Friday, August 27, 2010

More on Cliffhangers

I've discussed cliffhangers before, but it's a subject worth revisiting. I read many manuscripts and even published books that don't take advantage of the power of a good cliffhanger. Back in June, I discussed how to focus on suspense rather than surprise for a cliffhanger. But what if your book doesn't have big physical action scenes? Or what if you need to end a chapter in a quieter moment, because that moment will be followed by a large jump in time or place?

You can still use a version of a cliffhanger. Try to focus on a moment that is powerful emotionally, and still looks toward the future, whether because of anticipation of what comes next or disappointment over what just happened.


In The Amethyst Road, by Louise Spiegler, the main character spends much of the book searching for her mother. She believes finding her mother will solve her problems, but instead of a joyful reunion, their meeting goes like this:

     “Her gaze swept over me. The hollows in her cheeks and under her eyes stood out like smudges of dirt. It had been three years since I’d seen her, but she’d aged at least ten. Her expression was measuring, distrustful. She moved as if expecting harm.
     I fell back. Did she fear me? Was it possible—did she not know who I was?

Serena pushes on, making contact, and finally explaining her problem to her mother. Serena's sister has had a baby, who has been taken by "The Cruelty," a sinister version of child protective services. This chapter ends with another twist against Serena's expectations and hope, a severe disappointment which will force her to start solving her problem from scratch:

     Mother’s smile vanished. "But, Serena, how can I help? The Cruelty won't even let me care for my own children." She raised her face to mine. "Look at me. I can hardly help myself, daughter. How can I help you?

In I Am Jack by Susanne Gervay, Jack is having a problem at school, and desperately needs help. Even the frustration of not being able to get a mother's attention can provide a cliffhanger, as you see by this Chapter 1 ending:

     At last, Mom to myself.  “Mom, Mom.” She is making dinner already and Samantha’s helping her with the pasta sauce.
      “Later, Jack darling. When I’m finished making dinner.”
      “Don’t call me darling, Mom.” I slump onto the couch. Later. That’s a joke. Rob will be here soon and then there will be dinner, washing up and I have to have a shower and there’s homework and television. Mom will be tired. There’ll be NO time and I HAVE to talk to Mom.
     I think I’m in BIG trouble.

Sometimes you may even have a dramatic cliffhanger moment, but if you end the chapter there, you have only a couple of paragraphs before jumping to a new scene. It may feel more natural to end the chapter at the end of the scene or end of the day. That’s fine, if you still set up anticipation, as Joni Sensel does in The Farwalker's Quest:

     They worked out a plan. After Pres left them to sleep, Ariel and Zeke only lay back and gazed at the ceiling. His toes, warm against her calf, seemed to say all that was needed between them. This night in a real bed would be the last for long time to come.

That last sentence emphasizes that their challenging journey isn't over yet. It's a quiet moment, but it promises more action to come. So go ahead and end in a quieter moment sometimes—so long as you're still looking forward.

Exercise: Go through your manuscript, or even a published book. Look for quiet chapter endings. Do they still drive the story forward, with anticipation for the future? If not, can you rewrite them so that they will?

Check back over the next two weeks for suggestions on minor story adjustments that can put power behind your cliffhangers, followed by a discussion of cliffhangers in picture books.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Chris -- though I sorta have to laugh, because I could probably write a post on BAD cliffhangers. Some of my early revisions included taking out stuff that I thought was ominous and others said was too heavy-handed. That's been a skinny tightrope for me to learn to walk, and I'm still doing a lot of wobbling. ;)

  2. Tension is so essential in a story. It keeps the reader turning that page. I like the way your concept of cliff hanger is just that ... hanging out to find the answer, or at least the next step to the answer.

    This is a great blog
    Susanne Gervay