At BEA a few weeks ago, R.L. Stein (the ever-so-famous author of the crazy popular Goosebumps books) attributed some of the success of his novels to his use of cliffhangers—those suspenseful situations at the end of a scene or chapter.
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I am a huge fan of cliffhangers at the end of chapters, unless, of course, it’s 2 am, I’ve just reached the end of a chapter where the characters I care about are in some sort of grave danger or about to make a momentous decision, which will be revealed in the next chapter, yet I’ve got to haul my exhausted carcass out of bed at 6 am. In that case, I’m frustrated because I must know what happens next in the novel, yet I anticipate being bleary eyed the next day. I dwell on how much caffeine I will need to come to life after too little snooze time. If you’re an avid reader, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about here. Cliffhangers build suspense, tension, and create an emotional response in readers that often makes them sacrifice sleep in order to find out what happens next in a story.
If you’re a writer, you probably itch to torment your readers in this way. I'm guessing you’d love to make them sacrifice good sense and well being for the sake of turning the pages of your story. But how? Some authors accomplish this by revealing a key piece of information that the reader needs to know at the end of a chapter, or a tease that this piece of information will appear in the next chapter. An author might also reveal some twist or important plot development as a cliffhanger. Or, a writer might push the main character into an ugly and sticky situation to be resolved pages later. I just finished a chapter in which the heroine was facing some serious danger when she passed out—at the end of the chapter. Since I care about this character, I had to know whether she’d be descended upon by the evil or if she’d be saved.
Also, cliffhangers work especially well when each one is bigger than the last. This kind of makes sense given that the novel is building toward a climax, right?
What do you think about cliffhangers? Do you like to hang off cliffs or are you afraid of heights? If you are pro-cliffhanger, do you have a favorite? One that kept you reading against your better judgment?