Author tips

Writing Hints and Tips – Cliffhangers – a Guide to Creating Suspense

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What makes us keep reading a book? How many times have you been half way through a chapter, decided to read until the end, but been unable to put the book down when the chapter finished, because it left you desperate to know what happened next?

Or how often have you stayed up until silly-o’clock to binge-watch a series on Netflix?

The techniques that cause these compulsions are quite easy to learn.

Here are a few dos and don’ts to start with:

  • Do end a chapter by raising a question in the reader’s mind. E.g. the detective inviting the suspects into the drawing room for the denouement. If we end the chapter with that invite, the poor reader will be desperate to keep going to find out ‘whodunnit’.
  • Do finish some chapters with the protagonist in danger. Imagine the hero has identified a bomb in the basement and can’t remember which wires to cut, and the author ends the chapter at the point. Unless the hero is a bomb disposal expert, in which case you might give up reading in disgust, most readers would be pretty desperate to find out if the hero will be able to prevent the bomb going off.
  • Do find opportunities to end a chapter with a happy antagonist. This will heighten the sense of danger for your hero or heroine.
  • Do remember that conflict is needed in a good story – whether it’s internal or external conflict. Use that knowledge to help to create suspense. End your chapters at a peak in the conflict.

  • Don’t end a chapter with your characters going to bed or to sleep. There can be exceptions to this rule. If the bomb in the basement has not yet been discovered (but has been revealed to your readers), and your hero goes to sleep in bed his first floor flat, that creates a good bit of suspense, and will make sure your reader carries on to the next chapter. In general though, when your characters go to sleep, the readers might decide they can too.
  • Don’t finish a chapter if all questions have been answered and no new ones have been raised. There should always be a hook to keep the reader engaged.

Some of these tips can be used to bring a reader back to read the next book in a series. If you’re looking to create a series cliffhanger, think about the following points:

  • Each book should have its own arc, with questions resolved that are related to that story.
  • The series will have a separate arc. Resolution for the series arc can wait until the final book in the series, or parts of it can be resolved in earlier books.
  • Every book in the series should end with a reminder of the overall conflict. E.g. In the Harry Potter books, we were always aware that Voldemort wasn’t dead yet, and was still lurking and dangerous. There was a reason why millions of people queued up for the new books in the middle of the night!

Don’t forget, your aim is to keep your readers engaged, and to get them to keep coming back for more.

Happy Cliffhanging!



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