Daggling the Reader by a Cliff

by | Jul 20, 2010 | Christian authors, Writing Tips | 9 comments

One of the hallmarks of a great story is the ability to keep the reader engaged. Now, of course, fantastic characters and riveting plots are the main contributors to fantastic novels. Conflict is another thing. But something else to remember in the grand scheme of a story, is the element of cliffhanging.

What is a cliffhanger?

According to dictionary.com, a cliffhanger is:

  1. a melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.
  2. a situation or contest of which the outcome is suspensefully uncertain up to the very last moment.

 So, how do authors do this? Let’s take a look at a some examples for the next few days to get a ‘taste’ for how the experts do it.

 I’m going to start by introducing you all to one of my son’s favorite authors. He’s quickly becoming one of mine too. Stephen Lawhead writes epic fantasy with historical threads, with Celtic and Britain mythology braided throughout. In his book, Hood, he takes on the tale of Robin Hood and brings it to life.

Here are the last few paragraphs of chapter one:

 As he turned to take the third attacker, Iwan glimpsed his king struggling to keep his saddle. He saw Brychan lurch forward and topple from his horse into the water.

 The king struggled to his knees and beheld his champion fighting to reach him a short distance away. “Ride!” he shouted. “Flee! You must warn the people.”

 Rhi Brychan made one last attempt to rise, got his feet under him and took an unsteady step, then collapsed. The last thing Iwan saw was the body of his king floating facedown in the turgid, bloodstained waters of the Wye.

 Now, do you wanna turn the next page and see what happens? Sure. You’re left wondering what’s going to happen next. You can’t just go to sleep now?

 Okay – okay, for those of you with a more romantic leaning, let’s visit Denise Hunter’s newest novel, Driftwood Lane. Can ladies who write romance create cliffhangers too?

“The fact is, the children are in dire need of your assistance, Meridith. Since Mrs. Hubbard fell ill, members of the church have been taking shifts. Very kind of them, of course, but it can’t go on. If you don’t come quickly, I’m afraid I’ll have no choice but to alert Child Protective Services. I’d hate to see the children go to foster care, even temporarily. And there’s no assurance they’d be placed together.

Foster care! Meridith imagined suited men coming into their home, carrying them off. She imagined the littlest boy, screaming for his mommy.

From somewhere deep inside compassion swelled, followed quickly by a surge of protectiveness she didn’t know she was capable of. She had no doubt there were decent foster homes. But the thought of the children being separated seemed cruel when they’d just lost their parents. Besides that, they were orphans. And didn’t he Good Book admonish them to look after the orphans?

She had to do something. It was her responsibility, even if she’d never met them, because T.J. and Eva had named her the children’s guardian. And because, like it or not, she was their sister.

 Yep, I’d say Denise does a nice job of a cliffhanger here at the end of chapter one.

How about one more for today. Let’s try Deeanne Gist’s novel, A Bride Most Begrudging.

“How dare you!” she cried. “You will not get away with this. Mark you, if you do not arrange an audience with the governor at once, I will create a commotion of such magnitude they will write legends about it.”

 The captain did not even bother to acknowledge her. “Throw her back in the hold, Cooper,” he said over his shoulder as he descended the steps.

 She filled her lungs with the intention of letting out a scream the likes of which would not be ignored. Before she could release it, the first mate squeezed a band of flesh between her neck and her shoulder.

Debilitating pain cut off her scream and buckled her knees. She crumpled to the ground. Cooper did not let go but followed her to the floor. She whimpered, trying to pull away from the torturous vice his fingers created.

     His hot, foul breath invaded her ear. “Not one sound, dovey. Not one.”

 What’dya think? The key element of the cliffhanger is creating a question in the reader’s mind. It’s an unsettling thing. That’s why snatching the reader’s emotions in the first chapter is so important. They HAVE to find out what’s going to happen to this character they ‘care’ about now.

 How have you created a cliffhanger in your WIP? Or novel? Is it a sufficient hook to make the reader HAVE to turn to chapter two?


  1. Julie Lessman

    Great post today, Pep, with some wonderful examples of cliffhangers.

    The best cliffhanger I ever read in my life was when I was on a writer’s retreat in a small podunk town and I had just finished reading Twilight at 1:00 AM in the morning. I liked it, but not enough to read book 2, so I had NO intention of buying it. But, I couldn’t sleep, so I read the sneak peek of chapter 1 of the next book, New Moon, which the publisher had conveniently printed at the end of the book. Bella had just cut her finger at a birthday party given to her by the vampire family. She’s standing there, oozing blood, and here’s the last paragraph:

    Dazed and disoriented, I looked up from the bright red blood pulsing out of my
    arm—into the fevered eyes of the six suddenly ravenous vampires.

    I read that and literally wanted to jump in the car and go to a bookstore to buy it, but alas, there was nothing open in this podunk town! 🙂


  2. Pepper

    LOL, Julie
    I remember reading that scene and thought- WHOA, what a way to grab a reader. Perfect.

    I’m with you, though (sorry hyperTwilight fans), once I made it past book two my interested fizzled (though I did read 3, but didn’t even finish 4)

    That’s an awesome cliffhanger though.

    On thursday I’m posting one from thriller writer, Steven James. Whew. And a cute historical writer-friend I absolutely adore 😉 Blonde. Has a love for early 20th century stories. You know anyone like that?

  3. Casey

    Great post Pep. I love cliff hangers, love to read them, though I do hate them late at night when I am TRYING to get to bed. 🙂

    And I do love to write them, the kind that just make you sweat to not to turn the page and keep going. Short chapters and cliff hangers, a sure fire way to keep the reader… well… reading. 🙂

    • Pepper

      Ooh, Case – you’ve certainly perked our interests now. You and your sweating cliffhangers 😉

  4. Sherrinda

    Oh yes, I love a great cliffhanger except at the end of a book! Because then you have to wait MONTHS for the next book to come out!!!!! Having said that, Kaye Dacus had an excellent cliffhanger at the end of her book, Ransome’s Crossing. It is book 2 in a trilogy and it certainly makes me want book 3 to come out soon!!!!!

    • Pepper

      Daggone it, Sherrinda
      Those are the hardest kind. When you can’t just go to the bookstore and end your suffering, but have to wait months before resolution.
      It’s almost as bad as pregnancy 😉 Or worse, losing weight.

  5. Audra

    Great examples of cliffhangers, Pep! There’s a fine art to writing good, plausible cliffhangers. An art, I sadly admit, eludes me like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow : ).

    First lines I can belt out with little effort, but it’s a talent to end your chapter with a tease so magical, the reader keeps wanting more.

    Thanks for the great examples. I think I’ll slink back to my drawing board now…

    • Pepper

      Oh Audra,
      I bet you have a few good cliffhangers up your sleeve too 😉

  6. misskallie2000

    Thanks for the Great post. I love cliff hangers. I love to have mystery, intrigue, suspense and of course romance in my book.


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