Being a Better Writer: Cliffhangers

Afternoon readers! I hope your weekend was exemplary! Mine was actually pretty rough: I twisted my lower back again and got a vertebrae out of position. It’s … not  comfortable, especially as it aggravated a muscle imbalance in my pelvis (which was due to one knee being weaker than the other) and made all those muscles go berserk … Long story short, there was a period on Friday, before I found an exercise video that made these muscles release, where even moving could make me gasp in pain.

Yay! More material for another book!

Anyway, it definitely disrupted my weekend. I spent my days lying on the floor, trying to keep my back as straight as possible to try and even things up. Thanks to a massage therapist, the muscles in my back and pelvis have mostly relaxed, but the vertebrae is still out of position, so I’ve got an appointment with a chiropractor …

Anyway, point being I almost cancelled today’s Being a Better Writer so that I could catch up on things … but that wouldn’t really be fair. Besides, I’ve got some good topics coming up, and really want to get to them. So, without any further talk, let’s get to today’s topic: the cliffhanger.

Cliffhangers are a pretty classic bit of storytelling, as well as pretty self-explanatory. At least, as a concept. A cliffhanger is when you end a chapter or a story with a character hanging from a cliff in some fashion. Not a literal cliff (at least, not always), but in a sense that the protagonist is under an imminent or some sort of danger. And at the most basic, that’s pretty much all you need to know: End a chapter or a story on a moment where your characters are in peril. This ratchets up the tension, and keeps your reader wanting to turn the next page. But is that all there is to it? Well … no. Because like anything else in writing, there are good and bad ways to do this, and other elements such as pacing to take into consideration.

Let’s talk about that last one first. Sometimes authors will use a cliffhanger as a “pacing bandaid,” a way to heighten the tension after a long lull in activity. This can be good, but it can also come off poorly.

Don’t get me wrong, a cliffhanger is a great way to “jerk” the pacing of your story out of a breather moment and back into the action. For example, a character on the run escapes his pursuers and breaths easy for a few pages, only to open a door and come face to surprised face with his foes, who are just as shocked as he is. End scene. There, the character got away from peril (winding down), took a breather (audience relaxes), and then jumped back into peril (audience wound back up after breather). That’s a pretty good set pace—we’ve got action, a brief break, and then a cliffhanger that immediately spikes it back up again.

But sometimes an author will use the cliffhanger as a way to try and get that spike there during something that’s too long of a lull, or to introduce the action and ramp up missing action. They’ve got a long, long patch of nothing happening in the story, so they’re introduce a cliffhanger to try and break that up, but out of place. Before when we’ve talked about pacing, we’ve spoken of how there’s a “rhythm” to it. Rising action, relax, rising action, relax. Sort of like breathing.

Well, what we’re speaking of here is when you have a story that has nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing … and then the author panics and throws in a cliffhanger to try and “catch up” the story’s level of action/peril/whatever to what they wanted it to be. In other words, there’s no “rising action,” but a flat level until the author suddenly thinks “Whoa, right, tension!” and uses a cliffhanger to try and “jump” the story to that level.

Yeah, don’t do this. A cliffhanger isn’t a magic tool to suddenly bring your story up to a level of tension that it hasn’t been close to beforehand, to suddenly bring about a rhythm where there wasn’t one before. It’s to bring that level of tension back, or (if you noted the “hasn’t been close to” wording above) bring it back to slightly above what it was before.

For example, let’s look at that pursuit clip above. Protagonist is running from antagonists, right? Let’s say that’s a tension level of “4” (this is an entirely arbitrary number, just to suit our purposes). Then they get away for a little bit. Tension level 1, or maybe 2 depending on how alert and tense the character is. Then they open the door and it’s the antagonists, having just had the fortune to be right there, closer than they’ve ever been! Suddenly, the chapter ends on a tension level of 5!

Again, the numbers are arbitrary. The point is that the cliffhanger fits to the level of escalating tension. That’s where this “pacing band-aid” goes wrong. It expects to take a story that’s been at a 1 or maybe a 2 all book, and halfway through leap it to a 5 or a 6.

This isn’t what a cliffhanger is supposed to do. Yes, a cliffhanger brings peril, but it doesn’t jump stories far above that which they’ve presented. If you read good action novels, you’ll notice that early cliffhangers don’t jump to a 5, but will escalate just a little more. Story was at a 2? The cliffhanger will jump to a 2.5. It’s a form of rising action that builds. If you’re thinking of a graph, think of a ledge rather than a cliff. Too much of a jump is jarring and will feel out-of-place.

Now, getting back to where this started, does this mean that a cliffhanger can not be used as a bandaid for a long lull? Of course not! Plenty of action writers will advise throwing some sort of action event into something that’s getting boring to break up monotony, which includes cliffhangers, and have it work, even though it’s a “band-aid.” But they don’t try to jump the story past what it is. In fact, sometimes it’ll be a lower “level” of tension than what the next climax will be, to either ease into that rising tension or to keep the audience entertained. So a 4 might follow a lull of a 2, have a cliffhanger that lasts a little bit of a 2.5, then down to 2 for a moment, and then lead into a 3 and rise up to the next climax of 5. Make sense?

Okay, enough on pacing. We’ve talked on pacing (and a little on placement by association), so now let’s talk about the mechanics of a cliffhanger itself. Because there is more to it than simply “peril.” In fact, there are some common mistakes that writers—even experienced ones—make when using cliffhangers.

For example, one of the biggest mistakes you can make, especially multiple times, is the fake cliffhanger.

Okay, this one’s going to take a bit to explain. So one of the most common uses of a cliffhanger, outside of using it to escalate tension, is to keep a reader locked into the story by escalating tension at the end of a chapter. A character is hanging from a cliff, and you want to know what’s going to happen to them next! They’re in peril, and you’ll only know how it resolves if you keep reading … so you’d better put off going to sleep for a few more minutes and turn the page!

Nothing wrong with this. It’s a narrative tool, and done well, the audience will appreciate it more than they will regret the loss of sleep.

But not always. Especially not if your cliffhanger is false. What do I mean by that? I mean a cliffhanger that appears to put your character or characters in peril but, upon the first few paragraphs, or even the first paragraph of the next page, is revealed to be a misunderstanding, mistake, or misconception of some kind.

These are risky for multiple reasons. While they seem like a good idea because it keeps your reader invested for a few more pages, once a reader gets used to the idea of what you’re doing, they’ll quickly find themselves being frustrated or even bored by your “cliffhangers” because they’ll see them for what they are: fake. Even if a real one shows up, it won’t have the same impact as it would have once had, because the reader has been trained not to invest in the cliffhanger, to not get sucked into it.

Worse, remember how a cliffhanger can be used to bring a nice bump to the pacing, and I said you want a ledge, not a cliff? Well, a fake cliffhanger can be a “cliff” downwards, dropping the tension out of the story.

For example, a fairly notorious book I read last year had a sequence that ended on a cliffhanger. I won’t specify the book (as usual), but in involved a scene in space where a the chapter ended with a hatch slamming shut behind a protagonist (betrayed!) and the decompression alarm going off (imminent death!) … which in the moment, was like “oh at last” since not much had happened in the last few chapters.

And then the very next chapter? No crisis, no disaster. The hatch had slammed shut not because the protagonist had been stabbed in the back, but because of differing air pressure. The alarm was caused by a tiny leak (unrelated), and because of how pressure works, the protagonist just put their hand over it.

In essence, the first half of the next chapter was deconstructing the cliffhanger and explaining to the audience that it wasn’t a cliffhanger at all!

Boy, right in the middle of a big old segment of nothing in that book, that really sucked the wind out of its sails. Worse, it felt like a cop-out. Rather than having anything happen, the author had spent time explaining how nothing had happened. The end result was a feeling of betrayal and dissatisfaction.

What about overuse of a cliffhanger? That’s an issue as well. Even if your cliffhanger is a well-developed one, if you use one at the end of a chapter, well … think back to pacing. That rhythm. Ever been in a car that’s going over a lot of small bumps—ripples, almost, if you will—very fast? And how uncomfortable it is?

That’s pretty much what having a cliffhanger every chapter can do for your pacing. Even if they’re real cliffhangers, that rapid up-and-down, chapter after chapter, can really wear on your readers. It grinds them down.

Okay, there’s one more thing I want to talk about with regard to not using cliffhangers well, and then, after all of this, we’ll talk about good ways to use them: lack of resolution.

Simply put, you can’t, or rather shouldn’t, introduce a cliffhanger that begs some question, any question, and then doesn’t resolve it. For example, if we go with the stock “hanging from a cliff” idea of a cliffhanger, and our protagonist has fallen over the edge of a cliff, hanging by their fingertips … don’t refuse to resolve that cliffhanger. Don’t leave them hanging from the cliff in the next scene, or solve it off camera.

Or suppose we go with the “character being chased opens a door and there the antagonist is” option. Don’t fail to resolve that by having the character show up later and say “Eh, I got away” when asked. Or having them run, the chase on anew, only to get away or end up in the exact same situation they were at the beginning of the chapter. In other words, the cliffhanger didn’t resolve, just stretched out a little.

Now, with this particular case, you really have to look at things closely. For example, if our protagonist is hanging from a cliff, and then in the next chapter realizes they can drop to a ledge, but they’re still on the cliff, and proceeds to work their way down, then they’re “resolving” the cliffhanger until they’re no longer in danger. And you can stretch this resolution out based on what you want to do.

But similar to having a fake cliffhanger, having a cliffhanger that just doesn’t resolve, or is left untouched on, and is just there to trick you into reading a bit further, well … it’s not cool. Your readers won’t appreciate it.

Now, in that vein, we need to talk about ending cliffhangers. No, not stingers. Those are different. But an ending cliffhanger, since that won’t resolve until the next book.

Okay, look, there are good and bad ways to do an ending cliffhanger. They’re not bad, per se, but they can be, and have a high likelihood to be. In my experience, you have to watch out for three things.

First, your next book needs to deliver a resolution to said cliffhanger. Ever read a book that ends with an ambush, and then the second book opens slowly after said ambush fight is over? Yeah, that’s not really a resolution, that’s the whole “Eh, I got away” answer. Sometimes (very rarely) you can get away with this, but it often can feel like a cop-out to simply skip the actual resolution to a cliffhanger promised in another book.

Second, you can’t just have them come out of nowhere. There was a book I read once, which I’ve mentioned before for this bit of poor writing, where in the last page, after everything had worked out pretty well and the characters were on their way home, they fell victim to the classic “ambush cliffhanger.”

The thing was, this ambush was in the last paragraph on the last page, and out of nowhere. None of it had been hinted at, suggested, or indicated. It was just “sudden peril, read the next book to see what happens!”

Cliffhanger at the end? Sure. Completely random with no ties to anything? Eeh, less interesting.

Third, lastly and most important, do not make your cliffhanger bigger than the climax.

This is what I like to call the Halo 2 problem, though plenty of other properties have done this as a sequel-bait (or in the case of the deeply underrated 2011 comedic version of The Three Muskateers, played it for laughs), Halo 2 undoubtedly left its mark an entire generation of players as the worst offender of this.

For those of you who aren’t nodding your heads in solemn understanding, Halo 2‘s climax was all about stopping an alien alliance known as the Covenant from activating one of the titular seven Halo rings, which they believed would guide the worthy to the afterlife but in fact just sterilized all life in a massive radius around it as a last-ditch superweapon against an ancient foe the ring’s creators had lost the battle with.

Long story.

Anyway, the climax of the game sees the ring active and powering up, and one of the game’s two protagonist facing down Tartarus, Chieftain of the Jiralhanea, in the control room in an attempt to stop the weapon from firing (and wiping out a sixth of the galaxy, mankind and many other species in the process). After a lengthy, brutal battle, the protagonist succeeds, and the ring … goes into standby mode, communicating with the other six rings.

Uh-oh. Then one of the installation AIs explains that the near-firing has put the entire system on alert. All seven rings are now preparing to fire, and waiting for a master fire or shutdown signal to be sent out from “the Ark.” The one protagonist asks “And where, Oracle, is that?”

Cut to Earth, the other protagonist arriving as a stowaway on a dreadnought bound for the Ark, and when asked what he’s doing, he replies “Finishing this fight.”

And … black. Yup. The ending of Halo 2 was a colossal misstep. Why? Because the cliffhanger was a bigger deal than the climax, and was left unresolved for years as the next Halo game had just barely begun development. The climax of 2 was easily a 9 on our imaginary tension scale … and after it had wound down a bit, the cliffhanger at the end was of an 11. Now the whole galaxy is at risk, everything’s coming online, etc etc.

That’s a bad cliffhanger. You want to hint that things are worse, like we do with a stinger? That’s okay. But Halo 2 went and took things far beyond what they had been in the climax, and then just … ended. When the audience was quite literally thinking that the real climax was about to begin. Instead, it was years before they were able to get it. And while the finale was amazing, and delivered on its promise … 2 still stands as a memory of how not to do an ending cliffhanger.

So, don’t fail to resolve the cliffhanger in the next book. Don’t have the cliffhanger come out of nowhere. And definitely don’t make the cliffhanger more important than the climax.

Okay, we’ve talked a lot about what makes cliffhangers bad. But what about trying to write a good cliffhanger. What about using them well?

For starters, avoid the bad. Honestly, the reason I talked about all the mistakes first is because I feel like with cliffhangers, as long as you avoid the errors people make, a good cliffhanger isn’t going to be an issue. If you write a cliffhanger that doesn’t make any of these mistakes, then you’ve probably got a good cliffhanger and don’t have to worry about it.

But if you’re really worried about getting that cliffhanger just right, here are a few things you can make sure to do.

First, keep the cliffhanger consistent. It can be a surprise, sure, but keep it internally in-tone with the story. If you’re writing an action-packed shoot-em-up, don’t have the cliffhanger be something out of a Soap Opera Romance. Have it be consistent with the tone and story.

Second, you can work it into your plot. Cliffhangers can be shocking events, but don’t be afraid to have them carry large connotations for the characters and story as they resolve. They don’t just have to be a character dangling from a ledge, they can be a character dangling from a ledge after being betrayed by someone they thought was an ally. The injury they sustain in the resolution can stay with them for a while, maybe forever.

In other words, make them impactful. You can do that. Give them weight.

Lastly, if you do leave the audience on a cliffhanger, make it one the audience can’t solve in a few seconds, or at least one that they can’t see a clean resolution to. Someone kicking in the door and drawing a bead on a protagonist can work, but less so if the reader knows that the protagonist can just slam the door shut on them or some other form of quick solution before overpowering their assailant.

In other words, make that resolution tough and deliver on the anticipation. If the reader sees a quick, clean way out, the anticipation might be lost. Surprise them, keep them involved, and they’ll keep turning the pages.

All right, so that’s cliffhangers. Remember, you want them to fit the rhythm of your pacing. Make it a real cliffhanger, with a resolution and everything. Don’t make it fake. And if it’s at the end, don’t upstage your climax, have it tie in, and resolve it in the next book.

Well, that’s pretty much all I have to say on that. Good luck, now get writing!

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