Is it true that every chapter of your novel needs to end on a cliffhanger? If so, then what exactly is a cliffhanger? And if not, then why does everyone say you should end on a cliffhanger?
How can I make readers keep reading?
One thing that I’ve really struggled with is understanding what my teachers mean when they tell me that I have to keep my readers reading. They always tell me to try and have some sort of cliffhanger so that the readers don’t put the book down.
First of all, what exactly does that mean? Second, how can I achieve that?
I really do want to keep my readers interested, but I don’t know exactly how I’m supposed to do that, or what I’m supposed to do to not make my readers expect the next cliffhanger.
Randy sez: If you’re writing an over-the-top action-adventure novel, then typically most scenes end with a cliffhanger—your protagonist is figuratively hanging from a cliff by his fingertips. The key word here is “figuratively.” Most novels don’t have cliffs. If you want to get more literal, the scene ends with the protatonist in some sort of life-or-death situation with no obvious way out. That’s what we mean by a cliffhanger.
And that’s fine, if you’re writing an over-the-top action-adventure novel. That’s what your target audience wants.
But not every novel is over the top, because there are all different kinds of target audiences.
And it’s not true, even in an action-adventure novel, that every single scene needs to end with a cliffhanger.
The Two Ways to End a Scene
Yes, you want to end every scene in a way that gives your reader a reason to turn the page and read the next scene. But you’ve actually got two options here:
- End your scene with your point-of-view character in trouble.
- End your scene with your point-of-view character making a risky decision.
I discuss these two options in my latest book, How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. If you want all the details, with examples from several best-selling novels, you can check that out.
In this post, we’ll consider only the case where the scene ends with trouble.
The Right Kind of Trouble
Ending a scene with your POV character in trouble is good, but it needs to be the right kind of trouble. The right kind of trouble will make your reader worry about your character.
If your POV character is a sleazy, vicious gangster trying to rob a bank, and the robbery goes wrong, and the cops arrive and arrest him at the end of the scene, that’s certainly trouble. But your reader probably won’t worry about that character, because the creep is going to get what’s coming to him. Your reader might keep reading to see justice served. But then again, maybe not.
But suppose your POV character is a decent guy who was coming to the bank to ask for a loan to send his daughter to college. On the way in the door, he’s grabbed by gangsters who put a gun to his head and use him as a human shield. They force him to hand over the note to the teller. Then the SWAT team busts in, there’s a shootout, and the gangsters are all killed. By some miracle, your POV character is left alive, but the cops don’t know he’s a good guy, so they arrest him. Now your reader has to turn the page.
What’s the difference?
In the first case, the gangster deserves trouble, and gets it. That’s justice, and it’s no cause for worry.
In the second case, your character doesn’t deserve trouble, but gets it anyway. That’s injustice, and it’s great cause for worry.
If you’re going to end your scene with trouble, make it the right kind of trouble.
Who’s in Trouble?
Every scene has a POV character, but that character might not be the protagonist of your novel. The POV character might be the novel’s villain Or your protagonist’s love interest. Or the village goofball.
If your POV character is the villain of the story, then as we saw above, it’s not all that interesting to get him in trouble. That’s not going to force your reader to turn the page.
But what if your villain ends the scene with a success? Suppose your POV character is a vicious gangster who robs a bank and runs out the door with a big bag of cash, intent on jumping in his getaway car. Then he sees the cops coming, so he grabs an innocent bystander and drags her into the car with him to prevent the cops shooting.
That’s not trouble for your POV character. But it’s trouble for the woman they hauled into the car. And it’s trouble for the cops. Once again, that’s an injustice. And your reader’s going to worry. Your reader will turn the page.
If you’re going to end your scene with trouble, make it trouble for the right person.
But How Much Trouble?
One issue here is that most novels are not over-the-top. Not all readers are looking for a bank robbery in every scene. If you’re writing a novel at a lower level of tension, that’s fine.
But you still need to end your scenes with trouble. Scale the trouble down to the level of tension your target audience is looking for.
And this is where I have a problem with the term “cliffhanger.” That word implies a high level of tension. High tension may not be appropriate for your novel.
But trouble is always appropriate. Seeing your characters in trouble is one of the reasons your readers read.
If you’re going to end your scene with trouble, make it the right level of trouble for your book.
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