Have you ever been reading a book and you just couldn’t put it down? It’s getting late into the night and you promise yourself one more chapter, only to get to the end of that chapter and promise yourself one more? That cycle repeats itself over and over until suddenly you see the sun peaking through your curtains and realize you’ve stayed up all night reading. You know that feeling as a reader and, ideally, you’d like to create that same sense of urgency as a writer, right?
A large part of how that sense of urgency is created is through chapter by chapter cliffhangers. Readers will naturally look to the ends of chapters as opportunities to pause on their reading and, as the author, you want to make that as difficult for them as possible. So by having an important or suspenseful event occur at the end of a chapter, you give the reader incentive to keep your book in their hands.
1) The Hook
The hook is the portion at the end of a chapter that hooks you in and makes you want to continue the story. There are many options for the hook, one of which is a peril cut. A peril cut involves putting the protagonist or another important character in great peril, which is revealed right at the end of the chapter. There are many different ways you can put your protagonist in mortal peril from having them get captured and thrown in a van or having them get hit over the head and blackout. These actions put the story in suspense, making the reader need to continue reading to find out if their protagonist will be safe.
The other option is to make the cliffhanger at the end of the chapter more about character-based or emotional suspense. So this would involve revealing crucial character information at the end of a chapter. Perhaps one character finds out another lied to them or one character finds out another is the perpetrator of villainous events in the story. Or maybe we find out a devastating or otherwise emotionally taxing event has occurred at the end of the chapter.
2) The Bait
Equally as important as the hook is to bait your readers with the first few paragraphs of the next chapter. Think about it, when you’re reading and you get to the end of the chapter and read a cliffhanger, what do you do? You flip to the next page, see what the start of the next chapter looks like, and decide if you’re going to keep going or stop reading for the night. And, as an author, your goal is to make sure your readers don’t put your book down.
The easiest way to hook your reader into the next chapter immediately is with a strong opening line and by directly connecting it to the previous chapter. So if your cliffhanger is that a character gets knocked unconscious, the next chapter should begin with them waking up and orienting themselves with their new surroundings. If the cliffhanger is about a character finding out some devastating information about their friend, the next chapter should begin with what they choose to do immediately after finding out that information.
This becomes much trickier in a novel that switches POV’s, time, or settings. In those instances, you need to establish the POV, time, and setting as quickly as possible while also hooking the reader into these new circumstances. It becomes much easier to put a book down when a reader is hooked into one situation and it switches to another. Make it harder for them with a super strong opening paragraph and by creating a sense of urgency and suspense with each POV, scene, and time period about which you’re writing.
One of the best ways to get good at writing cliffhangers is by avidly reading. When reading, start to pay attention to how an author ends each chapter and begins the next. Notice the different circumstances and techniques used and which ones keep you most hooked into the book.
Once you’ve been paying attention to these details in books for a little bit, begin to brainstorm some ways you could employ them in your own manuscript. Since you’ve likely plotted out your book, what would be particularly good spots to include chapter cliffhangers? Mark those spots and attempt to structure your chapters accordingly.