It’s a well-known fact that we prefer to read a book in full chapters. Usually it’s one, two, three or more chapters per sitting and therefore, the more grabbing the end of a chapter is, the more likely we are to continue through to the next chapter without interruption. Best-selling mysteries and thrillers seem to grab the readers’ interest in such a way that they, of course, ‘cannot be put down’.
Cliffhangers are a by-product of serialisation. At the end of each episode at the end of each episode, authors such as Thomas Hardy, would add a cliffhanger in the hope that readers will feel engaged enough to buy the next issue of the newspaper. Cliffhangers were added as an extra, they were mainly conversational (the author would add an extra bit of dialogue and end it with a question) and understandably, the practice came across as rather manufactured and forced-in for the sake of selling the newspaper. That’s why, in the full version of the novel, these cliffhangers were often left out. I can’t even imagine now reading a thriller or mystery without at least a few cliffhangers in the right places.
What’s in the anatomy of a cliffhanger? Anticipation and build-up are part of a good cliffhanger and, for maximum effect, the tension never discharges immediately.
Cliffhangers work well at the end of chapters or, in the case of a multi-layered plot, at the end of a section followed by a change in plot layer. In this case, for maximum effect, break the narrative flow mid-scene, create a cliffhanger, start new chapter with minor backstory event and discharge cliffhanger scene ideally mid-chapter later on.
In thrillers that have an extremely fast pace, you can comfortably create a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter and discharge the tension at the very beginning of the following chapter, because very shortly after, you will be starting to build up towards another cliffhanger and so on. This technique seems to create the famous ‘page-turner effect’ most effectively.
Be careful, as while building an effective cliffhanger, you could fall into a trap you have set up for yourself, like in this particularly common example:
After a huge struggle with the Militia, Jim manages to hide inside the ventilation tunnel of a mine. Suddenly the electricity is cut out and the ventilation stops, ending the Oxygen supply for Jim.
If there was a short mention of the Militia threatening to stop the electricity supply in the mine when the detail bore no importance (see Chekhov’s Rifle in Plot Devices, link coming soon), this is a great cliffhanger and it works brilliantly, as it will form a workable twist – unpredictable, yet explicable. But if the Militia accidentally cut the electricity just for the sake of a cliffhanger, the trick fails. In this example, based on real writing, the author has created a cliffhanger, but he has missed the opportunity to extract the most potential from his existing material. That’s where an editor would prove helpful.
If you have a multi-plot novel (i.e. a novel with a main plot and a backstory is a particularly common instance) or a multi-layered plot (i.e. different characters pursuing different threads, but converging around the same quest), mid-chapter breaks can work especially well in building suspense, engaging the reader and moving the story forward.
The breaks are usually signified by “*” or “***” and they show a change in setting or at least point of view – it could be the same scene, but changing narrators or character’s perspective.
Open your manuscript and go to the end of your first chapter. Is there a cliffhanger? If not, consider breaking the chapter earlier in the middle of a tense scene. If there are no such scenes, it’s time back to rewriting time. Consider rewriting the chapter ending or rewrite a mid-chapter scene that could work well broken up. Repeat the exercise with the following chapters, save for the last one.
More on tense, pace and suspense in SELF-EDITING FICTION THAT SELLS (Paperback, 2014)
Next week’s post: The No 1 style weakness in unedited writing – telling, not showing.