The Author’s Guide to Cliffhangers
Everything you need to know about getting your readers hooked and invested with cliffhangers.
If you’re like me, then you love making your readers yell, “wait, WHAT?!” out loud while they’re reading. It’s my favorite reaction to get to my writing; someone finishes the book and immediately has to tell me exactly what they thought of it and beg me for answers that I can gleefully not give them. One of the most exciting ways to get that kind of over-the-top reaction from your audience? Use a cliffhanger.
Cliffhanger endings are one of the most popular ways to end a section of a story. Television series often have mid-season or end-of-season cliffhangers, leaving audiences with a “to be continued…” message that can leave them on the edge of their seats for months, waiting for resolution in the next episode. They’re great for everyone involved; the author gets to amp up the suspense and the reader gets to speculate about what’s going to happen next. It’s just another fabulous example of the conversation of reading.
Want to add an epic cliffhanger to your next novel? This article will provide you with everything you need to know. Along the way, I’ll be providing examples of cliffhangers from books and TV shows.
What is a cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is a narrative plot device that writers use to keep their audience engaged from one piece of work to the next. In it, a story ends with a compelling element that is presumed to resolve in the next installment.
The term itself, though a little nebulous in origin, is believed to come from the 1872 serial A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. At the end of Chapter 21, Hardy shocked his readers when the character Henry Knight was left dangling from a cliff with seemingly no help in sight and no chance of rescue. This made readers anxious to come back for more during the next publication. The same technique was used for the 1930s serialized film The Perils of Pauline, which would end segments with the protagonist literally on the edge of a cliff.
The literary device is far older than our current name for it, however, with many scholars crediting One Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights in English) as the origin of the concept. In these tales, Scheherazade must tell her husband King Shahryay stories, or be executed. Scheherazade ended each of her tales with a cliffhanger ending, prompting her husband to keep her alive to find out what happens next.
After this, literary scholars and other writers started using the term “cliffhanger” to refer to any tense ending that leaves the audience wondering how in the world the characters are going to get through the next installment with either their minds or their lives intact.
Why would you use a cliffhanger?
Cliffhangers are, as mentioned, primarily used as a way of building suspense. On a practical note, this means that you’ve hooked your readers and will likely make a sale from them for the next installment purely to satisfy their curiosity.
On a functional level, however, a cliffhanger can be a great way to raise the stakes of a story between one part and the next, especially if every other aspect of the plot seems to have resolved itself and your reader can’t easily see how the story might continue.
Cliffhangers are great for any type of fictional media, but one of their best applications is in serial media - whether that’s a series of novels or a story that’s published one chapter at a time. Authors for this kind of fiction have an especially strong need to keep their readers hooked between episodes, especially during breaks such as season finales and holiday breaks. Cliffhangers can give them the momentum they need to make it to the next installment without losing readership. It can also be a great talking point that brings in new readers even during hiatuses.
Types of cliffhangers
Despite the name, a cliffhanger doesn’t have to mean that a character is literally hanging from a cliff - although it can if you want it to. There are tons of different kinds of cliffhangers that you can use to make your writing more intriguing and get your audience excited for the sequel.
A shocking twist
In this fairly classic emotional cliffhanger, a massive plot twist is revealed at the very last moment that completely changes the dynamic between characters or between the characters and the world they’re interacting with. This might include things like a massive betrayal, a huge, unexplained accusation, the appearance of an unexpected ally, or the reveal of a crucial detail.
One of the most famous examples of this is from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, with the third act reveal that (spoiler warning, if you’ve somehow avoided this until now) Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. This completely reframes our mental image of Luke, and of Vader himself; if he really is Anakin, our hero’s tragically lost Jedi father, what caused him to turn to the Dark Side? Could Vader be lying? If he isn’t, why did Obi-Wan lie to Luke? These questions brought audiences back in droves for the epic third installment in the franchise.
Running out of time
In this version of a cliffhanger, our protagonists are stranded at the end of this segment of the story with the knowledge that their time is running out fast. They might need to beat the villain to a particular location to stop their plan, which has been put into motion already. They may also be in dire circumstances - facing down a particularly dangerous trap or person, lost in the freezing cold or burning hot, severely injured, or very, very sick, and in need of immediate medical assistance. The most important thing about this kind of cliffhanger is the sense of dire urgency; something needs to happen right now, one way or another, and the audience needs to tune into the next installment to find out what happens when the clock hits zero if it ever gets that far.
A classical example of this is Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. One installment of the original serial ended with the dear Little Nell severely ill after a long and arduous journey to bring her beloved grandfather to safety. Readers were enthralled and appalled in equal measure, and just had to come back for the next issue to see what became of Nell. The fan intensity is so intense, there were reportedly riots on the docks of the New York harbor where the British ship carrying the copies of the next installment was due to arrive. Unfortunately, her story wasn’t a happy one; in one of his most controversial moves, Dickens killed her off a few chapters later!
A dreadful accident has occurred!
Similar to “running out of time” is a version of the cliffhanger where some terrible accident (or “accident,” in some cases) happens at the last possible moment. There are two ways you can pull this off: either the other characters have no idea what just happened, leaving the reader in the middle of some terrible dramatic irony, or they find out just as the last page ends, leaving the reader dreading their reactions when the curtain comes back up.
An excellently heartbreaking example of this is from Downton Abby’s third-season finale. Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley have finally been married after an on-again-off-again romance, and they are expecting a son - exactly what they needed to secure Downton’s future as staying in their family after the death of the first heir on the Titanic. In the Christmas special (ouch), Matthew visits Mary and the baby in the hospital then leaves in his car to drive home to the estate. Sadly, he never makes it; in the literal last five minutes of the episode, fans were absolutely shocked to watch his car careen off the road, and the episode ends with a shot of Matthew’s dead body, quickly juxtaposed against his smiling wife cradling their son. Talk about drama!
An impossible choice to make
Another popular choice for cliffhangers is the impossible decision. This is a version of events where the characters learn that they must make a choice that either has no positive outcome or will come at a massive cost to them personally or to their cause. These cliffhangers come up quite a bit in political intrigue and war storylines, usually with the reveal that taking down whoever’s in charge will come with significant casualties on both sides.
An easy example of this is the ending of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In this fifth installment, we’ve already had the shocking cliffhanger reveal of Voldemort’s return, so it was difficult for readers to see where the story might go. The focus throughout the entire story was coming up with a game plan for how the Order and our student protagonists might evade the Ministry’s public denials to prevent Voldemort from succeeding where he had failed before. We’re told that there is some sinister prophecy about how this can be done, and in the climactic battle in the heart of the Ministry, we finally get to hear this fateful prophecy: “Neither can live while the other survives.” To the terror of fans everywhere, the story ended on the note that Harry may not survive his final encounter with Voldemort at all!
On the theme of impossible choices, one of science fiction's greatest cliffhangers came from the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jean Luc Picard has been assimilated by the Borg, leaving Riker in a position to have to order an attack against his captain. The wait for the next season was agonizing.
All is lost…maybe
So in the hero’s journey, there’s a moment called the Dark Night of the Soul - this is essentially the moment when it looks like all hope is lost for your character and everything sucks. Normally, this moment comes in the middle of the book, and your readers can rest assured that everything will resolve itself in the remaining 100 pages. But what happens when you move that Dark Night to the end of the story? You get an epic cliffhanger that can bring your audience back full force for that sweet, sweet catharsis.
A fantastic example of this kind of cliffhanger comes at the end of the third book in Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, The Mark of Athena. In this book, our demigod heroes Annabeth and Percy are desperately fighting through hordes of monsters, gods, and other demigods to restore peace to New Rome and Camp Half-Blood before Gaia can use their turmoil to take over the world. In this installment’s climactic battle, Annabeth manages to defeat Arachne, but the spider monster clings to her just long enough to get her pulled to the mouth of Tartarus. Percy, attempting to save her, is pulled into the pit as well, and both hang from the cliff’s edge. Instead of letting that be the literal cliffhanger, Riordan goes a step further, and fans were horrified to watch Percy and Annabeth actually fall into the depths.
Whatever happened to them?
So your heroes get their victory - awesome! They turn to tell their best friend and...no one is there. Where did their friend go? What happened to them? What’s going on?! This setup can make for some pretty epic reveals later on, especially if the character who’s missing isn’t known for disappearing on their own, or if they’ve got a particularly important part of the plot carried with them. It’s also a great way to shift focus from one character to another between books.
A cool use of this cliffhanger comes from the Shades of Magic series by VE Schwab. In the first book, we see one of our antagonists, Holland, get stabbed by our protagonist and shoved through a portal into a dying world. We assume that this is the end for him - but we never see a body. In the last moments of the book, our hero Kell wonders what became of Holland, and whether he’s really gone for good, which plants the seed in the reader’s mind that maybe this isn’t the end of his story and sets up the epic reveal of his fate in the next book.
How to write a great cliffhanger
There are all kinds of amazing cliffhangers, it’s true, but to get them right, you have to know what makes a cliffhanger tick and gets your audience excited for the big reveal. Here are some tips for writing cliffhangers that hook your reader and swing them deeper into the story.
Give the readers room to speculate
The whole point of a cliffhanger is to offer your reader a tiny taste of what’s to come and keep them interested long enough for the next installment to arrive. By design, then, cliffhangers need to give your audience something to speculate about.
To do this, consider leaving your reader with big questions by showing the big picture and only a few key details at a time. Show your character getting shot, but don’t show us who shot them (“Who shot J.R.” was a famous cliffhanger in the soap opera Dallas, which aired from 1978-1991). Show us the character “winning” at the end of the first novel in a series (and market it as a series!), but make it clear that something is missing. Show your main character in the depths of their despair, seeing no way out, but give us elements in the lead–up that haven’t been resolved enough for this to really be the end.
If you’re really lucky, you’ll stir up some fandom speculation and theory-making. If you’re really, really lucky (or ridiculously talented), then some of those theories will even be right! Getting people talking about various plot points and what might happen sparks their curiosity and makes them eager for that big reveal or resolution. After all, there’s a reason behind the phrase, “curiosity may have killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.”
Keep the focus on the characters that matter
Cliffhangers only really work if you keep them laser-focused on the most important parts of the story. You want to build suspense, and it’s hard to do that when we’re panning around the story with multiple plotlines. Instead, keep your focus small and sharp. Ask yourself:
- Which characters have the highest stakes?
- Which characters will be involved in the big reveal?
- Which characters have had their arcs resolved in this part of the story, and which ones still have some work left to do?
It can also be a good idea to use these questions in reverse; by strategically not showing us an important character’s actions until the very last second, you can hide what they’re doing from the reader and pull off a fun “whatever happened to them” ending!
Let there be a payoff in the next installment
The absolute most important part of a cliffhanger is what happens next. If you learn nothing else from this guide, remember this: for a cliffhanger to be effective, it needs a satisfying payoff in the next installment. We as readers need to know who shot who, whether someone lived or died, or where that character’s actions led them relatively soon or we’ll get frustrated and may give up on the story entirely.
Even if you’re not revealing what happened right away, make reference to your cliffhanger to let us know that you haven’t forgotten about it. Foreshadow the resolution in your writing, hinting to it to keep your reader interested.
Still, try not to go more than one book (or about two installments of a serial piece) ahead with your resolution; your payoff, or at least part of it, needs to be relatively close to your cliffhanger, so that you can capitalize on the suspense appropriately. This builds trust with your reader and can make it easier for them to trust you with riskier writing moves later on.
Cliffhangers are fascinating devices that can make your writing sharper, more interesting, and way more fun for everyone involved. They can be as simple or as complex as you want to make them, as long as your readers get some sort of reward for the shock you’re putting them through.
The next time your characters are staring down the barrel of a gun, consider letting them stare a little longer and giving your audience a chance to guess who’s behind the trigger and whether or not they’ll pull it.