And Then…: Cliffhangers

As she peered into the dusk-dimmed room, a feeling of deep unease seeped into her chilled skin. It was quiet. The single window was too dirty and too high up for her to see outside.
Was she safe? Was she trapped? Where was he?

Creak. Creak. Creak.
Behind her? She whirled around.
Nothing. She was safe after all.
“And what are you looking for over there?” His voice was a mere whisper. His breath fluttered the ends of her hair.
He was in the room, behind her now.
There was no time to gasp before –

Stay tuned! Don’t worry, the sequel will come out shortly, and by shortly we mean sometime in six months to a year.

Cliffhangers! If you’ve ever read a series, or any story with an intense plotline, you’ve probably come across them. TV episodes like to use them too, to lure viewers into watching the next episode. They are an excellent writing tool, a way to build up tension and then cut it off and hook readers into continuing your series, or following on to the next chapter.

Cliffhangers and I have a love/hate relationship. I love writing them, and I absolutely hate reading them. I get to the last page and I’m thinking, “What? That’s where it ends? What’s going to happen to her? What does he want? Waaaaait! You can’t just leave me here! This tension is too much! I’m going to have a heart attack! This author is evil! Is the next book out yet? The summer of NEXT YEAR?! I can’t wait that long!” I suppose you can say that I am a prime target for cliffhanging strategies. I get hooked in and fall for them every time.

When I write, I tend to use a variety of cliffhangers throughout a given story, especially at the end of chapters (after all, they work don’t they?). I love the feeling of tension as you stare at that blank gap after the cliffhanging sentence and ask yourself, “…and?” As a writer, I have always enjoyed my reader’s reactions to the cliffhangers I’ve written. Their intense excitement and frustration is gratifying (and not all in a sadistic way); their reaction assures me that they were interested enough in my story to be irritated that it ended in a big moment. What could be more rewarding than an interested reader?

A good cliffhanger doesn’t always have to be a moment of near death or terror. Some of the greatest cliffhangers I’ve read were actually in romance novels. Amusing or awkward cliffhangers can be just as effective as those used in action/thriller etc. All it needs is a good buildup and a dramatic end point that tantalizes without being either too hazy or too telling. Just remember that you need to resolve your cliffhanger in the next installment, or there will be readers who will want to learn voodoo to your detriment. For example…

I once watched an anime series called Spiral. It was labeled as a mystery type story, which sounded really interesting. In the first episode they brought up some intriguing questions: “Who are the Blade Children?” and “Where is Kiyotaka Narumi [main character’s brother]?” I continued watching, waiting to hear the answer as the series got more intense and the mystery surrounding the Blade Children and the disappearance of the brother got more clouded and violent. Before I knew it, it was the last episode. I watched with great expectation as the main character battled it out with the antagonist. Then the series was over, and I realized that I still didn’t know who the Blade Children were, the brother was still missing, and both the main character and I still had no idea what was really going on. I sat back. WHAT WAS THAT?! There is a screenwriter out there whom I have cursed to a very bad place.

So please dear writers, use cliffhangers wisely, and always answer the questions you have posed in your stories.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. wovenstrands
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 16:18:36

    OMG that’s what Gossip Girl is like and Pretty little Liars they better tell us who they are or someone is getting a voodoo curse lol.


  2. Andy Straub-Walden
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 22:25:36

    I couldn’t agree more. Loose ends need to be tied. I use to think leaving them open added to the sense of mystery, but I came to realize it just made readers confused. A well composed story ties particuliar loose ends at just the right time; some are more immediate than others. In serieses, questions particuliar to an installment should be answered by the end of the book, but overall mysteries of the story can wait; Like an ongoing cliffhanger.


  3. HaleyWhitehall
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 06:10:39

    Another great post Jennifer! I was just thinking about writing a post about cliffhangers but you beat me to it. Great minds think alike 🙂

    You made a good point that cliffhangers do not have to be a moment of near death or terror. I think this is often not understood. I find some of the most powerful cliffhangers are questions.

    Loose ends do need to be tied but some can be left hanging if you are planning to answer them in a sequel as long as they are not important to the current book’s plot. Did that make any sense?


  4. nkeda14
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 22:04:07

    Love this! SO TRUE! I just finished Entice by Carrie Jones (3rd book in a 4 book series) and I almost threw the book at the wall! The tension was unbearable, and I think I will die before the fourth comes out NEXT YEAR :S

    nice post!


  5. Jennifer Mandelas
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 21:51:49

    It’s the worst when you know you’re going to have to wait to get answers for a year, or longer.


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