Don’t Tie Off Your Scenes With a Ribbon

Cliffhangers. Even cooking shows do ’em nowadays. Ever watched Chopped? Just as Ted Allen’s lifting the cloche to reveal the dish that failed the round, Food Network jumps to a commercial. And you have to watch. No way you can go through the rest of the night without knowing who made the best appetizer out of the octopus, raisins, and Grape Nehi that were in the basket, right?

Authors need to master the art of developing cliff hangers. They’re like the antidote to the bookmark. Resist the urge to tie everything up with a pretty little ribbon. Scene to scene, chapter to chapter, end with something that forces the reader to turn the page. And once they do, reward them with a reason to do it again.

The most obvious cliffhanger technique is ending the chapter/scene at an action high-point.

A bullet whizzed past Kayla’s head. She ducked and twisted to glance behind her. “They’re shooting at us!”

“I can’t think about that right now!” Justin yanked the paddle from one side to the other, trying to control the kayak’s crazy spin. “Hang on!”

End of chapter.

For the next chapter, you have all sorts of options: Do you want to continue with Justin and Kayla? Or do you want to divert to another tense spot? Maybe you want to show the shooter’s frustration over missing them and how much trouble he gets into for his failure. Maybe you want to slip all the way over to Cornpatch, Iowa, to show innocent Aunt Minnie getting a garbled phone call about how Kayla will die if Minnie doesn’t relinquish the golden statue right this minute: “But I don’t have it! I don’t know where it is!” “Then you’ll never see your niece again!”

Poor Aunt Minnie. She doesn’t know her niece is getting shot at and is spinning in a kayak caught in a strong current.

For those who aren’t writing action/thriller/suspense novels into which you can plop these stop-action chapter endings, you can still have a page-turner. High-octane scenes aren’t the only candidates for cliff-hanger status. Any scene can encourage your reader to move forward if you leave something there to niggle at her brain.

Did he just find out she’s not a lady of the court? He reins his Friesian around to face her. “If you’re not Lady Cornwall, who are you?” Wait until the next chapter—or even later—to tell him she’s a cabaret dancer.

Is she sweaty-palmed with pre-show jitters? Terrified she’ll freeze when the camera comes on? The last line in the chapter should be the director jabbing his finger in her direction. Action! What if the entire point of the chapter is to allow your reader to rest while your character reflects? If she’s going to be happy at the end of the chapter—“He loves me!”—pop her bubble in the next. And if you really want to assure page-turning, foreshadow the pin that’ll do it.

Will she end the chapter with a resolution to do whatever needs to get done? As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again! Then smack her with a roadblock in the next scene—perhaps one the reader already knows is coming, even if the character doesn’t.

Has doubt snaked into his confidence? Say so–He frowns at the $4,000-diamond ring in his hand. “What if she says no?”—and end it there.

Even in slow scenes, the emotion can be amped, so when the fall comes, it’s hard and dramatic. And irresistible to your reader. If you can’t end the scene in the middle of the action, end with a question, an attitude, an emotion strong enough to blow the reader’s hair back, but don’t end it in a tidy little package. You may not have noticed, but the ribbon comes with a bookmark attached.

Tell me your opinion: How does your latest scene convince readers to keep turning the pages?

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About Linda Yezak

Linda W. Yezak lives with her husband and their funky feline, PB, in a forest in deep East Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She has a deep and abiding love for her Lord, her family, and salted caramel. And coffee---with a caramel creamer. Author of award-winning books and short stories, she didn't begin writing professionally until she turned fifty. Taking on a new career every half century is a good thing.

Comments

  1. Thanks for hosting me, Katie!

  2. Great stuff, Linda! Patricia Talbert would be proud.

    In EVERY scene you have to leave a bit of a tease for what’s happening – and authors are getting BETTER and BETTER! It’s harder and harder to put that bookmark in.

  3. I’m still hanging on that cliff wondering what will happen to poor Patricia Talbert.

    Have a blessed day.
    Heather

  4. You can’t end every chapter with a cliffhanger, at least, not a big dramatic cliffhanger. Especially if, for instance, the book takes place over a longer span of time and days or weeks (or years) occur off-screen (as it were).

    Aside from timing constraints, endless cliffhangers become exhausting for the reader and the author. When cliffhangers are shoehorned into the end of every chapter, even the best authors tend to get lazy with them, and the “dire situation” the character is in ends up being resolved in the first two sentences of the next chapter before going on to what the chapter’s really about.

    The TV version of True Blood has this problem. The writers are probably required by contract to end every episode on a cliffhanger, so the last two minutes of every episode are devoted to a main character being about to die, and the first thirty seconds of every episode are devoted to them not dying, and then we move on to what the episode is really about. At this point, no one takes the cliffhangers seriously; whatever is happening at the end of the episode will be resolved in the first minute of the next one. I would actually prefer if they ended the episodes before the “cliffhanger” and started episodes with the dire situation.

  5. Good advice, Linda. As always!

    Patricia Talbert would be proud, wouldn’t she?

  6. Elaine Sowell says

    I bet Patricia Talbert loves a good cliff-hanger.

  7. While I agree with Sam that you can’t end every chapter with a cliffhanger, I certainly thing that ending many chapters on an emotional high-note or with a question/cliffhanger is a great way to keep the pages turning. Even when you’re giving the reader a break (as Sam said, too many cliffhangers could lead to reader exhaustion), I think you could still probably get away with ending the chapter with some doubts and tension, which would keep the story interesting, but not be quite as tolling as a full cliffhanger.

    Great post!

  8. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Linda! It’s a pleasure and an honor.

  9. Thanks and good luck to everyone who’s participating in the Horsin’ Around Giveaway!

    @Sam: I agree. Not every chapter can end in a cliff-hanger, but it can end with a question, an attitude, or an amped emotion. The point is to make your novel a page-turner, make it hard for the reader to put it down, by ending a chapter with something that will encourage the reader to turn the page and keep going.

    @Ava–Absolutely. Ending with doubts and tension would keep the story interesting. Not all books have the type of action that is required for the stereotypical “cliff-hanger” ending. That’s when the alternatives come into play.

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

  10. Good advice, Linda. Patricia Talbert was fortunate to have you telling her story.

  11. Great post and comments. During revisions I’ve had to go through the last paragraphs of every chapter to ensure that I end with a cliff-hanger or on an emotional note. I found that 80% of my chapters missed the mark on the first round. By the second round I get it down to 25%.

  12. This is actually surprisingly important in fanfiction online. On days when I like to feel important, I say fanfiction is the new weekly novel or whatever it was that Dickens did…published in small installments and eventually one big story.

  13. @Lorna–thanks for the comment. Good luck in the contest!

    @AlvaradoFrazier–that’s great! I agree that chapter endings should be double-checked during revisions. When writing that first draft, don’t sweat it.

  14. This post was informative AND entertaining! Thanks! (Now I want to know…did Aunt Minnie find the statue? Did the girl say yes to the big ring???)

  15. Giggle! Guess you proved my point, Julie. The reader wants to know!

  16. A book that has chapters that end with a cliff-hanger is hard to put down. And this advice is great, because it works for all genres.

  17. Thanks, Karen. I’m glad you agree!

  18. Gotta love Patricia [email protected]

  19. I agree, it IS getting harder to put the bookmark in. Great post!!

  20. Angie–good luck in the contest!

    Traci–glad you liked the post!

  21. PS TO SHEILA H: YOU WON THE DRAWING FROM WORDPLAY! BE SURE TO CHECK ON 777 PEPPERMINT PLACE FOR YOUR PRIZE!

    CONGRATS!

  22. This was very helpful Linda. I use cliffhangers a lot but not at the end of every scene. My stories are composed of several short (1-3 page) scenes which jump from character to character (keeps the pace moving quickly) but only every 3 or 4 scenes do I leave a cliffhanger. Not sure if I can do that every few pages of the story.

  23. Wendy–you’ve got a great point. Early in my novels, I tend to write short scenes. The way I figure it, the scene size itself is a way to keep a reader going. “One more scene, then I’ll quit.” I’ve said those words myself when reading. 😀

  24. I have fun to do this, but is not always necessary, or it becomes redundant.

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