“Make them cry, make them laugh, make ‘em wait.” – Wilkie Collins
As writers of serial fiction we all want to accomplish two key goals with our stories. First, we want to evoke an emotion in the reader as they read our work. Second, we want to create an endearing story that the reader will want to return to with each new installment we publish. When we write serial fiction we willingly place a restriction upon ourselves by limiting what our readers will digest in a single reading. Our hope is that we have established a strong enough connection with them that they will eagerly turn the page of our story by reading the next installment. There are numerous literary devices available to the serial writer to accomplish both of the goals I’ve described, but none of them succeed quite as effectively and singularly as the cliffhanger. Here I will explore the nature and uses of cliffhangers in serial fiction and hopefully provide you with a few ideas on how to enhance your own cliffhangers.
Goals of your cliffhangers
Put simply, a cliffhanger is a deliberate break in the narrative specifically designed and placed by the author to create ambiguity that will not be resolved immediately. Done properly, the reader is enticed to continue reading the story in order to learn what will happen next. When you include a cliffhanger at the end of an installment of your serial work, there are many goals that you can aim to achieve in order to ensure your reader will come back for more:
- Create suspense – Fairly obvious to be sure, but it is still the primary goal of a cliffhanger. You build up the suspense and mystery to a fevered height and then suspend your story in just the right place and in just the right way to make the reader cry out in frustration because they cannot guess or wait to find out what will happen next.
- Enhance the readers’ emotional response – Think for a moment how you want the reader to feel at the end of your installment. Anxious? Sad? Happy? Worried? Excited? Choosing the circumstances of your cliffhangers should always evoke or enhance the feelings you want the reader to have at that moment in your story. A well-written cliffhanger can leave the reader with enough concern or elation for the characters that they are driven to come back and see what will happen to them next.
- Ramp up the tension/conflict of your story – You don’t always have to leave your characters on the edge of disaster. Instead, you can increase the tension by setting up an impending conflict or confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist that will take place in a later installment.
- Introduce a twist, doubt or mystery – Just when the reader is comfortable with your story, it’s always good to throw a twist in. So why not do it at the end of an installment? The “da-duh-DAH!” moment that will make your reader gasp in surprise. Ideally the reader will not see the surprise coming, and you will leave them uncertain what the full impact of this new development will be.
- Setup a transition to the next scene – Deciding where to stop each installment is always a challenge for serial fiction authors. If you reach a point where you want to move on to a new scene, sometimes opening a door, but not letting the reader see what’s on the other side, is a fun way to move forward. Simply introduce a key element of the new scene or situation to tease what is coming.
Sample situations for your cliffhangers
- Put a character into greater peril – The original cliffhanger was literally a character hanging from the edge of a cliff on the verge of falling to his doom. As we put our characters through the ringer in our story, piling on endless problems, conflict and failures, the cliffhanger gives us a great opportunity to make things even worse for our characters and advance the story along.
- Make a Decision – Events in your story have progressed and reached a tipping point where the characters must make a choice on what to do next. Line up all the options, perhaps tease which choice a character might make, and then make the reader wait to find out which choice is ultimately made.
- Unexpected Reveal – Mystery and suspense are key elements to a successful cliffhanger, but the ending of an installment is also a great place to inject a new element to the story that makes the reader question what the truth really is or what may happen next. Throw in a new piece of information, a new character or a new element of the story that throws the reader’s expectations and predictions into chaos.
- Setup the Twist – Similar to the unexpected reveal, when you are ready to introduce to a major twist or change in the story, you use the cliffhanger to show the reader that things are about to change big time. Come back next time to find out where the chips fall.
- Withhold Key Information – If you watch reality TV shows, you know that the host will almost always go to commercial just before the big reveal of the episode. Who won the contest? How much weight did they lose? Annoying, but effective. Setup the reader with everything except the single piece of information they really want to know, and then inject it into the beginning of the next installment.
- Foreshadow – Sometimes cliffhangers don’t have to be about ramping up suspense and tension. Sometimes it can be dropping a piece of information that the reader should remember for later. By inserting it at the end of an installment, you place a greater importance on that information than if it had been revealed in the beginning or middle. It is absolutely required for you to revisit the information and expand on it in a future installment.
- Interruption – This is a simple pause or break in an ongoing scene or chapter. Perhaps you put it in because you’ve reached your maximum word count for an installment. More likely you feel the reader needs to take some time to process the plot up to that point before moving on. These interruptions can raise the tension, but they can also allow the story and the reader to take a breath. The next installment will pick up right where it left off with a refreshed reader. As Mr. Collins suggests, make ’em wait.
Cliffhangers are very powerful and poignant literary tools. As such, they can be easily abused or misused to a point where the reader can get fed up with us and abandon our stories even at the height of the tension and mystery we’ve created for them. Remember the television show “Lost?” How many viewers grew tired of the ambiguity and frustration from endless, unresolved endings in the early episodes and stopped watching? Consider some of these warnings when applying your cliffhangers:
- At all costs, avoid frustrating the reader too much. Readers require resolution to every cliffhanger. Period. They have to be revealed in a timely fashion and worth the reader’s time to come back and find out what happened.
- Avoid an unsatisfying or unrewarding resolution. Make sure each resolution is natural and believable. Don’t be afraid to let the chips fall where they may. If the character has to fall off the cliff, then let them fall.
- Resolve it as quickly as possible. If you setup a cliffhanger, you must resolve it in the next one or two installments. Otherwise, any tension you created will be lost along with the reader’s attention.
- Make sure the reader already cares about the characters. One of the key requirements to a successful cliffhanger is that the reader cares about what will happen to the character. The reader must care for them, worry about them, root for them and feel invested in taking their journey with them. If they don’t care about what happens to your character, no amount of tension or mystery will bring them back.
- Do not use a cliffhanger every time. Cliffhangers are great tools to tell your story and bring the readers back for more, but use too many and your readers will start to hate you. Think about it. Don’t you hate all those commercial breaks on reality shows? Of course you do! There are plenty of other ways to move the story forward and keep the reader’s interest other than making them crave resolution to a perilous situation.
- Don’t write “to be continued.” Serial fiction means we’re giving you our story in installments. Unless the words “THE END” appear at the end of an installment, your story is going to be continued in the next installment. Remember, your reader is always smarter than you think they are. Show some respect. If you did your job sufficiently, the reader won’t need to read confirmation that their questions will be answered. Think of it this way, what are the last words that you want the reader to remember as they wait for the next installment?
Take a fresh look at some of your favorite cliffhangers.
Take a moment and think of your favorite fictional cliffhanger. It can be from a novel or television show or a work of fiction, whichever cliffhanger had you screaming at the page/screen as the scene ended. Picture that scene, the characters involved, how you felt on the edge of your seat when it ended, and finally how you felt once the cliffhanger was resolved. For me, I always think of William Riker, staring down the mutilated visage of his friend and mentor Jean-Luc Picard, now his assimilated enemy, ready to fire the ultimate weapon that would destroy the Borg and Picard with them. As the orchestra music slowly crescendoed to a fevered climax, Riker looked stone-faced into the face of his enemy and gave the command to fire. Then the screen faded to black, leaving me and millions of fans breathless, screaming at the televisions that had denied us the knowledge of what would happen next.
Now, think about your favorite cliffhanger and write down the answers to these questions:
- What were the key moments/events that led up to the ending?
- Did you have any clue as to what might happen next? How?
- How did you feel at the end and you were left with no more information?
- Was there peril? Mystery? Suspense?
- Where were the characters? In distress? Sad? Happy?
Go back and re-read some of your favorite serial works and use the information here to see how well the author wrote the endings of their installments. Did they create overwhelming suspense or tension? What methods did they use to ensure the reader would come back? What state were characters left in just before the end? Ask these questions at the end of every serial work you read. Then ask yourself if you really want to continue to read their story. If the author has successfully written a suspenseful and crafted cliffhanger, it’s very likely you can’t wait to find out what will happen next.
A special thank you to the folks at TuesdaySerial.com for publishing this essay on October 23, 2014. Keep up the great work, guys! Feel free to check out my own web serial, Spaceship in a Box, and see how I handle my own cliffhangers!