How to Use Cliffhangers in Your Writing

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

Mufasa. Never forget.

Mufasa. Never forget.

Cliffhangers are ways for writers to shake things up, clip scenes at the right moment, and energize the pacing of their stories. And readers have urgent reactions to a scene ending that leaves them hanging.

Sometimes I wonder who’s really hanging off the proverbial cliff—is it the character or the reader?

As we know, a cliffhanger doesn't always have to involve a character literally hanging off of a cliff. We can use certain writing techniques to achieve a similar sense of discomfort and get readers turning the page.

At the root of a good cliffhanger is suspense. Suspense is an unresolved moment of conflict in which readers (and sometimes characters) ask what the heck is going to happen next? It’s tension and uncertainty that holds readers tightly and they won’t know what happens to their favorite character unless they read on.

In developmental editing, I keep in mind a lot of writing methods that heighten suspense when I help authors revise their stories. I pay close attention to scene endings--and there are several types of cliffhangers to consider. James Scott Bell points out these types in his books on writing craft.

Cliffhanger #1 – All the Feelings

This is a scene ending in which a character is experiencing a high level of emotion—usually from getting some bad news or discovering something unpleasant.

A high emotional level doesn’t necessarily mean a raging freak out, although it certainly could. Your protagonist might be breaking dishes and slamming doors.

This emotional condition could also mean the character is experiencing a quiet pain, where she blinks back tears, swallows past that tightness in her throat, and bravely puts on a smile for others—even as she’s hurting inside.

In this type of ending, readers might worry if the character’s inner balance will ever be restored.

Cliffhanger #2 – Someone Gets the Last Word

This scene ending is a line of dialogue that’s still echoing through readers’ minds as they turn the page. It can be even more powerful when we don’t include a dialogue tag or reaction (we leave the reaction to the readers).

Which has more punch?

The phone rang. It was his partner. “Another accident. How fast can you get over here?” said Joe. Terry grabbed his coat.

The first one trails off a little. What about the second one?

The phone rang. It was his partner. “Another accident. How fast can you get over here?”

It seems to have more punch and leaves us hanging with its simplicity.

Delivering news, having the last word in an argument, a surprise greeting…these are all ways we can use dialogue as a cliffhanger.

Cliffhanger #3 – Hanging off That Cliff

This scene ends with action. But when it comes to that cliff, the character could’ve already fallen or he’s fighting his antagonist and his foot slides near the cliff’s edge as he ducks a punch!

The point is there are varying levels of OMG in an action cliffhanger.

I’ll set you a scene: Terry stalks a possible suspect in a dark warehouse. It’s been several sweaty seconds that feel like minutes.

The last line of the scene might be…

Terry sees a shadow dart across a hall.

Something terrible may happen. It might be that suspect, or it might be a mouse. Either way, I’m filled with a nagging, edgy foreboding.

A guy steps out and points a gun at Terry.

Something terrible is about to happen, like any second now. Is the guy going to shoot Terry point blank? I can’t look away! Where’s Joe!?

A guy leaps out from behind a stack of cargo and fires his gun at Terry.

Something terrible definitely happened. Massive flail alert! Is Terry dead??

How do we pick which level of intensity we want in a cliffhanger? It depends how close we want readers to the danger and how much we want to leave them hanging. We can end a scene right before the action happens or after the damage is done (without letting readers know the final outcome).

It's about varying the levels of suspense just enough to keep readers turning the page.

But I must add a caution with cliffhangers: if we overuse them to an extreme degree, readers will know they’re being manipulated. We’re orchestrating an experience for readers and we need them focused on the story, not drawing their attention to the person behind the curtain.

For more about scene endings and beginnings, see one of my previous posts.

Are you a fan of cliffhangers?

Stacy Jerger is a freelance developmental editor who's had the privilege of working with authors to organize and strengthen their stories. If you need help with your manuscript, check out the services page or get in touch.