Hello, Writers!

 

You’ve probably read the title of this episode and wondered, what do cliffhangers have to do with outlining?

 

I’m so glad you asked. Let me explain.

 

If you’re the kind of writer who needs to outline every scene, you need to be aware of the types of cliffhangers and how to effectively use them to create a page-turning effect and not turn readers away. In fact, there is more than one type of cliffhanger—there are four.

 

So, in this episode, I’ll unpack the four types of cliffhangers in fiction so that you can avoid the common pitfalls and end your scenes with cliffhangers in a way that keeps the reader turning the page.

 

Without further ado, let’s get into the episode.

About the Mini-Series

You’ll probably have noticed that I’ve mentioned that this is part of a four-part mini-series on writing great scenes. But, I’m still leaving this open-ended because I want to leave room for a topic that I might have overlooked, so I can give the series as many episodes as it needs. 

 

Why? 

 

Because I want this episode to help you to write better scenes. And in the spirit of that helpfulness, I’ve also included another writing exercise in this show as well.

 

Coming up in this series, you can expect episodes on:

 

And, just in case you’ve missed it, the first episode in this series answers the age-old question: what is a scene?

 

Thank You

If you’re new to this podcast, I want to say a huge thank you for stopping by and trying out my show. To those of you who have been faithfully listening, thank you for regularly listening in and supporting me; your support means more to me than you know.

About The Three-Act-Structure eBook

Slowly, over the last few months, I’ve been working on creating a three-act-structured ebook based on season one of the podcast. It’s taking a while because I’m rewriting the episodes so they flow and sound more like a nonfiction novel than a collection of blog posts. And, as I’ve been going through this book, I’ve come to realise that I didn’t do an episode on Romance structure because while it follows the three-act format, there are important things that you need to know when writing in this genre.

 

Do you want me to create an episode on romance structure for the podcast?

 

Let me know by commenting under the YouTube video or in the comments section below this blog post. Or, if you’re listening on Spotify, you can submit your answer by filling out the Q&A at the end of this episode.

A Word About Using Cliffhangers

Before we start, I want to preface this topic of cliffhangers by pointing out that each scene needs to have a satisfying arc; something needs to be resolved at the end of the scene, and this doesn’t have to be major. In simpler terms, each scene needs to have its own encapsulated story with a beginning, middle, and end. This ending needs to serve as a transition to the next scene. All Your scenes need to feel like they belong to each other not as separate entities.  

 

When I write mysteries, I don’t necessarily resolve each clue or red herring as they appear. Instead, I leave things open-ended to be resolved at a later time. Also, I make sure that the progression from scene to scene and the character’s actions are logical. But the scene still has its own encapsulated story or arc. This isn’t something that I’ve always gotten right.

 

In my earlier works, this was not something I was great at because the penny hadn’t dropped for me at that time. If you don’t create and close a satisfying arc within a scene, then the cliffhanger becomes a cheap trick and is an annoying thing that the writer has done in the middle of a great moment. And it goes without saying you need to avoid the latter. Also, a good cliffhanger, if used correctly, shouldn’t have a quick resolution.

Example:

Imagine a person waking up at the start of a scene or novel, and they have a tonne of things on their mind. When the phone rings, somewhere in their house, they get out of bed and walk through their house towards the phone. As they reach the phone, before they answer it, they become aware that they’re not alone, even though they have lived alone for some time.

 

That can be a cliffhanger, and it’s not a cheap trick, even though it will most likely be resolved in the next scene. The scene has an encapsulated story arc and adds suspense because the reader needs to turn the page to figure out the character’s fate.

The Four Types of Cliffhangers

This goes without saying, but none of this isn’t an original idea because you can easily point these moments out in fiction. Now that I’ve pointed out the obvious let us get back to the topic at hand—cliffhangers.

Peril Cut

The first cliffhanger you could use in your story is the classic peril cut. Imagine the main character dangling on the edge of a cliff and ending the scene or chapter at that point. But don’t resolve the fallout from the peril immediately. Switch to another character, time, or setting, then circle back.

 

Eventually, when you circle back to the situation with the intention of resolving things, make it worse. Obviously, this peril-cut style of cliffhanger is only going to work for certain genres.

 

I can’t think of how you would use this kind of cliffhanger in a romance unless it’s a romantic suspense or romantic thriller. On second thoughts, you could use it in the meet-cute scene, and the love interest rescues the protagonist. But you don’t have to dangle your character off a cliff.

 

In a thriller, mystery, or suspense novel, your character might be checking out a location as part of an investigation and get locked in on a high floor in a building that catches fire. Sure, I’ve ripped that idea straight from Die Hard, but it’s a great example. You get it—any type of danger that you can think of will work here.

Blackout

This is another type of cliffhanger that’s more common in the mystery, thriller, and suspense genre. In all honesty, I can’t think of a way that you would use this in a romance without taking the story out of its genre. But I could be wrong.

 

Essentially, the character is hit in the black of the head unexpectedly from behind, and the scene comes to a close at that point. The reader is left to turn the page to discover the fate of the main character. If you use this type of cliffhanger, it needs to be done sparingly and at the right time in the story. Using this tool too early in a story many not have the effect you desire, the reader needs to be invested in the characters journey in order for this to work and create that page turning effect.

 

Actually, I’ve just realised I was very wrong about the romance or women’s fiction genre. Back when I was in my late twenties, I went on a Sophie Kinsella women’s fiction kick. I kid you not; I was up until three a.m. reading one of her books; it was that good. For some reason, I gave that book away when I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne, but in the last two years, I repurchased the book, hoping to reread it. It’s called “Remember Me?,” just give me a moment to pull it off the shelf and flip through the novel and check.

 

An Example of a Blackout Cliffhanger from Women’s Fiction

At the end of the prologue, the main character, Lexi, rushes for a taxi, falls over and knocks herself out. Chapter one starts off with her waking up, but her eyes aren’t open yet, you get a sense of her thoughts, she’s having flashback and she’s trying to remember the previous night. Eventually, she realises that the sheets on the bed don’t feel like hers, and she opens her eyes to discover she’s in the hospital. And things unravel from that point onwards.

 

My Thoughts About Remember Me

If you read this for yourself, you’ll notice that the cliffhanger is not resolved in the first line of the next chapter, but takes several pages for the character to open her eyes and discover her location. And, I think this is the key with a great cliffhanger, it doesn’t resolve itself quickly.

The Reveal

A reveal is exactly what you think it is. In a plot reveal cliffhanger, the reader learns something that has a huge impact on the story and essentially changes everything.

 

If the main character is yet to discover it and is about to stumble upon this course-altering reveal, this would be an ideal time to end a scene and then start the next chapter where the character left off. Or, if the reader and protagonist are discovering this plot reveal together, then you could choose to end the scene at that point and start the next scene or chapter off with the main character’s reaction to these events.

 

Obviously, this plot reveal cliffhanger is better used later on in a story after the reader has made a connection with the protagonist and is invested in the story. If used too early, it may not have a huge impact.

 

But the plot reveal isn’t the only type of cliffhanger reveal that you can use in your novel to create that page-turning effect.

 

An Example from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

In chapter thirty-four of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him and then explains how his affection outgrew his concerns about Elizabeth and her family’s inferiority. Elizabeth is angry and refuses his offer of marriage, then proceeds to tear him a new one, citing all of his indiscretions.

 

Character Reveal

A character reveal is just as effective as a plot reveal. So, what is a character reveal? It’s that moment in a novel when you reach the end of a scene, and the story divulges something significant about a character. The character doesn’t have to be the protagonist, but it does have to be a major player in the story.

 

In a murder mystery, the reader and the character learn something significant about a suspect that changes the story. Similarly, in a romance novel, the reader and the character learn something important about the romantic interest, and the reader is forced to turn the page to discover what happens next.

 

An Example from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

In chapter thirty-five of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth takes a walk and then returns to find Mr. Darcy waiting for her. He hands her a letter in which he explains his conduct toward Jane and Mr. Wickham. The reader finally gets to see the world through Darcy’s eyes and his true intentions.

 

Reveal to the Reader

I’ve alluded to a reveal-to-the-reader cliffhanger throughout this portion of the show, so it would be remiss of me not to discuss it. In this type of cliffhanger, the reader discovers something integral while leaving the characters in the dark, creating a sense of dramatic irony. And what makes the reader turn the page is the need to know when the characters discover this new information before it’s too late.

 

Yes, that’s a little dramatic, but I can’t help it—I write murder mysteries.

 

In a romance, the reader might learn something about one of the romantic interests and is left to turn the page to find out whether the protagonist will choose the right partner. Or, in a fantasy, the reader might learn that one of the party of characters is a double-agent and is in lead with that big bad character or is being tempted by them. And once again, the reader turns the page and longs to figure out whether this character’s darkness is discovered before it’s too late.

 

For the sake of not revealing spoilers, I’m not going to share any examples from fiction because I can’t figure out how to do this without ruining someone’s reading experience.

Emotional

This final cliffhanger requires a bit of set-up. In order for an emotional cliffhanger to work well, you need to ground the reader solidly inside the head of the viewpoint character. If you fail to achieve this, the emotion will come across as over the top or contrived.

 

Naturally, the emotion can come from the main character, another character, or even the reader. It goes without saying that the character needs to be the point of view character through which you filter the scene; otherwise, you’re creating unnecessary distance between the character experiencing the emotion and the reader.

 

Before you reach the emotional moment, you need to set up something unexpected to occur at the start of the scene or chapter. At the end of the scene, the point-of-view character has an emotional response to this event. It goes without saying that the reader needs to feel connected to the character before you use this emotional cliffhanger. What creates this page-turning effect is the reader’s connection with the character, and the reader needs to discover what the character is going to do after this emotional moment.

 

An Example from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J K Rowling

In chapter twenty-seven of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry puts on his invisibility cloak, and then he and Dumbledore rush to the Astronomy Tower on brooms. Dumbledore asks Harry to fetch Snape to cure him, but before Harry gets a chance to leave, footsteps are heard climbing the stairs. Before the door opens, Dumbledore immobilises Harry, who is still under the invisibility cloak, with a spell. Harry is physically frozen under the cloak and forced to watch the conversation with Draco and, ultimately, Dumbledore’s death at Snape’s hand.

 

Without the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore, which was built up throughout the book and the previous novels in the series, this scene wouldn’t have the emotional impact that it has as you read it.

Writing Exercise:

Pull out your top five favourite books and find the cliffhanger moments in those stories.

 

So, why five?

 

It’s important that for this exercise, you have a few examples of cliffhangers and dissect how they made you feel as a reader and what drove you to keep reading. As you come across these moments in these five books, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What type of cliffhanger was in the scene or chapter?
  • How did this make you feel as a reader?
  • What made you keep turning the page?

 

Write these thoughts down in a journal.

  • Do you see a pattern?
  • And, if so, what is that pattern?

 

Next, brainstorm ways that you can create a similar effect in your current or next book.

Concluding Thoughts

In a nutshell the key to creating a cliffhanger that keeps the reader turning the page and not closing the book forever is, you need to give the reader a valid reason to turn the page. That’s how you avoid the cheap gimmickry that often associated with cliffhangers. I hope this episode gave you a basic understanding of the four types of cliffhangers in fiction and how to write them. As always, I have a few important questions for you.

 

  • Did you do the writing exercise?
  • Would you like me to continue setting writing exercises like this?

 

I want to hear from you. Share your process or struggles with writing scenes in the comments section below or over in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group. If you like, you can submit your writing exercise to me in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group.

 

In the next episode of the podcast, I will delve deeper into the turning points of a scene and how they can help you write scenes that move the story forward.

 

Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.

 

Your coach,

Amelia xx

 

* DISCLAIMER: This blog post contains affiliate links (marked with an *), which means if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a small commission. The commission helps support the blog and allows us to continue to make content like this. Thank you for your support. 🙂

 

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Amelia D. Hay

Written by Amelia D. Hay

I’m Amelia. When I’m not hosting the Authorpreneur Podcast™️ and the Book Nerd Podcasts, I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Suspicion, the Lawn, and the Candidate.

On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process.

Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Suspicion, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.

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