I’ve heard a lot of audience members say that they hate cliffhangers. But do you want to know a secret? I kinda love a good cliffhanger (along with everything else I’m not supposed to love, like *cough cough* prologues *cough cough* teasers).
So today we are going to talk about cliffhangers: why we should use them, mistakes people make with them, and four different types. I’ll probably be bringing up some points you hadn’t thought of before, so even if you don’t much like cliffhangers, you might want to stick around. Who knows, maybe you’ll have more respect for them by the end.
And in case you need a little refresher, a cliffhanger is when the narrative suddenly cuts away from showing or revealing something important to the audience. This creates suspense by leaving a critical issue unresolved. It lacks closure.
Why Use Cliffhangers?
If people say they hate cliffhangers, why use them?
The answer you will hear most often is that by delaying information, we get the audience to stick around longer. We get them to turn the next page, start the next episode, or buy the next book.
While that is a valid reason, I admit it sounds shallow. I think there is more to them than that.
Cliffhangers are great for another reason: They get the audience to participate in the story.
One of the best things about cliffhangers is the fact they cut away from an intense moment. This often forces the audience to pause and think.
If a murderer is about to be unmasked, this gives the audience a moment to pause and think who they think the murderer is. It may give them a second to change their guess as to who the murderer is.
If something shocking just happened, it gives the audience a moment to consider the ramifications of that.
If a confrontation is about to take place, a cliffhanger gives the audience a second to anticipate how that is going to play out.
In some cases, a cliffhanger may simply get the audience to participate by asking “What would you do?”
Other than that, cliffhangers are great at emphasizing tense situations. By abruptly cutting away, we force the audience to sit with shock, worry, wonder, or what have you, a little longer.
It can make the moment feel a little more dramatic.
As an audience member, I often love cliffhangers for the second reason: I am asked to pause and think. If a cliffhanger comes at the end of an installment in a series, it gives me time to talk with others about what I think might happen next or what I think the cliffhanger means.
However, not all cliffhangers function the same, and not all ask for much participation.
Nonetheless, cliffhangers aren’t always about torturing the audience. Sometimes there is a method to all the madness. 😉
Cliffhanger Mistakes (& Rule Breaking)
While cliffhangers can work well to keep an audience interested in a story, they can’t replace other elements of a good story.
Sometimes newer writers will throw in a cliffhanger to try to make the story interesting.
But really, ideally, no story should need cliffhangers to be interesting (more on this in a sec). No story should need cliffhangers to keep the audience reading. A strong story should be able to do that without them.
Cliffhangers are a tool that, when properly used, enhance what is already there.
They aren’t meant to create tension and suspense over nothing. (Usually–all rules can be broken).
Another problem that can come up is when a writer uses cliffhangers and then doesn’t deliver on what’s promised. This makes the moment anticlimactic.
For example, say the protagonist runs into a room to find his loved one bleeding, then we cut away. This is the cliffhanger. When the story cuts back to the scene, the blood turns out to actually be ketchup. This will probably be a disappointment to the audience because they expected something serious.
In other words, it undercuts the tension the story has built up.
It tried to make something out of nothing.
If a writer does this repeatedly, the story loses power and can begin to drag, or worse, become annoying.
However, like everything, this is not to say you can never undercut the build-up effectively. A writer may want to undercut the tension and then surprise the audience with something worse.
So maybe the blood is actually ketchup–the protagonist relaxes, the loved one laughs, the audience breathes a sigh of relief (and maybe even gives an eye roll)–and then BAM! A burglar breaks into the house!
Okay, that may be a little dramatic, but you get the idea. The point is to undercut the tension only to surprise the audience soon after. In this sense, the writer arguably still delivers on the promise of danger, but in an unexpected (though still satisfying) way.
Sometimes undercutting tension can be useful in playing with the audience’s expectations. I’m sure we’ve all seen scary movies like this: a babysitter walks down a long dark hall while creepy music crescendoes–only to have her phone ring innocently and make us jump. Later in the story, something actually scary may happen instead. This can make it difficult for the audience to anticipate the emotional outcome. It can also help set the tone of the piece.
So it’s not always bad to break the rules–which in this case would mean, they aren’t really “mistakes” since they are done intentionally.
The main thing is not to write cliffhangers that are ultimately going to be a disappointment or to write a story that relies only on cliffhangers to get the audience to keep reading.
Understanding the Backbone of Cliffhangers
For the next bit, I’m going to talk a little about story structure, and then relate it back to cliffhangers, so stay with me.
As we’ve talked about before, in a well-structured story, everything makes this shape–whether it’s a scene, sequence, act, or whole story. And it can even fit in smaller pieces inside a scene. It’s essentially like a nesting doll or a fractal.
The climactic moment is sometimes called a turning point because it “turns” the direction of the story.
This moment can only be one of two things (well, or both of them): a revelation, or an action.
These are the only two ways to turn a story.
This is most obvious in the overall plot level because that is what we are most familiar with. THEE climactic moment will either be a revelation or an action and often it’s both.
It might be a revelation that leads to an action. Or it might be an action that leads to a revelation.
For example, the protagonist may have an epiphany (a revelation, and often a thematic one) that informs him how to defeat the antagonist, so the protagonist takes that action. Alternatively, the protagonist takes an action to defeat the antagonist, and the result leads to a realization. (Generally speaking.)
Whatever it is, and in whatever it is (scene, sequence, act, or whole plot), that’s the turning point.
If you are working with a unit smaller than the whole plot, this shape then repeats itself, for example:
|Here the shape repeats with each act.|
|Here the shape repeats with each sequence.|
|Here the shape repeats with each scene.|
This means that in a great story, you will have plenty of turning points–it’s just that a turning point of a scene may be smaller and less dramatic than the climactic turning point of the whole plot, but it’s nonetheless significant.
For example, the climactic moment of a murder mystery may be unmasking the serial killer.
But the climactic moment of the opening scene may be discovering the dead body of his first victim.
This means, that ideally, you will be having lots and lots of turning points throughout a story. If every scene has a turning point, that means you’ll have at least one turning point in each scene (yeah, I know, that sounds redundant, but bear with me).
This innately creates a story that keeps readers interested because the situation is constantly changing and evolving.
If the structure of your story is solid, then creating a cliffhanger isn’t so much about asking “How do I come up with a great cliffhanger?” but instead, “Where do I cut away to make a great cliffhanger?”
In short, this means you use the cliffhanger to enhance the story that already exists. You don’t use it to substitute an element.
Now, with that said, it’s possible to brainstorm a cliffhanger on a whim and then work it in as an important component of a story. The creative process can become a chicken vs. egg experience.
The idea is not to rely on cliffhangers to make a story compelling.
So next we will talk about four types of cliffhangers based on the basic structure, then I will use an example to show multiple places that would work well to create a cliffhanger.
The four types of cliffhangers for this post are called: Pre-point Cliffhanger, Climactic Cliffhanger, Post-point Cliffhanger, and Post-hook Cliffhanger.
They don’t really have official names, so that’s me making them up.
Let’s dig in!
1. Pre-point Cliffhanger
In the Pre-point Cliffhanger, the narrative is cut just before the turning point. It might cut to a different plotline or it might be the end of the chapter or what have you. But the cliffhanger works by building up to the point with a rising action and then making the audience wait for the climactic moment.
If you are a cliffhanger-hater, this is probably the type you hate most 😆. The story builds up to a critical moment, only to have it interrupted.
As an example of a Pre-point Cliffhanger, say we are following the Mystery Gang as they investigate something supernatural. Just as they are about to unmask the ghost/zombie/banshee/whatever, the show cuts to a commercial. That’s what this cliffhanger is like.
Another example may be a detective who’s just about to put all the clues together, when the chapter ends and the text switches to another plotline.
In some cases, the character may actually reach that turning point, but the audience doesn’t. For example, we could show and imply that the detective has solved the case, but not share with the audience what her realization is.
Or alternatively, we could show Fred from the Mystery Gang unmask the ghost, but not show who the ghost actually is.
All of these examples relate to a turning point based on a revelation, but you can do this with an action turning point as well.
You may have the antagonist whip out a gun to shoot the protagonist’s best friend and cut away just before he pulls the trigger.
In a Pre-point Cliffhanger, the audience is usually anticipating an outcome or result.
2. Climactic Cliffhanger
In a Climactic Cliffhanger, the story cuts away mid-turning point. I could just as well call it a “Mid-point Cliffhanger” except that that creates ambiguity, since “midpoint” is already an existing writing term.
Some climactic moments have more than one turn. Remember how I gave an example earlier, about a climax that utilizes both a revelation and an action? Sometimes you can cut away between the two to create a great cliffhanger.
The protagonist may have a massive realization that begs immediate action. Get to the realization, make sure it implies a necessary action, and then cut away. That will keep the audience wanting to come back for more (or give them time to react or think).
It is not necessary that the turns be opposite types. You can sever two revelations, or you can sever two actions.
For example, you may set up a climactic moment that implies, if so-and-so does this, the protagonist will have to do that. If the antagonist aims at the protagonist’s friend and pulls the trigger, the protagonist will have to jump in front of the speeding bullet because the friend is necessary to save the world and he is not. You can cut away after the trigger is pulled and before the protagonist jumps out.
Obviously what works and what doesn’t depends on the setup and rising action, and in order to do this cliffhanger, the climactic moment must have multiple turns.
3. Post-point Cliffhanger
A Post-point Cliffhanger happens (you guessed it,) after the turning point.
This may not work in all situations.
But often just after a turning point, the audience is left wondering, Now what will they do? Or perhaps they will be looking for meaning, But why did that happen?
Let’s look back at the Mystery Gang.
Fred unmasks the ghost.
It’s George the electrician!
The next question that innately comes up is, why? Why did George do this? What is his motive?
The show creates a cliffhanger by cutting to a commercial, so we have time to wonder about George.
This is a revelation example. Let’s consider an action.
The antagonist shoots the protagonist’s friend, but the protagonist jumps in front and gets hit instead. Another ally quickly subdues the antagonist, but the protagonist lies bleeding out.
The next question that comes up is, will the protagonist be okay? What will happen now?
I’ll tell you what–it’s time to cut away and create a Post-point Cliffhanger!
In a Post-point Cliffhanger, the audience is anticipating meaning and explanation (why?), and wondering what the new direction or goal will be (now what?).
(To some extent, as a lot of these concepts overlap.)
4. Post-hook Cliffhanger
Basic story structure is a repeating shape. This means after the falling action, we will begin a new rising action. Often this starts with a hook or an incident that disrupts the characters’ course. You can create a great cliffhanger by cutting away just after that hook or disruption.
A great place you will see this sort of thing used a lot is in a series. We have the climax of the plot, the falling action, and then there is a subtle new rising action–the promise of future problems–which can be developed into a cliffhanger.
For example, perhaps our protagonist defeats a supernatural villain. She goes home as we have the falling action. All seems safe. But in the last chapter, we show that the supernatural villain is actually still alive, and his apparent “defeat” is actually part of a bigger master plan. He releases something deadly that will strike the protagonist’s loved ones. Then the book ends.
That is what this cliffhanger looks like.
But it can happen on a smaller scale, too. We could have the falling action of a scene, then the beginning of the next scene, then bam, something that gets us to fear or dread or wonder about what happens next, before we cut away to something else.
The Post-hook Cliffhanger usually occurs after something unexpected or after laying out the stakes. This begins to build the next rising action.
A word to the wise: The reason I mentioned this cliffhanger last is because it’s pretty much impossible to open a brand-new story with a cliffhanger. And a cliffhanger is only really a cliffhanger after the audience has gotten invested in the story.
I mean, you can’t really start a story with a cliffhanger, because there is no build-up yet. What you can do is build up to the very first turning point and create a cliffhanger. But the very first hook can’t really be a cliffhanger–at least not very easily. I mean, it’d be way too early to cut away!
Placing the Cliffhanger (Example of all 4 Types)
As I said earlier, if your story is structured well, it will have a lot of turning points (and hooks), so the question becomes, where do we sever the story to create a great cliffhanger? Not how do we throw in a great cliffhanger? (Generally speaking.)
Not every placement will work for every scene. For example, sometimes it’s impossible to do a Climactic Cliffhanger because the climactic moment only has one turn, which you can’t split in half.
Let’s look at an example where we could choose any one of them.
Now, I usually try not to use examples from my own work for several reasons, but since it’s fresh on my mind and proves the point (and I can offer insight into my thought process), I’m gonna pull from a scene I’ve been playing around with.
One of the plotlines of one of my manuscripts is a murder mystery (though it’s not the primary plotline). The scene I’ve been working on is the obligatory find-the-dead-body scene. But because I’m working with fantasy, the situation is a little different.
The setup is this: The viewpoint character, Scott, knows that an acquaintance, Allie, is dead somewhere in the forest (this information was obtained through a magic system). Assuming she must have fallen off a ledge, Scott thinks he knows the whereabouts of her body. A small search party is formed, and Scott breaks away to search on his own.
Scott’s goal is to find the dead body. So the discovery of the body is the climactic moment of the scene.
However, there are several turns:
– At the end of the rising action (the search), Scott catches sight of what he thinks is a body.
– But as he draws near, he realizes it isn’t Allie. It’s Allie’s best friend, Kinsley.
– As he arrives at the body, he sees she didn’t die from an accident or predator. This was murder.
– Knowing that this will cause major problems for him (it would take too long to explain, but it relates to the magic system), Scott begins altering the site and messing up the evidence.
– While doing this, he hears another search party member approaching and knows this is gonna look real bad if he’s caught red-handed.
That’s the basic shape of the scene.
Pre-point Cliffhanger: If I cut away when Scott thinks he sees a body, this creates a Pre-point Cliffhanger. The audience is left wondering if he finally found Allie. They’re anticipating a specific outcome.
Climactic Cliffhanger: If I cut away when Scott realizes it’s Kinsley, this creates a Climactic Cliffhanger. This is because the climax–finding the dead body (action)–has other turns: It’s not Allie (revelation). And it’s murder (revelation). So I can sever the turns.
Post-point Cliffhanger: If I cut away after Scott realizes it’s murder, this creates a Post-point Cliffhanger. Why? Because the climax is finding (and learning) about the dead body. We’ve done that. The questions the reader now innately has is, Now what? And Why? He or she searches for explanations and meaning.
Post-hook Cliffhanger: Now that the body has been discovered, we begin a falling action. How do we address and tie up this situation? Well, Scott decides you do that by altering the site and evidence. But then someone starts coming toward him–will he get caught? This is a hook to a new climb. The rising action will deal with possibly being caught. So I can create a cliffhanger by cutting away after the hook.
Each of these options has a slightly different effect. I don’t find the Pre-point Cliffhanger as powerful as the others–possibly seeing a body, isn’t as big of a deal as finding the wrong body or a murdered body. I could cut in or near-after the point, but in this case, I think leaving the reader with more to think about, rather than less, is most effective.
Also, worth taking into account, is that I have multiple viewpoint characters and plotlines, so it’s going to be a while before I get back to Scott. I don’t want to cut near the point and force the audience to wait a couple chapters. The longer they wait, the more the suspense drops off, and the more they need to be reminded of what happened when they come back. So in this situation, I think the Post-hook Cliffhanger is the most effective. The audience has plenty to digest and wonder about, and when I pick the plotline back up later, it will be easy to remind them where we were, especially with a situation that demands immediate attention.
Things Worth Knowing
You can totally categorize cliffhangers in other ways. For example, I could talk about physical cliffhangers (taking a bullet for your friend) or emotional cliffhangers (discovering a spouse’s infidelity) or shocking cliffhangers (a burglar just broke in!)–but ultimately, if you have plenty of turning points in your plot and you have appropriate structure, cliffhangers get down to knowing when to cut away to something else.
All that other stuff about what the cliffhanger is, gets back to plot. Have a great plot, and you’ll have plenty of moments for cliffhangers. (You’ll also likely avoid making those cliffhanger mistakes.)
Some may wonder, can you create a cliffhanger during rising action? Yes . . . and no.
The basic story structure is a repeating structure. It also works as a nesting doll or fractal. This means that in some sense, yes, you can have a successful cliffhanger during rising action–because obviously a book can have cliffhangers prior to the climax of the whole plot. However, in a sense no, because what is actually happening is that the writer is working with a smaller version of the structure. Even within a scene, this structure may be present.
For example, in my Scott-finds-the-dead-body scene, this shape is present within it, as a smaller segment. Partway through his search, Scott begins messing around with a magic system. In the overarching story, he has a goal of figuring out how a certain element of it works. Deep in the forest, he starts working on this; however, in the process, he realizes he’s been going about it all wrong. Everything he has been doing is wrong. This is a mini-turning point–a revelation that changes the direction of that plotline. But it happens within the rising action of the scene.
This means that I could create a mini-cliffhanger by cutting around that turning point. . . . I may indeed insert a chapter break there because Scott-finds-the-dead-body is too long to be one chapter. This would create a lesser cliffhanger that would pull the reader into the next chapter.
Likewise, this shape may exist within a falling action of a bigger structure. Or run through smaller structures. But let’s end that idea here, for today. The main thing is that a cliffhanger will be around a turning point or just after a hook–if it’s going to be a legit cliffhanger.
The other thing I could talk about is the actual writing of the cliffhanger. The best thing to say here is that effective cliffhangers are typically slim and fast-paced. They’re abrupt. So say enough for the reader to get it, but don’t wax strong in long sentences and descriptions. (Of course, though, you can always break the rules.)
And that’s pretty much what you need to know about cliffhangers.
They are not as evil as you thought, are they?