By Liz LeSavoy
A good opening line is like a bite of chocolate. It immediately hits the pleasure centers of your brain and makes you want more. Kirsti Call recently wrote about this in her excellent post 3 Ways To Hook Your Reader With Your Very First Line. But what about closing lines? Page-turners? Cliffhangers? The chapter ending that makes a kid duck under his covers with a flashlight because he simply has to find out what happens next?
In case you’re a word geek like me and wondering where the term “cliffhanger” originates, you can thank Thomas Hardy. In his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, which was published in Tinsley’s Magazine between 1872-1873 in serial format, he literally left his main character, Henry Knight, hanging onto the edge of a cliff.
The actual use of the cliffhanger literary device predates Mr. Hardy by centuries. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is the story of Scheherazade of The Arabian Nights, who tells a cliffhanging story each night to the king in order to postpone her execution.
I know what you’re thinking. Thanks for history lesson but where’s the useful stuff? Here it comes, three of my favorites techniques that can be applied to any story. Check out Writeonsisters.com for even more suggestions.
Foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a clue, a hint, a peek at events yet to come. Once we get that peek we just can’t resist pulling back the curtain for the full view. In one of my favorite books, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, the main character, Miranda, drops a clue early on. “But somewhere in my head a tiny bell was ringing. I didn’t even notice it at first.” Midway through the story, she teases us again with, “There are days when everything changes, and this was one of those days.” Is there anyone who can put a book down after reading those words? Not me. I’ve got to turn the page to find out what happens next.
The tantalizing question. When a chapter ends in a question, the reader is compelled to wonder the same thing. We crave the answer to the question posed. This is exactly what I experienced in When You Reach Me, when a chapter ended with Miranda asking herself, “But what if my brain was wrong? What if someone’s life really needs saving? What if it wasn’t a game?” When I read that, I was just dying to know if someone’s life did, indeed, need to be saved. Admit it. You’re wondering too. If this blog could answer those questions, you know you’d be turning the virtual page right now.
A declaration of emotion or fact. Emotion plays a big part in our desire to turn the page. We want to see the main character succeed. If we read further in When You Reach Me, our heartstrings are tugged when the chapter ends with “That was the worse part: I was alone.” No, Miranda, you’re not alone! I’ll come with you all the way to the end of this book! Right now! Sigh. I can only aspire to such greatness.
If these examples from Rebecca Stead leave you inspired, but at a loss for your own chapter-ending cliffhangers, check out Zhubin Parang’s “Thrilling Chapter Endings You May Use In Your Next Novel”.
What are some of your favorite chapter cliffhanger devices? Do you find some easier to use than others? Do you have any cliffhanger chapter endings to share here?
Liz LeSavoy passed away in October, 2016. She was a member of SCBWI, 12×12 Picture Book Challenge, and several writing groups, including Writers’ Rumpus. Thank you for reading her post.