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:
- a melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.
- 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 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?