13 February 2012

Cliffhanging

No, nothing here about climbing mountains or extreme sports...but something that authors (new and experienced) should keep in mind when putting together their manuscripts. Readers are getting shorter attention spans with every passing day, and as such, it's going to become more important to toss in those ever important cliffhangers (usually at the end of your chapters).

What makes an effective cliffhanger?

The old adage is whatever it takes to get the reader to turn the page to the next chapter. That's a little vague. So, I'd like to propose that your characters should be facing one of the following:

-Impending Death: Nothing gets a reader engaged in the story more than wondering how their favorite character is going to escape death (let's face it, unless you're ending a series, or going for a major plot twist, you're likely not going to kill that character off). Don't do it too much, as then people will start losing interest...but a well-placed death-defying escape now and again keeps things moving and lets people root for your main character.

Author's note: I use this often in most of my novels.

-A Major Fact Just (or about to be) Revealed: This has to be of great significance to the plot, or it simply will not work. In the case of ending the chapter on a reveal about to happen, you also need to do the reveal shortly after, or your readers are going to be let down (the "about-to-be" reveal is a contract with your reader, and you need to pay it in full. One other point about this...sometimes, if you've pulled the reader along a few chapters (using other techniques along the way), it can make the reveal that much more satisfying.

In my novel Friends in Deed (which is currently 99 cents over at Amazon for the rest of the month), I use this at the end of a chapter in which (after Aston wondering what the twins really want) I reveal their true intentions (and its a doozie).

-An Act the Reader Has Been Waiting For: Although not as effective (in my opinion) as the other two listed here, the sense of satisfaction the reader achieves can be used to get that page turned. If they're happy (make it really good!), there's a higher chance they'll be willing to keep moving toward your next cliffhanger.

Author's note: I use one of these quite well in my next novel...I don't want to give it away, so I'll leave it at that.

-Another Piece For the Puzzle: Not nearly as effective as the others above, this can still be useful if you're trying not to overuse your other techniques. In essence, you can lay another piece in front of the reader, so that they can work through the mystery in their mind. Unfortunately, the setup for this cliffhanger can take a while, so it also runs the risk of cutting off your reader's interest.

Author's note: I use this from time to time, including when I introduce one of the main antagonists in my novel, The Cure, and the character reveals that she's been spying on the main character, and isn't against the idea of killing her (sprinkling a little implied "Impending Death" doesn't hurt).

Are there any other cliffhangers that you're particularly fond of (either reading or using)?