A person reads a book

How to write a cliffhanger ending

By BBC Maestro

Have you ever read a book that you just couldn’t put down? One that had you up all night turning page after page until you got to the end? We bet that cliffhanger endings had something to do with it. 

But as a writer, how do you create that unputdownable feeling for readers? Let’s look at some of the techniques you might use in your own work.

What is a cliffhanger?

Cliffhangers are a plot device in which an element of a story is left unresolved. They’re designed to get readers to turn the page and keep reading to find out what happens next in the story – or to discover what happens next in a novel series.

As Lee Child explains in his BBC Maestro course, Writing Popular Fiction:

“The most important thing to understand is that although it must round off the chapter in some satisfying way, it is not really an ending at all. It must satisfy but not satiate, because the purpose of a chapter ending is to compel you to read the next chapter.”

He goes on to explain:

“Therefore it is usually a cliffhanger of some kind, involving a twist or a revelation, that makes it harder for you to put the book down at precisely that point, which you might otherwise naturally be inclined to do. ‘Just one more chapter,’ you say, knowing that you have to get up for work in the morning, and then that one short chapter becomes another and another and another until before you know it, you have stayed up all night.”

History of cliffhangers

Cliffhangers in literature have been used since the Middle Ages. In One Thousand and One Nights, often called Arabian Nights in English, Scheherazade tells King Shahryār a story every night for 1001 nights. At the end of each night, the story ends on a cliffhanger, ensuring she comes back the next day to finish the story off, and saving her from execution.

Later, in the 1820s, the Scottish comic magazine, The Glasgow Looking Glass, was innovative for its use of ‘To be continued’ at the end of every issue. Later, Charles Dickens further popularised the use of serialisation in his novels, which were all printed episodically in magazines. Dickens often responded to his readers’ reactions to what was happening in his stories, changing his plot and characters based on their feedback.

Thomas Hardy was another novelist who used serialisation, most famously in A Pair of Blue Eyes. It’s said that the term ‘cliffhanger’ actually comes from this novel, which was published in Tinsley’s Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873. In one of the episodes, one of the main characters, Henry Knight, is left hanging off a cliff and readers had to wait until the next issue of the magazine to find out whether he survived.

Today, cliffhangers can be used in two ways: at the end of a chapter, to encourage people to keep reading, and at the end of the novel, to keep readers in suspense until the next instalment.

A foggy view of a pier

Tips for writing cliffhangers

So, how do you go about writing endings that will leave your reader wanting more? It’s all about creating suspense. And suspense, according to Lee Child, doesn’t come from the plot of your novel, but from the way, it’s written:

“The mechanism of suspense doesn’t really depend on the plot. It depends on pacing, timing and the artful manipulation of language. Suspense should pervade every word on the page.”

This is true no matter what genre you’re writing – but it’s especially true for writing thrillers, where suspense, tension, excitement, and action are vital to the plot. Here are some ways you can keep your reader invested in your story with cliffhangers.

Withhold key information from your reader

Cliffhangers keep readers engrossed because it leaves them with a certain sense of not knowing. That lack of knowledge is one of the key ways you can create a sense of suspense throughout your novel, and with your cliffhanger endings. Lee Child says:

“You ask or imply a question at the beginning of the book and you do not answer it until the end. It’s as simple as that.”

During the action, for example, you could have a detective approaching a dark house and hearing a scream – but at the end of the chapter, you don’t reveal who was screaming. The reader has to keep reading to find out in the next chapter (or perhaps at the end of the book).

Lee Child explains further:

“Asking a question at the beginning is the way to get your story rolling, the way to kick-start that forward motion. Not answering that question for as long as possible is the way to make your story last the length of a novel.”

You may also want to create a cliffhanger ending by not answering the question fully at the end of the novel, putting a spin on events to introduce an element of doubt, or by introducing a new question that leaves the reader wondering.

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Tie up loose ends

That being said, it’s important to consider the plot and structure of your story carefully if you’re ending on a cliffhanger. If major plot points are left unresolved at the end of the novel, it can be dissatisfying for readers.

For example, if there are hero and villain characters who are building up to a fight scene, it could leave readers feeling annoyed if you don’t let them battle it out.

It’s best to tie up that plot point before leaving readers on a cliffhanger. In this example, after the hero protagonist defeats the novel’s villain, perhaps a third character could emerge from the shadows. Is this a new villain for the hero to deal with, just as they thought their troubles were over? Readers will have to wait until the next book to find out…

Hint at the future

That leads us on to our next point: creating a cliffhanger with hints at what’s to come next. Hinting at the future is a great way to create suspense and keep the reader wondering what will happen, long after they turn the final page and put the book down.

At the end of your novel, you want to strike a balance between tying up plot points and setting up the story for sequels.

Avoid introducing any major new developments or characters that can’t be tied up before the end – again, this will leave your readers feeling dissatisfied. But dropping mentions of plots and characters to come could be the perfect cliffhanger – and it gives you a strong starting point for your next novel.

a girl reads a book

Use rhythm to create a heightened sense of pace

Your cliffhanger will be more effective if you build up to it with pacy writing that creates suspense and tension.

Rhythm in writing helps to build excitement as you build up towards the end of the chapter or book – or, alternatively, it can slow the action right down to make the reader feel wary of what’s about to come. Either way, rhythm helps to create a sense of anticipation, just as cliffhangers do.

Leave clues throughout the story

You might want to end the story with a twist, which is a great way to create a cliffhanger ending. But a twist that comes completely out of the blue can, again, be dissatisfying for readers.

Instead, try to plant small seeds throughout the story so it doesn’t come as a total shock to your reader. It could be an off-hand comment that one character makes to another, or something innocuous that later turns out to have great meaning.

However you set it up, it should leave readers feeling surprised, but not in disbelief or annoyance at a plot twist that comes out of left field.

Consider the point of view

Think about what will be more exciting for your readers: a first or third-person point of view. You may be able to create a more suspenseful ending by writing in the first person – that way, readers only know as much as the narrator knows.

Alternatively, writing in the third person allows you to create suspense by arming the reader with knowledge that the main character doesn’t have. That means that you could create a cliffhanger by sending the character into a situation that they don’t realise is dangerous, but the reader does.

Play around with different points of view to see what works best for the story you’re trying to tell.

Cliffhanger endings are a fantastic way to keep your reader turning the pages, if you put them at the end of your chapters. They’re also a good way to encourage readers to pick up the next instalment in a novel series, and hopefully these tips will help you to create more suspenseful writing.

If you’re looking for more ideas and inspiration for writing, take a look at Lee Child’s course on Writing Popular Fiction, as well as our full range of online writing courses from some of the best names in the industry, including Malorie BlackmanJed MercurioAlan Moore and Carol Ann Duffy

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