We’ve all seen it: headlines for web articles that run something like, “She let a stranger into her house. What happened next will shock you!” I don’t know about you, but I find such headlines so annoying I usually refuse to click on them, no matter which website they point to. Sometimes they actually do link to an article worth reading, but most of the time the article itself is anti-climactic compared to the headline. It’s a classic over-sell; get you interested in what the surprise might be in order to get you to click through, but it seldom measures up to the billing.
This sort of writing, however, got its start in prose. We’re all familiar with the cliff-hanger, where the writer leaves the protagonist in a dire situation at the end of chapter or a book in order to keep the reader wanting more. Entire genres rely on this technique. But with any tool in a writer’s toolbox, you have to know how to use it. If not careful, the reader may end up feeling manipulated and used, and they’ll do what I do with web articles–stop reading. Here are a few thoughts on how to employ cliff-hangers appropriately.
Make the pay-off worth the wait. Even if “the wait” is only the time needed to turn the page, there needs to be some sort of reward to the reader for turning that page that fits the mood of the story. If, for example, you end a chapter with “Bill watched the last thug fall and stepped back to survey the room for further threats. There was a loud bang”, if the start of the next chapter is “Bill whirled to see a little kid holding the fragments of a helium balloon and wearing a startled expression”, this had better be a humorous work. If this is a thriller your readers are going to be disappointed–if not angry with you. The pay-off not only doesn’t feel worth it, but it feels like a cheap way to get them to turn the page.
Pay off their wait in multiple ways. If the “loud bang” above turns out to be Bill’s arch nemesis busting open the door and storming in with the backup he’d threatened to get a couple chapters ago, you get to pay off both the immediate suspense and the longer-term suspense at the same time, potentially providing even more reader satisfaction.
It’s okay to relax the tension. Unless you’re writing a suspense-thriller (and perhaps even then) it’s okay to leave a chapter feeling something has been resolved. The readers need a chance to breathe, too, or get up and use the bathroom, get a snack, or whatever before they dive back into the action. If every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger they eventually get frustrated that the action and tension keep ratcheting upward. If you’re nearing the climax of the book, go ahead, but otherwise, it’s okay to stop and take a breath now and then.
Occasional deflation may be okay. Back to the example of the kid with the balloon. If this is a serious thriller that kid is going to seem out of place and the cliff-hanger will come across as a cheap ploy. There’s no reason for that kid to be there, other than to startle us into turning the page.
But what if instead that sudden bang was Bill’s partner arriving with backup after Bill has already defeated all the thugs? It’s more in keeping with the tone of the story, and yet introduces an element of humor when Joe arrives yet again too late to save the day? It will pay off the reader’s attention in a way that seems less like a gimmick and more like a chance to enjoy the characters. Bill, after all, didn’t know the bang was Joe, either, so the reader can relate to Bill’s sudden tension, followed by the let-down of the problem not being so serious.
Here’s just a few of my thoughts on when to use and not use cliff-hangers. Most importantly, just remember what it’s like to be a reader. Don’t manipulate your reader. They’ll resent it and you. Using suspense well, however, can help keep your reader engaged and your pacing snappy.