Monday, June 24, 2013

Tool #30: To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers.

. . . To propel readers, make them wait.

Today, I am featuring another chapter from Roy Peter Clark's book,"Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer," published by Little, Brown and Company. You can find a copy here.

What makes a page-turner, an irresistible read, a story or book that you can't put down? One indispensable tool is the internal cliffhanger. This device leaves the reader in suspense, a word derived from the Latin suspendere, "to hang under." Suspense leaves the reader, and sometimes a character, hanging.

     The immense popularity of the novel The Da Vinci Code comes not from Dan Brown's graceful prose style, but from a clever plot built on a series of cliffhangers. A small sample will demonstrate this simple but powerful effect:

• "As he fell, he thought for a moment he saw a pale ghost hovering over him, clutching a gun. Then everything went black."

• "Before Sophie and Teabing could respond, a sea of blue police lights and sirens erupted at the bottom of the hill and began snaking up the half-mile driveway.

• "Teabing frowned. 'My friends, it seems we have a decision to make. And we'd better make it fast.'"

• "Langdon dialed zero, knowing that the next sixty seconds might answer a question that had been puzzling him all night."

• "Langdon felt shaky as he inched deeper into the circular room. This had to be the place."

Each of these examples ends a chapter, fueling the reader's desire to learn what happens next.  So if you want to sell a gazillion books, learn how to craft the cliffhanger.

Now, try an exercise from Roy's WORKSHOP:

1. If you write for a publication, consider what it would take to put a mini-cliffhanger near the end of a section, especially when the reader is asked to turn inside to another page.

2. If you write for a blog or Web site, consider what it would take to place a mini-cliffhanger at the end of the first screenful of text online so that readers could not resist a click or scroll.

So, have you used cliffhangers in your writing? Where?


  1. I have never even thought about adding cliffhangers to my blog posts. Thanks, Jarm!

    1. Yes, I was intrigued by that idea as well, Joanna!


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