You’re on the edge of your seat, metaphorically or literally. You’re approaching the end of the chapter. The promised confrontation nears.
Boom! You reach the end and meet a tantalizing cliffhanger. The chapter closes with the character still in danger.
Though readers protest such cruel plot devices, cliffhangers are a helpful tool to writers. They keep readers sprinting through pages and evoke an enjoyable reaction, combining the perfect amount of tension and frustration that both satisfies and irks. However, to make cliffhangers worth the emotion readers spend on them, writers must understand the parameters and three types of cliffhangers that can be employed in various situations.
Disney’s 2010 film Tangled gives us several examples of how to implement cliffhangers.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Before I explain how to pull of cliffhangers, I need to address the occasionally annoying POV switch. After a slick cliffhanger, writers will sometimes want to prolong the tension, so they change the POV to a character who isn’t involved in the danger.
Unfortunately, when novice writers attempt this, it tempts readers to skip that POV, because they want to see what happens to the character who’s actually in jeopardy.
If you must switch POVs after a cliffhanger, you should be careful. The new POV must contain equally likable characters who are experiencing the same level of danger or tension as the previous POV. If it does not, readers must reset their minds to adjust to the calmer situation.
Here are a few quick ways to avoid losing readers when switching POVs:
- Always make the climax worth the wait. Don’t cheat readers by faking the danger or neglecting the consequences.
- Don’t completely omit the chapter climax without a good reason. Otherwise, readers will be discombobulated and scrambling to pick up the pieces when they return.
- If you change POVs, don’t stay in another POV for too long, because the tension readers feel will turn into aggravation.
Now that we’re equipped to handle POV switching, let’s learn how to construct an effective cliffhanger.
Cliffhanger #1: Cutting before the Climax
This is a common cliffhanger, and not one of my favorites. Writers end a chapter right before the climax or the collision with the scene’s problem.
In Tangled, this cliffhanger appears after Rapunzel’s song with the tavern full of ruffians and her and Flynn’s escape into the secret tunnels. In the following POVs, the soldiers locate the tunnel and the two thugs Flynn betrayed are set free. It’s clear that the soldiers and thugs will chase Rapunzel and Flynn. However, the scene shifts to a conversation between Flynn and Rapunzel. A potential point of collision has been set up. But before the inevitable clash, the film switches POVs.
However, even though the scene ends before the clash, the antagonistic forces have not spotted Rapunzel and Flynn and began pursuit. The tension doesn’t reach its full intensity. Viewers don’t have to slow down their brains to accept the next scene, because the action and pacing in the previous scene didn’t accelerate.
Imagine if instead the writers had let the soldiers find Rapunzel and Flynn, then threw us back into the tavern to witness the two thugs overcome their guard. That would have flustered us. One moment we’d be rigid, watching Maximus and the soldiers thunder after Flynn and Rapunzel, and the next we’d be jerked into a different setting with a smaller scale of action. Whiplash, am I right?
This cliffhanger can be hard to achieve because immense tension exists right before the climax of a scene, which is challenging to match when you swap POVs.
Cliffhanger #2: Stopping after Unexpected Complications
This cliffhanger is ideal for shocking readers. Remember how characters have a goal and a complication that obstructs them? The complication is often foreshadowed, but that doesn’t mean readers must know what it is. If you hide the problem, then spring it on readers and end the chapter after it is revealed, the tension will escalate.
Tangled unfortunately doesn’t contain this type of cliffhanger, but A Time to Speak by Nadine Brandes provides a wonderful example. In one scene, the characters are sneaking around a bad guy’s tower, staying out of sight. If discovered, the consequences would be astronomical, facing the characters with impossible odds. As a reader I dismissed this obstacle because I couldn’t fathom how the characters would get out of it; it was too risky and too impossible to overcome. But the characters were indeed discovered, and the chapter ends soon after. Cutting out after a twist like this created a cliffhanger that forced me to continue reading.
Though this scene breaks before a confrontation, it’s different from cliffhanger #1. This confrontation wasn’t expected, so in readers’ minds, the writer isn’t skipping out on the climax. Instead, an additional plane of conflict is added that readers didn’t anticipate. It’s a reward, not a cheat.
Cliffhanger #3: Promising Future Conflict
The cliffhangers we’ve discussed so far promise that a specific conflict awaits readers in the next chapter(s). In Tangled, viewers suspected a clash between Flynn and the castle guards after the cliffhanger, and their expectations are fulfilled. In A Time to Speak, conflict with the MC’s enemies was imminent in order for the MC to escape. We enter the next chapters expecting it.
Two cliffhangers promise more vague, gradual conflicts. They indicate some sort of friction will occur, but not what it will look like. These obscure conflicts develop before and after scene climaxes.
One is basically the unresolved conflict produced by the chapter’s climax. Readers realize that these threads will come into play later, but are unsure how. The mystery keeps them reading.
The other may be an unsettled conflict with a friend that plants a wedge in his relationship with the MC, a villain who escaped after a confrontation, or a threat from the antagonist.
Tangled executes this cliffhanger when Mother Gothel discovers Rapunzel is missing. She finds a poster of Flynn in her distress, and retrieves a knife. The audience perceives that this knife and Gothel’s desperation will resurface later, but they don’t know when. The loose thread leaves a nagging question that holds viewers’ attention until it is tied off.
POV breaks can be used here without losing readers as much, because the threat of conflict is a distant concern. The space between the cliffhanger and its resolution is often longer than those of the other two, so readers must be reminded of this lingering cliffhanger throughout the break.
Now you possess three different cliffhangers to torture your readers. Wield them well and wisely, writers. Readers may dislike you when you first pull out this tool, but once they finish the thrilling ride, they’ll appreciate your audacity.