Cliffhangers: Not Just for the End of a Book

by Jami Gold on May 3, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Necklace of a carving that looks like a fish hook

Pitches, queries, back cover copy, and full-length stories all have writing techniques in common.  For one thing, they all need a strong opening. We talk about that being a “hook,” something that grabs the reader and pulls them forward to the next line, paragraph, and page.

A similar approach works within our stories too.  We might employ hook lines to create a “dun dun dun” feeling during a scene.  At the end of scenes and chapters, we often want to use a line similar to a hook to ensure the reader doesn’t use that scene or chapter break as an excuse to put down the book.

Anyone who’s beta read for me can attest that I use these cliffhanger-type lines at the end of many scenes and chapters.  I enjoy being mean to my characters and that often translates into making the reader want to continue reading to see what happens next.  *smile*

One of the workshops I attended at the Desert Dreams conference this past weekend was called Hooks and How to Use Them: From First to Last Word! by Terri Brisbin.  She pointed out that hook lines at the end of scenes or chapters fulfill the same purpose as those at the beginning of a story:

“[It] leaves the reader wanting more—more information, more emotion, more of the story.”

However, just like in real life, being in constant crisis mode can be draining.  Readers need a bit of breathing room too.  The incomparable author/blogger Janice Hardy is full of good advice about how to use sequels to provide a quiet moment between big scenes.

On the other hand, we have to be careful not to release the tension too much.  Terri’s workshop gave me some insight into how the lower-crisis moments of sequels, whether they’re a single line or a scene long, can still pack the punch of a hook to pull a reader forward.

Terri shared four main types of hooks:

  • Physical Journey: An action that propels the reader along the external plot.
    Just then, a body tumbled down the stairs and stopped at her feet.
  • Emotional Journey: An emotional statement that propels the reader along the internal plot.
    At his declaration, the wall around her heart crumbled a little more.  Not again.
  • Reveal a Secret: A revelation that gets the reader’s mind turning with the consequences and new story possibilities.
    “Luke … I am your father.”  (*ahem* Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
  • Introduce a Mystery: A revelation that creates more questions than it answers.
    Caller ID displayed Rick’s number.  But if Rick was on the other end of the phone, who was singing in the shower in the next room?

These hooks all maintain the tension in a story, but some cause a more immediate sense of crisis than others.  By mixing up these types of hook lines at the end of our scenes and chapters, we can prevent the pacing and tension from being too “one note.”

The “Emotional Journey” approach works well with lower-crisis sequels while still maintaining tension by hinting at future issues or foreshadowing problems yet to come.  Some “Introduce a Mystery” and “Reveal a Secret” lines need to be dealt with right away, and some play into overall story questions that add tension without requiring an immediate response.

If we use enough of these hook lines, we don’t need to plan chapter breaks in advance.  Every 8-20 pages, I simply pick one of the good cliffhanger lines and insert a chapter break.  By rotating through the types of hooks, we ensure our chapter breaks don’t give readers an excuse to put our book down.

These same types of hook lines work for the end of our query letter, pitch, or back cover copy.  Again, the purpose of “leaving the reader wanting more” is the same.  A reader who wants more after reading our paragraph or two will want to read the first page, where we’ll hook them into reading the scene, the chapter, and then the whole book.

Hooks kidnap readers and force them to experience our story, from beginning to end.  And if we do our job, they’ll be hooked by our writing and will be eagerly awaiting our next book.

Do you end your scenes and chapters on hooks or cliffhangers?  Do you mix and match the types of hooks you use?  What hooks entice you the most?  Do you plan chapter breaks in advance or use the “pick a hook” method?

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27 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee May 3, 2012 at 6:11 am

I don’t consciously use cliffhangers, but when I think about it, they’re often “emotional” or “reveal a secret” ones—though Destiny’s Kiss has several physical ones where the narrator ends up blacking out. (…It’s not a plot device. Honest. Destiny’s just… Well… There’s no way to easily explain without giving a spoiler. Suffice to say that the blackouts are organic to the story.)

I plan to focus more on cliffhangers in the future, particularly next time I write a novel I plan to serialize. (I do plan to do that again… someday. Though I’ve not come up with a suitable project yet.)

We’ll see, though. I do hate cutting off in the middle of a temporal scene.

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 8:43 am

Hi Carradee,

I wouldn’t use a temporal (often physical) cliffhanger at the end of a book. Even in a series, I want the main issues to be wrapped up and carry only threads into the next book. Readers–even with a series–still talk about “I liked the first book better than the second,” so each book has to be satisfying in its own way.

However, at the end of a chapter or a scene, especially after a very high-intensity, emotional event, getting that extra line break or chapter break can give readers the chance for a mental breather. The editor Theresa Stevens once explained that we can use breaks–even when we pick up again on the other side near the same temporal place–when we want to signal to the reader to stop and think about the events for a second. Maybe we’re foreshadowing something big, or maybe we just introduced a bunch of ideas and we want them to sink in a bit.

In other words, it’s not cheating or just a gimmick. We’re helping the reader process events. :) As a reader, I’d feel cheated only when it seemed like a temporal interruption and the new scene didn’t pick up where things were left off, making everything magically better in the interim (yes, I’ve read a story like that *sigh*). Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee May 3, 2012 at 10:50 am

Oh, I know that it’s stylistically fine to break in the middle of a temporal scene in-between chapters. I just don’t like writing like that. :)

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Hi Carradee,

Ah, got it. :) Yes, I tend to save that technique for POV changes or major, need-time-to-sink-in events. Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee May 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm

It isn’t obvious (because I intentionally fight and hide it), but I’m a bit obsessive-compulsive with patterns. I love symmetry. At one point, I wanted to fit Destiny’s Kiss into 17 chapters because a 17th birthday party is a major event in the story, and I tried, but I quickly noticed that the story would suffer for it and smacked the urge back where it belonged.

I still think it would’ve been fun to do, though.

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Jami Gold May 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Hi Carradee,

Ooo, I can relate! I love symmetry and patterns too–shapes, numbers, plot events. You name it. :)

In your shoes, I probably would have attempted the same thing with the chapters. Then if it couldn’t be done, I’d probably try to find another number with significance in the story and add that to 17 for the number of chapters to aim for. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins May 3, 2012 at 6:41 am

Well, well, well, Jami. You’ve once again showed me how perfect your timing is with another phenominal post on writing techniques. :)

I’m re-working my WIP at the moment since I’m getting it in tip-top shape for my trip in August, and one of the items on my to-do list is to re-work my chapter breaks. While I had them all in place after the first draft, I’m thinking some of them should be moved around so that the end of a chapter will propel the reader into the next. I don’t plan breaks in advance. I wait until everything’s on the page then I go and decide on where to insert them. I’ve got a few hooks there, that were entirely coincidental, but my plan is do this for at least 50-60% of my chapters. Like you said, if I did all of them, it might wear the reader out. ;)

Thank you for the easy-to-learn list of hooks. I will definitely be trying my hand at all of them here in the near future. I personally enjoy ‘Reveal a Secret,’ ‘Physical Journey,’ and ‘Emotional Journey.’ I do believe I may start to add this technique into my writing process. If I can add these hooks in with the first draft then I’ll be one happy author. :) Thank you again for sharing what you learned this past weekend!

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 8:50 am

Hi Melinda,

I don’t have spies in your head, I promise. ;)

I just went through all the scene and chapter breaks in my WIP, and I was surprised by how well they were mixed together. But like you, I don’t often have blatant “Introduce a Mystery” hooks. Instead, I usually combine those with “Emotional Journey” for some major foreshadowing. So the mysteries might be in your WIP as well, just more subtle than the example above. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson May 3, 2012 at 7:46 am

I have a love/hate relationship with cliffhangers. I use them at the end of every chapter without fail. I think all my TV watching has programmed me for that. But when it’s 3am & I’m beat tired & all I want is to is go to sleep, a good cliffhanger prevents that from happening! Of course, I do the same thing. At least I try.

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 8:55 am

Hi Nancy,

LOL! I can understand that. (“Just one more chapter!”)

But I’ve also learned that if I try to stop reading near the climax of a book, I don’t get sleep either because I’ll just lay in bed wondering how it will all turn out. So I may as well finish the darn thing. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Shain Brown May 3, 2012 at 9:06 am

Personally I am on the fence when it comes to cliffhangers. In my opinion I like using as many tools as possible. Too many times, I have seen them repeated over and over making some pieces read like a less than interesting mystery.

Carradee hit an interesting observation and I have to say cliffhangers are my favorite when used in revealing a secret.

Now I am going to have to come up with other favorites place to use cliffhangers.

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 9:38 am

Hi Shain,

“Too many times, I have seen them repeated over and over making some pieces read like a less than interesting mystery.”

I agree! When we think of cliffhangers or hooks at the ends of scenes, we often think of those very dramatic, action-based “Physical Journey” ones. But those can be easily overused to the point of abuse.

That’s why I found Terri’s list of four types so interesting. The other types don’t “feel” like a cheesy type of cliffhanger at all (in fact, we probably can’t think of examples off the top of our head because they don’t make a long-term impression on us), yet they still pull the reader forward with curiosity, questions, and tension. So if we mix up the types of hooks we use, we can prevent that cheap mystery feeling.

For example, here are the important parts of some end-of-scene hooks in one of my WIPs:
– “And if she was lucky, maybe she could…”
(Emotional Journey: statement of internal goal, which creates curiosity–will she be lucky and successful?),
– “For the first time in years, [he] [action]…”
(Physical Journey: action showing change, which creates tension–how will it work out for him?),
– “He was dangerous all right, in many ways. Very, very dangerous.”
(Emotional Journey/Introduce a Mystery: major foreshadowing–how is he dangerous and how will that play out?)

So cliffhangers can be subtle and still create curiosity and questions in the reader. It’s not necessarily about making the biggest “dun dun dun.” :)

The hooks that stick with us tend to be the big physical ones. And yes, I have a few of those, but less than a handful in the whole book. If I ended every chapter with one, it would feel cheesy and repetitive, but with only 3 or so (and most of them at the climax, where they make more sense), no one’s going to feel beat over the head with them. :) I hope that makes sense. Thanks for the comment!

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KN May 3, 2012 at 1:02 pm

I love to use the Reveal a Secret method, although I try to limit myself as to how many times I use it. The one I most liked was in a scene where the heroine had a date with her erstwhile boyfriend, who preferred her to be understated and sensibly dressed to impress his bosses. She wore librarian-style fashion glasses and her hair in a severe bun to a dinner party, and toned down her normally vivacious personality to that of the mouse. Dull, dull, dull. The boyfriend is pleased, the readers are depressed, and then . . .

The sexy, bad boy hero slides up next to her and whispers “Has anyone ever told you how sexy you look in glasses?”

End of chapter.

I loved that cliffhanger (thank you, Muse!) because it opened up so many possibilities in the next chapter. The heroine is feeling dull and decidedly not beautiful, and her boyfriend is treating her like a prop to get his promotion. Now the readers want to turn the page to find out what the hero is going to do about those (suddenly) sexy glasses. It adds energy and interest like an accented forte piano in music. Follow it with a crescendo to a fortissimo possibile at the climax, and it leaves the readers on a wondrous high.

Thanks for a wonderfully informative post!

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Hi KN,

Ooo, love it! Thanks for sharing. :)

Yes, on some level that example probably counts as both Physical Journey (dialogue as an action) and Reveal a Secret (where the reader is blindsided by potential consequences). I think combining these techniques sometimes can lead to double the impact on the reader. Well done. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jennifer Barricklow May 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm

The first time I read a Dan Brown novel, I burst out laughing about three chapters into it. It cracked me up to find one of the secrets to Brown’s success is that he uses one of the oldest tricks in storytelling: he ends every chapter with a cliffhanger. I knew as a reader that my chain was being yanked, but I didn’t mind because the journey was so entertaining.

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Hi Jennifer,

Oh yes! Great example. :) I haven’t read his stories, but I’ve heard about his technique.

And from what I understand each of those (usually physical/action) cliffhangers is followed by a scene in a different POV, so the reader sticks around to find the resolution for A, only to get sucked into plot B while waiting. It can make for a great page-turner, but very “one note” in the tension. Thanks for the comment!

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Eric T. Benoit (@Elmseeker) May 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm

I am firm believer that cliffhangers are an integral part of just about any story. I do try use them, especially in chapter breaks. Chapter breaks are where I usually switch POV and leaving the reader wanting to get to the next to POV switch to find out what happens can be a powerful tool. One thing I did notice, while reading your questions, is that I seem to use emotional hooks more than any other kind.

I think that has to do with the fact that I am also a firm believer that a writers job isn’t convey emotion but to invoke it. That is my main goal as a writer, to make people FEEL something that they may not otherwise.

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Hi Eric,

“a writers job isn’t convey emotion but to invoke it.”

Very true! When we get down to it, all of these approaches have the goal of invoking emotion in the reader. Sometimes we’re going to use the Emotional Journey hook to do so, but even when we use the others, there’s often an emotional component to it. Thanks for the comment! :)

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K.J. May 3, 2012 at 7:23 pm

I love using hooks to end my chapters. I didn’t consciously realize I was doing it until your post. I guess it’s just natural for me to end on higher stakes. I lean toward the physical journey, where something happens that propels the characters and reader to the next chapter. I do occasionally use the emotional journey to give everyone a break and mark character development and foreshadowing.

I guess I don’t reveal secrets or introduce mysteries in the hooks very often. Probably because I have those kinds of things happening within the chapter itself. I don’t plan the chapter breaks or hooks in advance. Mostly because I just write without planning too much. I let the novel go where it wants with the end goal in mind. And sometimes even the end changes, hah!

So I go with the flow of my characters and the plot. If my characters are being particularly introspective, I’m likely to use an emotional hook. But I do like the physical hooks because they really move the story and keep everything going. Sometimes I feel like if I write too many emotional scenes, the novel will drag. I happen to like dealing with emotion, but I always wonder. Guess that’s what beta readers and editors are for, right? Helping work out the kinks like that.

Lol, on a random note, I’ve looked at my hooks, and apparently I start every last sentence of the chapter with “And….” Now I don’t know if I should continue that pattern or try to change it, haha.

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Jami Gold May 3, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Hi K.J.,

LOL! I use that “And…” technique too. Not every chapter, but at least a few end that way.

Yes, using hooks comes very naturally to me as well. But even when I have a strength, I love learning more about it because becoming conscious of the specifics can help me ensure that I’m getting everything I can out of it. :) Thanks for the comment!

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samantha stacia May 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm

This is great! I have just been really getting into learning about this very ting and realise that a lot of new authors really don’t incorporate this into their books very well and I don’t want to be one of them! So talk about perfect timing! Thanks so much for writing about this and if you are on FB and one of my Fb friends,please feel free to post your blog and any books on my new page called “Paranormal Attraction” for all things paranormal!

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Amber May 4, 2012 at 5:56 pm

I started a fiction series on my blog and I think I do end each post with a cliffhanger of sorts. They aren’t all “oh my goodness, what’s going to happen!” moments, but they leave the reader hanging in some way.

I think you HAVE to have that for serial fiction. But I think even in a novel, I like to feel that there is something that compels me to keep reading the next chapter. I don’t know that I end every chapter or break with one in my novel, but I guess I do try to have a “compelling moment” at least. :)

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Jami Gold May 4, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Hi Amber,

Great point about serialized fiction! Yes, I would think cliffhangers were very important there.

I like the way you worded it: “compelling moment.” Yes, something that maintains tension and interest is a hook, even if it’s more subtle than a “dun dun dun” cliffhanger. :) Thanks for the comment!

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