Watch Out for the Cliff!

cliff signBack when I was a little teeny writer, I read a lot of Nancy Drew books. I loved them – they were stories about a smart and resourceful heroine who faced a little bit of danger that wasn’t too graphic, and she always caught the crooks in the end.

But they aren’t terribly well-written. Here’s an example from The Bungalow Mystery. Nancy and her friend Helen are picked up by a girl named Laura, who is rowing them to safety in a storm when things take a dangerous turn:

Another zigzag streak of lightning disclosed the shore line more distinctly. A short distance out from the land and directly in front of their boat stood the ugly protruding nose of a jagged boulder!

End Chapter 1. What a cliffhanger! I need to keep reading! So I flip to Chapter 2 and – hey, look! They’re still in the boat:

For an instant Nancy panicked. Would the girls be able to steer clear of the menacing rocks? A collision seemed unavoidable!

“We’ll be killed!” gasped Helen.

“Row to the left, Laura!” Nancy commanded. “It’s our only chance.”

And in another paragraph or two, the girls have made it past the danger and all is well. My seven-year-old self was vastly relieved, I’m sure. But my fifty-something self is thinking: what a waste of a perfectly good cliffhanger!

(Simmer down, guys. I’m done with the exclamation marks now.)

Writing a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter is a great way to heighten the tension in your story and encourage your reader to keep going (well past their bedtime, even). But if you’re going to do it, don’t blow it. Here are a few tips for getting the most mileage out of a cliffhanger:

  • Change story lines. If your story has several plot strands, a good technique is to switch to another part of the plot. Say what you will about Dan Brown, but the guy is a genius at this. He’ll trap Dr. Robert Langdon in an underground crypt with no way out, and leave him there for a chapter or two while he describes some gunman flogging himself with a cat o’ nine tails or something.
  • Let some time pass “offstage.” Nancy Drew is always the point of view character in her books, so changing story lines isn’t going to work – there’s no other story line to change to. But Laura could clunk her on the head with a paddle (accidentally or not), or Nancy could fall over the side – anything to make her check out for a bit. Or a flashback might work, depending on how it’s handled.
  • At least switch scenes. If you want to end on a zinger in the middle of a conversation, okay. But don’t do this:

Dana’s eyes narrowed. “Enjoy your next breath,” she growled. “It will be your last.”

Chapter 2

Felix’s hand flew to his throat. “Whatever do you mean, Dana, dear?” he cried.

“What I mean,” she said menacingly, “is that you forgot to lower the toilet seat again.”

What a waste, huh? I’ve seen this kind of thing in trad-pubbed books and it always makes me want to throw the book across the room. Don’t be that author. And look out for those rocks!

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Watch Out for the Cliff!”

  1. Thanks for the hints about cliffhangers, Lynne. I recently finished reading a Nancy Drew book and know just what you mean.

    1. You’re welcome, Helen. I was disappointed that my daughters didn’t really get into Nancy Drew, but looking at it from a writer’s perspective, now I’m kind of glad. 😀

    1. My younger sister was not a reader. Then, one day she took a Hardy Boys book out of the library, read and loved it. Did it turn her into a reader? No. She said it was so good she didn’t want to read another in case it wasn’t as good as the one she’d read! I’m glad to say she did eventually discover the delights of reading other books.

  2. Great stuff, Lynne, thank you. What irks me is when an author cliffhangs a chapter ending, and then we don’t pick up that story line for, oh, seven or eight chapters. By then I’ve forgotten about the train hurtling down the track to the blown-out bridge or that the bad guy has just chloroformed our hero.

      1. I waited to answer this, in order to build the suspense. 😉

        Right — that’s the flip side of the coin. You can’t let the car dangle off the cliff for too long, or you’ll lose your reader. Either they’ll forget what’s going on, or they’ll be ready to kill you for making them wait so long.

  3. I do a lot of switching to another plotline (not being a big fan of the whole “multiple POV’s panic readers” school) but sometimes just a chapter break will do the trick. There is a hard to define psychological closure with a new chapter.
    And in short fiction, you tend not to have anywhere else to go.
    And by “chapter break”, I could also imply a double return… anything that interrupts the structure.
    Oddly, I”m working on a short story right now, something I seldom do. I’m writing a new ending to replace one that was lost in a computer glitch like 20 years ago…a hard-boiled ‘tec story for my first collection of shorts “GUYStuff” (keep breathlessly watching this space).
    The classic Mike Hammer act curtain…

    . I saw Jude’s bare legs, face-down on the bed. I took three steps towards the bedroom before it hit me that I should look behind me. Turned out that was two steps too many. I caught a glimpse of her moving up behind me, something like a crowbar or fire iron… then everything exploded around me and the lights went down.
    There are better ways to come to than with your hands wired to your ankles and the back of your head bashed in.

    1. An excellent example of the “passage of time offstage” type, Lin. 🙂

      A chapter break or section break (your double return) will work — as long as you switch scenes. It’s the scene switch that’s crucial in making a cliffhanger ending work.

  4. I can’t remember if I read Nancy Drew or not, but I suspect back then I was reading The Famous Five books, by Enid Blyton. Were they well written? I have no idea. I do remember feeling crushed every time one ended though. Maybe it’s time to re-read some of those childhood treasures to see how and why we loved them so much.

    Great post, Lynne.

  5. I also devoured Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books as a kid. I tried to read them again when my niece was old enough for them and had to cringe a bit. Kids books sure have come a long way.

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