Friday, October 23, 2015

10 Types of Chapter Ending Cliffhangers

Must. Read. On.
Image: Paul Bence
Chapter Endings are so important. But how do we write them effectively? It's simple, really.
Basically we want to end the chapter so that our readers will say:

     "Oooh! Can't stop now -- Just one more chapter!"

Okay, great. But how do we DO that? All chapter endings have a few key components. Over the course of your chapter, you will have introduced conflict that has now built up to a tantalizing climax. But argh, how to end it?

    Well. This post is for you!

The Two Key Ingredients of Chapter Endings:
  • Closure for the previous chapter's conflict (at least partial closure)
  • Introduction of a new, tangible conflict
I know that this may be controversial, but I'm going to go ahead and say it. 
If you're doing you're job right, you basically want to end almost EVERY chapter with a cliffhanger.

     ( ...but there are lots of types of cliffhangers. They're not all what you'd think.)


10 Types of Chapter-Ending Cliffhangers 

Having scoured the interwebs, and also having written my fair share of chapter endings over the years, I've come to realize that there's more than one way to inject your chapter end with a must-read-on-moment (aka cliffhanger). Quite a few in fact. I've grouped them into categories here. 
  • The Imminent Doom
  • The Sense of Foreboding
  • The Surprise Twist
  • The Discovery
  • The Failure
  • The Emotional Hook
  • The Vow / Decision
  • The Dilemma
  • The False Lull
  • The Promise

1. The Imminent Doom

This is what we classically think of when we picture 'a cliffhanger' and where the term comes from. It's when, at the end of the chapter, we leave the reader hanging with the protagonist if not literally off the edge of a cliff, at least in dire straits or mortal peril. 
  • The Gunshot/Arrow/Knife to the Chest
  • The Blackout/Fall/Car Crash
  • The Dangle from a Precipice
  • The Look Down the Barrel of a Gun
  • The Natural Disaster

But ... 

This is not the only type of cliffhanger. There are more you can (and should) use. Lots more.


2. The Sense of Foreboding

Rather than leaving the protagonist in actual physical peril, sometimes simply tugging the reader along in fear of what's to come is enough. This may simply be a sentence or two setting the tone for the next scene and the next conflict. It may be an Inner Monologue from the protagonist expressing their dread. It could be a "sign" from the universe that the MC interprets as a bad omen.
  • The Knock on the Door
  • The Shadows in the Mist
  • The Invasion Begins
  • The Feeling That Something's Not Quite Right
  • The Bad Omen
3. The Surprise Twist

Reversals and plot twists are kind of a staple of writing, so instead of burying them mid-scene, why not end the chapter with one? Show the main character being betrayed by someone they trusted. Show a presumed enemy acting as an ally. Show a side character you've built up as a suspect in a situation which reveals their innocence. 
  • The Plot Re-direction
  • The Suspect Vindicated
  • The Two-Faced Friend / The Betrayal
  • The Unexpected Accusation
  • The Unlikely Ally

4. The Discovery 

Related to the surprise twist, "The Discovery" is a moment where in the MC obtains a key piece of information related to the plot. Unlike the "Surprise Twist", however, it's something that the MC has actively been seeking and expecting. With this one, the key to making it an exciting chapter end is all in the execution. Show the MC opening the lockbox that contains the important documents she's been searching for ... but don't show what's in the box. Or, reveal the clue, but then show how it takes her backwards rather than forwards. Show her finally getting what she wants, only to realize that it's not actually what she wanted.
  •  Game Changing Info
  •  Object of Desire Obtained, but ...
  •  Next Clue / New Lead, but ...

5. The Failure  

Another great ending (so long as it's not overused), is "The Failure" -- it's a low moment in the book, where the MC has been working so hard to achieve something only to fail miserably ... whether due to internal shortcomings, the antagonist, or other external barriers. Readers will feel so sorry for your MC, they'll have to read on to see how he/she gets out of this.

  •  The Big Mistake
  •  The Closed Door / Missed Opportunity
  •  The Lost Soul

    Example: "Karou saw them and understood. The way to Elsewhere had been severed, and she was cast adrift." -- {  from Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor  }

6. The Emotional Hook

This is a similar ending to "The Failure," but distinct in that rather than being directly plot related, this is simply an emotional moment for the main character. The estrangement of a dear friend, a rejection by a crush, a private, public and/or viral humiliation, the thrilling anticipation of a special outing / first date / proposal. The key here is to end on a poignant moment that tugs at the reader's heartstrings. One way to do that is to break the chapter at a key moment where the MC pivots from one strong emotion to another. For example: A build-up of hope ... only to have it crash down right at the last. A chapter that seems darker than dark which cuts away with a light at the end of the tunnel. 

  • The Loss
  • The Rejection
  • The Embarassment
  • The Thrill 
  • The Longing

7. The Decision or Vow

You can probably only really use this once, or maybe twice per book. Unless your character is a really voicey MG protagonist and is always "vowing" to do things. Anyway. This could go alongside many of the other Cliffhangers as (a) a sort of one-line "zinger" at the end, where the MC vows to get revenge, to beat her enemy etc. Alternatively, this could take the form of (b) a choice that the MC makes, and the reader knows the options, but not which path the MC will take .... until the next chapter (thus making it a cliffhanger) :)
  • The Vow to Act
  • The Decision/Choice is made  (but not revealed until next chapter)

8. The Dilemma

You could almost think of this Chapter Ending as the set-up to "The Decision." It's where (1) it's first revealed that the MC has an important choice to make, and/or (2) the consequences of that choice become painfully clear. The MC may take a long time to get around to making the decision (chapters even), but this is where the dilemma is first presented.

  • Which Needs Changing: Self or Others?
  • Speak/Act Up or Remain Silent?
  • [Career] vs. [Relationship] etc etc
  • Who Do I Trust?
  • Moral Dilemma

9. The False Lull

Think of this as "The Calm Before the Storm." It's where you end the chapter on a happy, relaxed, hopeful, or joyful note. The key is to do so in such a way that makes the reader say: "oh no, this is too good to last."

  • I've finally gotten my heart's desire
  • I'm just about to get everything I ever wanted
  • I'm in a happy place

10. The Promise 

This is where you end just before showing something that you know the reader has been dying to see. In Romance, this might be the when the MC and the crush have "a first moment/kiss/proposal." In Fantasy or Sci-Fi, maybe it's a cool setting, thing, or place that the MC keeps hinting at, but now you're finally going to show it. Again, here, the key is to hint (strongly) that this is about to happen, but don't show it  until the next chapter. (okay maybe a tiny peek. tiny.) You're promising the reader that in the next chapter, you'll show them that awesome moment/scene/setting that they've been dying to read about for pages and pages.


     It's Almost Time for...
  • The New World
  • The Epic Battle
  • The First Date/Kiss/Proposal
  • The Healing/Letting Go
  • The Light at the End of the Tunnel

11. BONUS: The Revelation / The Idea

In some ways, this sort of like a combination of "The Promise" and "The Discovery." It's when your MC has an "aha" moment. It'll likely be plot-related, but could also be your protag realizing something about her/himself as a person, or about a significant relationship, etc. Again, here, the success is in the execution. One way to leave it cliffhangery would be to show that an "aha moment" was had, but not show what the MC has thought of ... until the next chapter. Another approach might be to reveal the basic revelation (or a piece of it) straight away, but not it's broader/deeper significance in the story, so that the readers are left scratching their heads, going "wait, how is that going to help?"

A Few More Tips and Tricks:

  • Techniques that can work:

          End with...
    • A dangling question
    • A new person or object
    • A switch of emotion for the MC
    • A teaser of a new scene
  • Don't bury the hook. End with it.
  • Be specific. Vague doom isn't scary.
  • Don't (always) give the reader what they want at the beginning of the next chapter
  • Write your cliffhanger "zinger" lines in advance ... when you're plotting your first MS draft.

More Resources:

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