How to Use Chapter Cliffhangers in Your Fiction

Note: I’m taking a two-week break from the usual post and podcast, so am sharing this shortie instead. Enjoy!

We all want to write stories that keep readers turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. We want readers to reach the end of a chapter and be gripped with an undeniable need to keep reading. We want to them take a look at the clock and promise themselves, Just one more chapter—and then have that “one more” morph into half the book.

We’ve all read books like this. So what’s the secret to writing one?

In a word: chapter cliffhangers.

How you craft the closing paragraph of your chapters has a huge effect on whether or not readers will decide to read “one more chapter”—or stick their bookmarks between the pages and leave your characters in limbo until tomorrow night. You must give them a reason to keep reading: a question that must be answered, a character that must be saved from a dire predicament, or a surge of forward motion in the plot progression.

Fantasy powerhouse Brandon Sanderson did this admirably in The Well of Ascension, the second book in his beloved Mistborn series (and, really, all his books). This heavyweight 800-page novel reads more like a fast 350 pages thanks, in large part, to chapter breaks that don’t feel like breaks at all… they’re more like accelerators.

Sanderson ends every one of his chapters with a hook that draws readers directly into the next chapter. He never ties off all the loose ends, and he always gives a hint of something exciting, intriguing, or unexpected around the corner in the subsequent scene.

Although some of his chapters do indeed end with the characters in mortal danger (in essence, hanging off a cliff), he understands this extremism isn’t always necessary and that, indeed, it would grow monotonous and begin to feel gimmicky to readers if overused.

For example, the first chapter ends with this in medias res action beat:

At that moment, a burst of coins shot through the mists, spraying toward Vin.

But Chapter 4 teases readers with a subtler hook:

“Come,” Sazed said, turning toward the village. “There are other things—more practical things—that I can teach you.”

To achieve the same effect in your own fiction, follow his example of masterfully varying the intensity of the hooks, while always promising readers something worthwhile in the next chapter—and then fulfilling that promise.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you used chapter cliffhangers on your fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Interesting. That’s good news, because my story doesn’t have a lot of cliffs to leave my characters on.

  2. dylanwestauthor says

    You had me at Mistborn 🙂

  3. Thanks for tackling this important topic. What about when the next chapter changes the POV or location or time? How long can you leave that previous character hanging off a cliff before the reader becomes annoyed, or worse, forgets?

    • “But that was nothing compared to what was happening to Character B.”

      “He had no idea what would come at him a week later.”

    • I have this same problem. I have several characters doing different things in different places, but all linked to the main storyline. I would be interested to hear what you have to say about this, too.

  4. I would love to leave the chapter open-ended with a character about to die, and then switch to some other more monotonous, pain-stacking intricate scene that leaves the readers pulling their hair out. I’ve been there before and now I want retribution! Just kidding there. But as much as I would like to do that, it might not always be necessary.
    In my opinion, it could go either way. Sometimes, it is the high-paced action that turns readers off. I’ve been there too. So I think that it is tantamount as writers to execute this tastefully, and not butcher it. After all, it has to be based somewhat in reality, and in reality we do not see people diving off cliffs from a day to day basis. I think the best way to end a chapter is to leave just a little bit of information and or impetus that would bridge into the next. Of course the climax of the story is the one exception to this! 🙂

  5. Shouldn’t there be a cliffhanger for next week’s column? Jus’ sayin’.

  6. I like the varied cliffhangers. I want to keep them reading but not worn out and frustrated. Curiosity is powerful, even on a small scale.

  7. Making cliffhangers is one of my favorite parts of writing fiction. I love teasing readers.

  8. I think a “cliffhanger” at the end of every chapter grows tiresome. I think you need something unresolved, something to propel your reader to the next chapter.

  9. Dennis Strack says

    This kind of reminds of how the author Dan Brown ended his chapter in the fantastic book The Da Vinci Code. Many authors I’ve read tend to keep their chapters about the same length. That’s not how Brown wrote the Da Vinci Code, but the book really reads well.

  10. Grace Dvorachek says

    Sometimes, I write cliffhangers that have to do with the internal conflict, rather than the external conflict. For example, a supporting character might darkly remark something before leaving the room, causing questions of their loyalty to the Truth to flare up in readers’ minds. Or the MC might make an inward decision that leads readers to wonder what consequences this might have on the MC’s inward journey.

  11. I agree cliffhangers are great, but to me, what really great writers do is create characters and a world that I long to visit every day, or if I can, just remain in that world until the end. Then I want to read the sequel! That’s what I loved about Wayfairer. I looked forward to going back there every day.

  12. I use the following, somewhat in order of frequency:
    1. POV character is left with a puzzle they are trying to work through, likely about themselves.
    2. POV character is left charging off in a direction that should worry the reader. Most frequently used for antagonist POVs.
    3. POV character is left in physical danger.

    I suspect my writing would be more enjoyable if I used #3 more often, and #1 less often.

  13. This! I love reading books with frequent cliffhangers and want to add them to my stories. Chapter by Chapter, if possible.

    Teresa

  14. Actually, cliffhangers aren’t hard. Customer overhears conversation between a clerk and her friend. And when asked, “Is there anything else you need?” the customer replies, “Yes. Can you tell me why you expected the Erfinder Gilde to be robbed?”

  15. Since I write action adventure stories for teens, I find I leave a cliffhanger at every chapter and switch POVs. I sometimes hate it in other’s novels, but it comes naturally as I write. Some things just work, so you just use them.

  16. I love writing cliffhangers at the end of paragraphs in my manuscripts. Members of my writing group usually say something like, “Oh, great cliffhanger” or “You got me wondering what will happen next,” when I read my stories at our meetings.

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