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How to write cliffhangers that captivate

How to write cliffhangers that captivate How to write cliffhangers that captivate
In this article:

    Cliffhangers are a fantastic way to make your story Engaging, no matter the type of conflict or scale of the stakes.

    When we think of cliffhangers, we usually think of big life or death story moments, but that’s not the only way to do cliffhangers. Every chapter can (and ideally should!) end with a cliffhanger of some kind, but life or death cliffhangers every time can numb the reader to the story. 

    Effective cliffhangers just mean cutting the chapter before you’re finished with the consequences of the Peak. Use the momentum of the Plunge to keep your reader glued to the story and clicking through to the next part. In our previous example, we end the scene knowing Sammy wants to leave and has the money to do so–the cliffhanger is where he’s going and what’s going to happen next. There’s an open question at the end of the scene, and we want to know more.  


    Image description:The original labeled orange wave, with a big green X at the beginning of the downslope, immediately after the peak labeled “It Happens” 

    Here’s the ideal cliffhanger spot marked on the Storycoaster diagram, set just after the Peak. This is just one possible place to cut your chapter. Anywhere on the Plunge slope of consequences can work, it entirely depends on your story. Play around with it! Try cutting your chapters in different places and see what happens.Cliffhanger Pitfalls

    Common cliffhanger problems usually result from either cutting the chapter in the wrong place, or under-developed tension leading up to the Peak.

    Cutting Too Early

    If you cut the chapter too early, before enough conflict and tension have been established, the reader isn’t incentivized to keep reading. Don’t cut before the Peak! If the leads are having a big fight, don’t cut before the fight, cut right after someone has said something to irrevocably change the relationship, or made a big reveal. Then put the fallout in the next chapter. In our example, if we cut before Sammy confesses to Tayla, we’ve got a lot of buildup without enough payoff. Not enough has changed over the course of the scene to maintain momentum. 

    Not Enough Climb

    If your scene doesn’t have enough conflict in it, if the characters aren’t doing or wanting anything, then there’s not enough rising tension. A common mistake is to throw in a twist or a reveal at the end of the chapter to keep the reader Engaged, but without rising tension of some kind (even in a quiet interlude), this can feel disjointed. For example, if the lead detective is having a cozy morning at home and then someone calls with a revelation about the case and the chapter cuts, we’ve been denied the build up of the Climb, and so there’s no urgency attached to this new revelation. You need the anticipation of the Climb to get to the thrill of the Plunge.

    Unrelated Cliffhangers

    The leads are about to kiss, and then suddenly, one of them is hit by a car. The problem here is that the cliffhanger doesn’t flow from the scene you’ve established. The rising tension and conflict of the scene is derailed by an external factor that interrupts and redirects the story conflict and focus. In our example, if Sammy was about to confess to Tayla but she was shot before he could get the words out, that sends the story in a completely different direction. It’s emotional and high-stakes, but it doesn’t actually give Sammy the emotional closure he (and the reader) were looking for in the build up part of the scene. 

    This type of cliffhanger can work, but you can’t rely on it long-term because the audience will get tired of it very quickly because you keep asking them to switch focus. If you want to do one of these, limit to 1 per story.

    Long curving line Long curving line Long curving line