The dirty secret about cliffhangers is that they work.
Whether they’re corny, cheesy, clichéd, obvious, predictable or downright contrived.
Sure, you may well get called a hack and a cheap manipulator, but cliffhangers only guarantee the reader will cross the chapter break, they don’t guarantee they’ll like what they find when they get there.
Obviously, it would be preferable if writers used this technique for good instead of evil. But we all know that's not how cliffhangers are used for the most part. Anyone with a television set can see the abuse and misuse they are put to nightly. Still, it’s worth having this weapon in your arsenal. How you use it is your affair.
The simplest and the most common: physical peril. If doom is impending, seeing how a character manages to avoid it works even when the solution turns out to be fairly straightforward (he ducked!).
Rather than a simple choice, the dilemma offers the added cliffhanger of ‘The Consequences’. If Jack is clinging for dear life off a cliff, and in the next chapter he manages to get a handhold and work his way to safety, that’s the end of that. But if Jack’s only chance of survival is to cut fellow climber Tim loose, sending him plunging to his death, and then climb to safety, the consequences of his actions have already become the next cliffhanger. Chaining cliffhangers together is an excellent way to give readers no convenient point of disembarkation.
What’s in the box?
When something hidden is revealed—in a safe, behind a curtain, the contents of a letter—opening the box but not revealing what’s in it never fails. Cheap? Yes. Effective? No doubt.
Will they or won’t they?
Romance outcome is always going to keep the attention. Doesn’t matter how obvious it is that they will end up together, readers want confirmation. And once they have it, they will lose all interest, so best to save it for as near the end as possible.
Why did he do that?
Unexpected behaviour, something unusual or out of place, requires explanation. If the bank robbers prepare to go into the bank—guns, masks, explosives—and then they all put on their tap dancing shoes, you’re going to want to know what the hell they plan to do.
When someone’s secret is discovered, when the thing they’ve always feared would ruin them gets out, what happens? How do people react? How does the owner of the secret react? Is it as bad as they feared? Worse? The only real reason to give a character a secret is to see what happens when it’s revealed.
Will it work?
When you go to the trouble of coming up with a complicated plan to get the thing you really want, whether it’s a girl or a diamond or a murder, the moment the plan is put into action, the reader wants to know whether it will be successful.
It’s gone wrong!
When things don’t go to plan, what’s our hero going to do? Give up? No way. Improvising a solution is more exciting than when things go smoothly. Let’s see you get out of this one, says the reader.
I’m about to explain all
At some point he figures it out. He knows who did it, or how it was done, or whatever. But just because the character knows, that doesn’t mean he’s going to spill the beans right away. Very annoying, but no one’s going to stop reading now, right?
Of course, it’s best not to set up a cliffhanger and then reveal there was no real danger. It was just the cat, or a wrong number or a dream. That’s lazy and amateurish. But it still works. Every time. Not saying you should use it. Just saying.
You set up the big cliffhanger at the end of Ch.4, with the girl tied to the bomb, the countdown on ten seconds, the hero still locked in a police cell on the other side of town. Then Ch.5, a man buying cheese in a cheese shop... WTF? No bomb, no girl, no hero. How can this be? Oh, it can be, alright. It’s irritating, it’s frowned upon, it’s hated by readers... but they’ll keep reading.
Disclaimer: I’m just splitting atoms for the purposes of science.
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