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Crafting Cliffhangers

2009 Anna Furtado

Timmy's fallen down the well. Lassie arrives at the homestead doorstep. "Bark, bark, bark!"

June Lockhart says, "What is it Lassie? What is it girl?" Lassie tries to lead her away from the front door toward the ill-fated Timmy. Will June go? Will she understand how important it is for her to follow a seemingly crazed dog? The screen fades to black. And the next thing we see is a buck-toothed beaver singing the praises of toothpaste. While we watch, we may sing along with the jingle, but all the while, we're thinking we want the commercial to end so we can see if June actually does follow Lassie so that Timmy can survive to star in another episode.

That's a cliffhanger. The approach isn't the obvious one, though. The last thing we saw before commercial wasn't Timmy sailing toward the bottom of the well (or cliff or waterfall)—that would have been too apparent a cliffhanger. The question would have been: Will Timmy survive the fall? However, with the June Lockhart example, even though we may not be sure if the fallen Timmy is alive or dead, the question becomes: Will his mother get the message and follow Lassie, possibly saving the day and her son?

If you look up "cliffhanger" articles on line, you'll find numerous instances of a single example of a subtle cliffhanger: an article on the Monica Lewinsky conversation with Linda Tripp about the infamous blue dress. The original article by David Finkel (Sunday Magazine, The Washington Post) was divided into 13 chapters. Chapter 8 ends with: "And on they went, only one of them aware of the importance of the conversation they'd just had." Of course, we all know which one of them it was who recognized the importance of the conversation. But back in the day when we were in the midst of revelations, that sentence ending the chapter would have been a real page-turner. No cliffs, no wells, just a little tidbit to make the reader wonder which one figured out the importance of the information, and it would have made us turn the page, continue on, looking for more information.

In past articles, I've mentioned that the best place to end a writing session is when you know exactly how you will continue on in the story. That's a good technique for preventing writer's block. It's also a good technique for writing cliffhangers. Without revealing what will happen next, you stop, leaving the reader dangling from their own mental cliff, wanting more, ready to turn the page to find out what happens next.

When the next chapter begins, even though you know how the disaster will be resolved, you can play up the tension, prolonging the inevitable answer. Instead of putting Timmy's mom at the well, peering over the edge at the start of the next chapter, have her struggling to keep up with Lassie, slipping and sliding up a hill covered in wet, fallen leaves. In the Lewinsky story, Linda Tripp would plot how she might use the information, rather than jumping right into taking action.

A cliffhanger is a dilemma that keeps the reader coming back for more. The tension should rise to a crescendo. Then, fall back toward resolution, only to peak with tension once again. Any fairy tale serves as a good example. Three little pigs, three bears. Huffing-and-puffing as tension builds. Going from one porridge bowl to the next while we lick our lips and watch the front door wondering when the bears will return. Note that three cycles of tension seem to be a good number—a universal or sacred number—a number that is special in our collective psyche that seems to work well regarding conflict in stories.

Finally, cliffhanging is not limited to mystery or suspense. The sultry look, the touch of the hand from the woman we want the heroine to "get"—these are excellent romantic cliffhangers. After a scene where our protagonists have been drawn to one another, but have not yet professed their feelings, something may happen to make one of them wonder if the attraction was all a figment of her imagination. Ending on that note keeps the story—and the reader—teetering on the edge of that cliff.

No matter what the focus is of your cliffhanger, keep in mind the following:
  • Vary movement from tension-filled scenes to non-tension filled ones. If your character is fleeing for her life, allow her to find a place to hide for a while. While she catches her breath, she can gather information that will move the story along, even if she isn't on the run. In the romance, once tension has built between the two characters, they can separate for a while and information can filter in through encounters with other characters.

  • To enhance tension, use short, clipped sentences. Likewise, stretch and slow time and events with longer sentences to emphasize anxious, fearful moments.

  • Consider using a subplot (or subplots) to draw out the tension of a cliffhanger. When Lassie urges Timmy's mom to follow her at the end of one chapter, the next chapter may deal with the next-door neighbor whose daughter can't stop talking about young Timmy and how she wants to bake some cookies for him because she's enamored of him. (Perhaps her attention is what drove Timmy to sit on the edge of the well in the first place, causing him to fall in when he didn't realize he was sitting on a loose edge.) Only in the third chapter, do we finally resume the main plot with Timmy's mom struggling to follow the dog. A word of caution about this technique: Don't prolong the reader's agony too long or she might become bored and lose interest.
Types of conflict that can lend to the tension of the cliffhanger are inner conflicts, clashes between characters, or difficulties with the environment:
  • Inner conflicts may be caused by a character's inner flaws, fears, or weaknesses.

  • Conflict between characters may come from competitiveness and rivalry, personality clashes, or love triangles.

  • Conflicts between the character and nature are legion: storms, raging rivers, tumultuous seas, extreme heat or cold, a lost job and inability to pay the mortgage; all can be conflicts with the character's environment that she or he must struggle to overcome.
The challenge is to find a good place to stop a scene or a chapter that will leave the reader unwilling to put that book down. Polish your cliffhanger techniques and make your writing compelling. Drive your reader to turn page after page long into the night—confirmation that your tale is, truly, a gripping one.
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist) and The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.

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