show me one in the comments.

If a writer plans on a sequel and wishes to employ a cliffhanger, the author should be aware that this cliffhanger isn’t just getting someone to turn over to the next chapter, but it must entice them to buy another book. People don’t part with money easily, so plan on making a humdinger of a cliffhanger.

Also keep in mind that no matter how good your cliffhanger, if you wait to publish the sequel, people will probably have forgotten the first book and the cliffhanger. So make sure the second book is ready relatively soon thereafter…if you’ve succeeded in developing an amazing cliffhanger, you’ll increase the sales of book two by leaps and bounds.

What is your favorite cliffhanger, either on the page or on screen?

That’s all we have today, my lovelies! Until next time, happy writing! xoxo


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