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Thursday, February 11, 2010

I hate to see you go but... I love to watch you leave

My husband says that to me all the time. And like a good little wife, I have learned all his little secrets in order to take ridiculous advantage of him.
And you should too. Just not of my husband. But do take advantage of every opportunity to keep the ball in your court. As a writer, it’s our job to entertain. And if you’ve ever seen an edge of your seat movie, you’ll understand what I mean by saying take advantage of your cliff hangers.

Let’s be honest here, your readers use your scene breaks and chapter breaks as “breathers.” And if you allow that, it could be detrimental to you as an author. We’ve discussed in good detail that all important first line but let me make this clear, that’s not the end of your work. As an entertainer your job is to not only get the reader to pick up your book but to keep her coming back for more. Once you allow the reader to set that book on the table you will find yourself in competition with the laundry, the dishes, the kids, the husband, the dogs, cats, and all the other unconquerable foes lurking around the house. You must create a compelling enough hook that she will be eager to pick this book back up or better yet, never put it down in the first place!

There are many writers and authors who make the mistake of ending their scenes or chapters at the normal place. Hero walks out the door leaving her to ponder his words. Yawn. Listen you cannot afford to use this method unless you’re a New York Times bestselling author. Until then you have to keep your reader enthralled and entranced with your work.

Cliff hangers, let’s discuss exactly what a cliff hanger is. Definition of a cliff hanger is: a melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.

Another definition I found: Definition of a hook is a plot device that causes the reader to continue reading a story, usually in the form of an implied question. In turn the hook should raise the reader's curiosity and make them ask the question--"What happens next?"
Okay so now we know what it means but how do we accomplish that?

These are my thoughts and ideas, they are in no way fundamental or necessary to create a great story.

1. Split your scene in half. Cut right down the middle. H/H are arguing Hero reaches out grabs hold of Heroines upper arm to turn her back toward him. End the scene. The reader will turn the page just to see what happens next. Will he kiss her? Will she slap him? I love scenes like this, they are completely compelling and I just can’t help but turn the page just to see what happens next.

2. Setting up the action scene. This builds anticipation, drama. I call it the slow-build of emotion. Then end the scene right before the villain slinks out of the darkness to grab the heroine. We know something is going to happen we just don’t know what. Sometimes this is also called foreshadowing. It’s an excellent way to create a compelling ending hook.

3. Not every cliffhanger has to deal with action. Perhaps you just dropped a huge piece of information to characterization. Hero has just revealed to the heroine that his wife was murdered. Or perhaps he lets her know he never wants to have children and our heroine wants a house full. These are compelling hooks despite there being zero action in the scenes. When a piece of information changes the H/H in some way or alters their journey or even changes the plot in some way- causing H/H to make a new choice or decision. This is a cliff hanger! Leave the scene there! Pick it up in the next chapter and build to your next cliff hanger.

Here’s a basic summary of how to use cliff hangers to your advantage. Throw the main character into a dilemma; Reveal information that requires the reader to continue the story; Or expose a twist or a plot turn.

The longer a person has possession of the ball, the more likely they are to make that winning score. These are just a few ideas to help you create compelling hook lines, tell me can you think of another way to create that edge-of-your-seat cliff hanger?


  1. Great post. I have to admit, I am one of those authors who needs to write better cliffhangers. I think it is because I want to take a breather at the end of a chapter too. From now on I will do that in the first draft and then adjust it for the reader. Just because I get to relax doesn't mean I should let them, right?

  2. Melissa,

    I think this is great advice that I should know, but don't follow all the time. You make a great point that we want readers not to want to put down our story. I actually love books that have mastered this. I'll say, "I'm going to read one more chapter and then I'm going to start dinner." However, at the end of that chapter, I can't stop. Eventually, I either read while I'm cooking or else order pizza.

  3. Exactly Amy, I would also have to say that not every chapter has to end on a cliff hanger but there are three important sections of every story that really should. It's called the three part act of plotting but that's a whole different blog post. So I would attempt one at chapter three, twelve and right before your black moment. Those are my suggestions though.

    And LOL Samatha, I do that all the time. There are some authors that simply don't let you breathe and I particularly love that but agian, it's not necessary. At least do one for every third section of your book as I said to Amy, those are the important jump off areas.

    Thanks ladies, for stopping by

  4. Oh, Melissa! Great post. I love this topic. And you are right. You want to grab the reader's interest and keep it until the end of the book.

  5. This is a post after my own heart. I love ending all my scenes on cliffhangers. I could probably be accused of never wanting to let the reader have a break at the end of a chapter. Your question got me thinking on how I think I do it. Hmm...I guess I throw in a plot twist, dire action with possible dire consequences, major revelations, or a bit of dialoge that makes you dying to know how the other person will respond.

  6. Melissa! I love your blogs. I love how you spell it out - teaching us how to do this. Very good, woman!


  7. Great post, Melissa! Sorry I'm so late commenting!

    I honestly can only think of a handful of books that kept my interest using cliffhangers. Twilight (the entire saga) did this to me, and my hubby and I were up at all hours of the night reading the books. People can say what they want about Stephenie Meyer, but she has definitely mastered the cliffhanging aspect of writing! I lost a week of my life because I just couldn't put the books down.

    However, for me, I don't always want to be desperate to get back to a book. Sometimes, I just want a nice read that I can put down when it gets too late and go to sleep! LOL! Since I mostly read Regencies, this isn't usually a problem. They tend to be more relationship driven than action driven, so I'm able to put them down and pick them up when it's actually convenient...rather than putting my life on hold to read. LOL!

    I do hope I incorporate a good amount of cliffhangers in my own work, though. I can think of one moment in my debut release that was actually a shock to me. I had to end the scene there just to give myself a moment to process what had just happened!

    This is all great advice and I'll definitely be keeping it in mind as I write/revise my subsequent manuscripts!