on April 20, 2006

A couple months ago I wrote about “hooking” . . . how the first line or paragraph is crucial.

But what about cliffhangers? How the author ends a chapter or keeps the story moving with a series of ups and downs so that you 1) don’t want to put down the book, and 2) if you have to put down the book, you can’t wait to pick it up again.

I think the first part of creating that “I can’t wait to pick up this book again” is the characters–you feel like you know them, you want to find out what happens to them. But more important, you care what happens to them. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be that interested in reading the whole book. Plot twists don’t create cliffhangers alone; you need that character connection.

There’s been an on-again/off-again debate, mostly in unpublished circles, about chapter length. Some people insist chapters should be roughly of uniform length (and I think some of the Harlequin lines strongly push for this); some insist chapters should be short to “speed up” the pacing. Others argue they should be long so the reader has fewer opportunities to put down the book.

I disagree with all of the above. I think chapters should be as long or as short as they need to be. I don’t “plan” out my chapters. I don’t think, “Oh, this chapter is only eight pages, I’ll combine it with another so I get roughly 20 pages.” My chapters end where they end, which is basically (for me) a change of time or setting, a revelation, or a mini-climax.

If at the end of every chapter you use the mini-climax, it loses it’s impact. At the same time, if you always end with a change of time, the book will feel slower.

But whatever device is used, the most important thing is to give the readers something to want to read on, and I think the best way is to open up a question.

The mini-climax, or traditional “cliffhanger,” has the obvious question: what’s going to happen next? Are they going to defuse the bomb? But there are lots of other ways to open up questions to keep the reader interested in the story.

In THE PREY, chapter one is about the heroine Rowan learning that someone has been murdered in the same manner and style as in one of her novels. She could react in a variety of different ways. She’s angry and scared. At the beginning of the chapter, the reader (and Rowan) has several questions: First, why are the reporters on her doorstep? Answer: to ask her about the death of this woman she doesn’t know. Why? Oh, she realizes it’s just like her book. When are the police going to talk to her? They arrive. They ask a bunch of questions, some that get answered, some that don’t. The big question: who did it? is still unanswered, but we’ve satisfied the reader’s curiosity by giving some answers.

Now the ending of chapter one:

Rowan had learned again that death was inequitable and brutal. It cut a path of misery in the hearts of everyone it touched. And death wasn’t blind. It saw the pain, the heartache, and grew stronger.

It had started when she was ten, and it seemed it would never end.

Which opens up the big question: what happened when Rowan was ten?

I don’t wait until the end of the book to answer that question, but it’s not answered in chapter two, either. That’s a cliffhanger, and the reader (hopefully!) wants to find out the answer.

Pacing is all about curiosity. If the reader is curious about what is going to happen, they’ll keep reading. But if you don’t answer some questions, the reader gets frustrated because they want their curiousity satisfied. So the best “rule-of-thumb” (and I use “rule” loosely because I don’t like rules) 🙂 is that for every question posed, answer a question. Give a little, take a little.

Some examples of great first chapter “cliffhangers” that, for me, makes me want to turn to chapter two:

Lisa Gardner’s breakout book, THE PERFECT HUSBAND. Tess wants to hire a former mercenary J.T. to train her to protect herself against her husband. J.T. is drunk and belligerent and he doesn’t like intruders and is counting to five:

Her face grew red. Frustration animated her body, bringing up her chin, sparking her eyes. For a moment, she was actually pretty. “I’m not leaving!” she yelled. “Goddammit, I have no place else to go. If you’d just stop feeling sorry for yourself long enough to listen–”


“I won’t leave. I can’t.”

“Suit yourself.” J.T. shrugged. He placed the empty margarita glass on the table. Then, and naked as the day he was born, all one hundred and eighty pounds of muscle and sinew, he advanced.”

Gardner uses a standard cliffhanger, and chapter two opens to the continuation of the same scene. But we’re instantly drawn into the dynamics of these two characters and how the scene is going to play out. Definitely turning to chapter two!

In THE HARBOR, Carla Neggers uses depth of characterization to make you care–and ask questions. Zoe calls her sister Christina to say she’s coming home, leaving behind her career plans, but you know there’s something more.

But Christina managed a laugh, although Zoe felt only marginally better when she hung up. She didn’t have a lot of stuff. She’d never owned much. It wouldn’t take her a half hour to pack–it’s take her fifteen minutes.

We want to know why she travels light, why she doesn’t have a lot of stuff, why she wants to come home. All questions that need answers. Chapter two starts off in a completely different place and POV.

Kay Hooper is a brilliant romantic suspense writer. In WHISPER OF EVIL, we have Nell coming home for her father’s funeral, though she’d left town years ago with secrets. She’s getting a headache, which we learn over the chapter is not an ordinary headache.

She barely made it, dumping her luggage in the foyer and locking the front door before moving unsteadily back to the kitchen. She fumbled through the bags for the few perishables that needed to go into the refrigerator, fighting the dizziness grimly even as she told herself she should at least find a chair before–

Blackness washed over her, and Nell crumpled silently to the dusty tile floor.

Yowsa! Definitely want to read more. In three sentences we learn so much. This has happened before. She knows it. She wants to put away the perishables, why? It implies she knows she can be unconscious for a long time. The entire chapter has a sense of growing urgency as she knows what the pain she’s feeling will lead to, even if we don’t quite know. And we want to know! Perfect set up, both with characterization and action.

Now pull the last book you absolutely loved off your shelf, or maybe a book you haven’t read yet. Read the last page of chapter one. What kind of feeling does it leave you with? Do you want to read more? Do you have questions?