How to Hook Your Readers with Cliffhangers and Story Tension

How to Hook Your Readers with Cliffhangers and Story Tension

You want your readers to love your book so much they can’t put it down. How do you keep them hooked? A combination of cliffhangers and story tension will do the trick.

Cliffhangers are questions that will be resolved in a later chapter, usually the next one. The last line of the previous paragraph was a cliffhanger. You have heard of cliffhangers before, but what is this “story tension” idea? You had to keep reading. You already know that cliffhangers are a normal part of any writing. There is a coherent idea or story that will naturally flow from one paragraph to the next. The end of a chapter is the end of a scene. By implying a continuation, you encourage your readers to move on to the next chapter right away. There are several ways to do this, but first a quick look at story tension.

Story tension comes from questions that will only be resolved later in the story. Every story has its central question based on the main story.

As an example, let’s say the book is a mystery and begins with the murder of a small town’s favorite hobo. The central question is “Who killed Uncle Mike?” The detective character will be busy questioning people for motivation. Who hates hobos? Did Uncle Mike have enemies? Story tension is created by other questions that come up during the investigation. Why is Bob the Bum always flush with money even though he is never seen begging? Why does Mayor Raffles, who has an alibi, insist that the murder was a good thing against all popular opinion and at the risk of damaging his chances of re-election? These secondary questions create story tension. They are questions that could be resolved at any time.

Both cliffhangers and story tension are vehicles to keep your readers hooked. Not only will your readers want an answer to your novel’s central question, but they will be hoping for other answers along the way. Let’s look at cliffhangers first.

What Are Good Cliffhangers?

Any time a new revelation is made that causes your readers to ask questions, you have a good spot for a cliffhanger.

Small mysteries are important too. Get the reader asking the wrong questions to throw them a curve when the answers come out.

There’s also a cheat cliffhanger. Break a chapter in two in the middle of a conversation and the reader will move on to the next chapter to see how the conversation ends.

Examples of Cliffhangers:

A life-threatening situation.

Any danger. The threat could be to people, property, or alliances.

A sudden shocking revelation.

A sudden resolution of a minor issue. Not the main theme, of course, but it could appear that the main theme has suddenly been resolved.

A leading question in a conversation.

An announcement that changes things.

A question that has been posed or explored is asked straight out.

Any moment of tension. The shadowy figure ahead just pulled out a knife. A dead body is found in the trunk. An accusation is made.

An uncertain plan is launched.

A plan fails.

A tough decision by the protagonist or someone they are confronting. Will the couple stay together? Will the investors buy in? Will the jury convict or acquit?

A mystery is about to be exposed. What’s behind that door?

The mystery is exposed. What are the results?

A character does the unexpected.

A character is going to explain everything, but first…

The anti-climatic cliffhanger. A knock on the door that turns out to be a friend at the start of the next chapter.

Inappropriate Chapter Breaks

One more type of cliffhanger is the inappropriate chapter break. These can be annoying if they’re used a lot. Try to limit them to breaking up long chapters. For example, a chapter about a trip to retrieve a set of keys that is also used to develop a character can get boring if it runs long. Find a spot near the middle of the chapter where something new is about to happen. Break the chapter in half here and have the new chapter begin with an explanation. You’ve created a cliffhanger and the reader won’t be lost if they needed to take a break between chapters.

The Worst Kind of Cliffhanger

Everybody hates cliffhangers at the end of novels and movies. They come off as cheats. Some of your audience will never tune in again. A few writers have used this kind of cliffhanger successfully. Many have not.

If you write a book series, it might seem like each book should have a cliffhanger ending. You want the reader to buy the next one. That move won’t win readers. They’ll think they must commit to the entire series or stop buying the books. Let each book wrap up with a good ending. The series is continued because of the larger adventure beyond the current book. For example, in the Conan series by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague DeCamp, the adventure was complete at the end of each book but Conan didn’t fulfill his destiny until the last of the ten books.

Repetition May Reduce the Tension

Beware of repetitive cliffhangers. Does every chapter end with the same kind of cliffhanger? If the main character is about to die at the end of every chapter, eventually the reader will stop buying it. Review the examples of cliffhangers above and practice those you don’t use much.

Resolving Cliffhangers

The start of the next chapter should resolve the cliffhanger. The exception to this is when alternating chapters change points of view. This is called a delayed punch line. It’s one more way to escalate tension. Now your reader is in a hurry to get through that next chapter to get to the cliffhanger resolution.

The resolution of a cliffhanger should not require that the reader moved on to the next chapter immediately. People are busy. It may have been days since they picked up your book. Give enough information at the start of the next chapter so they won’t need to go back and re-read the last one.

How to Fail at Cliffhangers

If the reader can always correctly guess what’s going to happen next, your novel is not interesting. Some types of cliffhangers have obvious resolutions. A new revelation is going to have predictable consequences. The main character is probably not going to be killed early in the story. Predictable cliffhangers still add tension, but try to throw lots of curve balls.

On a related note, every chapter doesn’t need to have a cliffhanger. Some chapters are going to wrap up naturally. For example, the detective followed a bad lead this time. That happens and it puts some variety into your chapter endings.

Story Tension

Cliffhangers aren’t the only things that make your readers hurry to the next chapter. As your story develops, there should be building tension. Try your best to make every chapter escalate the tension right up to the end. How do you do that? You add secondary story threads that tie into the main plot. Let me illustrate.

In the example at the start, the main theme was Uncle Mike’s murder. The secondary questions were about Bob the Bum always having money and Mayor Raffles wanting to run the bums out of town. Secondary plots that tie in to the main theme are a great way to build suspense and allow some early revelations. In this example, the secondary theme may be a prostitution ring run by Bob the Bum. Mayor Raffles has a competing ring and some idea of who is preventing him from expanding. The suspense gets heightened by this sub-plot. What started as a clear murder mystery starts getting more complicated. Lucky for the reader, the complications are only brought on gradually and they can keep up.

Early in the novel, suspense is built by raising more questions. As the story progresses, answers are revealed that lead to even more questions. The reader should be increasingly anxious to know how it all ties together. You will need to give some answers before the last chapter. The reader will start making connections. The last chapter brings everything together to answer all the remaining questions and resolve the main plot.

You may have noticed that building tension is also the way you build your story up to be deserving of a full length novel. A simple story is not a great novel. Save your simple ideas for short stories. Complexity makes a novel. It allows you to build story tension and provides plenty of places to throw in cliffhangers.

Now you know how to hook your readers using cliffhangers and story tension.

Article by Ivan Izo.

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4 thoughts on “How to Hook Your Readers with Cliffhangers and Story Tension

  1. Tom Rizzo December 29, 2013 / 7:52 pm

    Excellent overview of cliffhangers. Thanks.


  2. Bob May 7, 2017 / 8:28 am

    concise and helpful


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