Today's post come from a request made on Twitter by @AprilBrownWrite. Her site is here, and worth a look (also she's really nice, and you should say hi.)
If there's something you'd like to talk about, or want to know more about, you can email me a suggestion or send me a tweet - I'm always looking for new content and new ways help you write better.
April had a question about cliffhangers and how to end things. She wrote me a rather nice email about it, with some pretty good examples, but I think it's easier if we just start with broad topics and then work towards specifics.
So let's lay some groundwork.
What is a cliffhanger?
1. A 'cliffhanger' is caused when you break up an action beat and deny immediate resolution. 'Immediate' here means that in sentence A, you set up the situation and then in Sentence B, you resolve it. These are most often very visual or evocative beats (beats are scenes or moments, I'm going to use that word a lot), and other media (like television) has taught us that cliffhangers are great moments to go to commercial. Books, to date, lack commercials, so often people tend to put cliffhangers at the end of chapters (we'll talk more about that in a minute).
2. A 'cliffhanger' is only as good as the setup BEFORE the action, and the intensity of the resolution AFTER. This might be unclear, but there are ways to illustrate it. The thinking behind a cliffhanger is that you want the reader wondering how the character(s) will get out of whatever situation they've entered. Will Mace Hunter escape being kidnapped by Red Shark's goons? Will the damsel in distress ever get off those damned railroad tracks?
But that's the cut-away-to-commercial moment. That's the cliffhanger itself. It doesn't have any meaning as a cliffhanger until we see it in context. We worry about that damsel on the railroad tracks because prior to that, she was kidnapped in the dead of night by the bad guy. We feel tension for Mace because we watched him get overwhelmed by goons and saw him get sapped from behind. The setup to the cliffhanger moment is critical, if you want us to believe the danger is real.
That's half of it.
The other half is what happens when the character acts to get out of the predicament. If all the damsel has to do is roll to her knees and stand up, the danger isn't so great. If all Mace has to do is jump out of the car in order to make good his escape, then it's less perilous than previously indicated. If the resolution to danger/cliffhanger is not well-developed, then the danger wasn't clearly stated, and the reader isn't going to think it's worth getting scared over.
There is an exercise I recommend. You'll need a note card.
1. Turn the notecard vertically (longways)
2. Divide it into thirds (draw horizontal lines)
3. In the middle third, write the cliffhanger
4. In the bottom third, write the resolution
5. In the top third, write the setup.
So, a cliffhanger for a scene with a damsel tied to railroad track looks like this:
I. Woman is kidnapped
II. Woman tied to tracks
III. Woman escapes (rope use)
This isn't where you detail it all out, this is where you give yourself a little note of reminder to make sure the setup leads naturally to the danger which segues to the resolution. I tend to find it easier to go from danger to resolution and then reverse-engineer (or hack) the setup to make it sufficiently intense or emotional or whatever the scene needs.
Now, if that's what a cliffhanger is, what do we do with it?
The first rule of cliffhangers is - Not everything is going to be a cliffhanger. It just...can't be that intense all the time. Remember this - "When everything is special, nothing is". You do not need a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, or at the break in every action. Poor is the reader who believes that your story would be made better by doing this. Find them, shake a fist at them, and tell them they've watched too much TV and probably read too much poor writing.
The second rule of cliffhangers is - They're supposed to be risky. There are no "little" cliffhangers. Just like no one is ever "a little bit pregnant" or "the teensiest bit murderous", little actions do not warrant cliffhangers. Cliffhangers should make you gasp and worry and turn the page excitedly to see what happens next. (Note: I learned this rule as "No one gives a shit about Timmy making toast.") Go big or go home on your cliffhangers.
The third rule of cliffhangers is - There should be a cost. To get out of a risky and dangerous situation, the character should be tested. It should exhaust them to have to climb up a sheer mountainside, it should drain them to have to run as fast as they can to save the other character, it should hurt when they got shot, taking the bullet for their loved ones. A cliffhanger without a cost is just another action beat.
If those are the rules, where do we put cliffhangers?
The short version - put them where they best serve the story. For most (90%) of cases, that's usually at the end of Act 2 or just before the highest point of climax.
The longer version - put them where they matter. NOT at the end of every chapter, or every third chapter when you switch narrators. Use them too much, and they lose impact. Use the cliffhanger as a tool to make the story matter, and to test the characters, not as a way to force the story along or make/force the reader to keep going in the story.
So what does that make all those other endings? If they're not cliffhangers, what are they?
They're endings. Things can just end. It's okay. I promise. What matters is how you daisy-chain these endings into the startings of whatever comes next (I mean otherwise, what, you're writing 4th edition D&D? - gamer joke) so that you're not writing a series of "bubble scenes" but rather a contiguous stream of actions, reactions, and development to make a single complete big bubble of your story.
If you feel that your endings (the physical ones, the emotional ones, etc) HAVE TO BE cliffhangers in order for them to matter in your work, then, honestly you've failed them. You've let them down as scenes in your story and you're not doing your job as the best writer you can be in telling the best story you can.
A well-crafted story should have lots of things that matter, but not all those things are going to be cliffhangers.
So how many cliffhangers should I have in my story?
I don't know, author. Why don't you tell me how many breaths I should take today? There is no magic number. In some stories, you only need one. In some stories you can have one per character arc. In other stories there's one for every character arc, one of the plot and one for theme (I'm looking at you, hundreds-of-pages-long-fantasy-novel-series).
If you've mapped out the story (not the same as outlining it), then you should be able to see where the arc(s) move(s) should take you and the reader from beginning to end of book. Tying it all together is NOT the job of the cliffhanger, but the cliffhanger should signal that SOME element(s) of the story is/are about to change.
I hope this has explained cliffhangers a little bit, April and all those other people who don't know what to do with them. If you need more information, just ask.