Practical Ways to Leave Your Readers Hanging From a Cliff

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I know I talk about books a lot here on my blog–particularly books I've just read. But I can't help it.

For one thing, I'm an avid reader. I usually have three or four different fiction books going at the same time. And of course, I always have research books that I'm reading too.

For another thing, I can't stop from analyzing each book I read. The editor part of my brain won't take a break. So even when I'm reading for pleasure, my mind is constantly at work studying writing techniques.

All that to say, I recently finished The Maze Runner by James Dashner, a YA dystopian that will be made into a major motion picture releasing in September. It was a fast-paced book with as many twists and turns as a maze itself. 

In addition, Dashner kept me wanting to turn the pages because of numerous unanswered questions. He gave me just enough information to keep me from being confused, but not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I was literally compelled to keep reading to find out what was really going on.

However, the one technique Dashner excelled at was in ending each chapter with a cliffhanger.

A cliffhanger is narrative device that a writer uses at the end of a scene, chapter, or even book in which the end comes abruptly without any resolution to a plot situation.

Such an ending, especially when a writer has been pushing his reader along at a fast pace, can leave the reader with rushing adrenaline, pounding pulse, and asking with bated breath, "What happens next?!"

Cliffhangers became popular in TV shows, especially at commercial breaks. Scriptwriters knew they had to find a way to keep viewers from switching channels or turning off the TV altogether. So before each commercial, they would end the show at an abrupt point, one that would leave the reader hanging by their nails wondering what was coming next.

Writers also have learned to make use of cliffhangers to keep the attention of modern readers who are prone to put down books all too easily in favor of something more exciting. Rather than wrapping things up neatly and ending a scene or chapter on a satisfying note, a cliffhanger prolongs suspense, maintains curiosity, and acts as bait that compels a reader to discover the resolution.

There are many different kinds of cliffhangers we can incorporate into our books. Here are just a few:

• End at a point of physical danger to the main character (or another character)

• End with a crucial decision needing to be made

• End with a foreboding that something is about to change

• End with an unanswered question (or several unanswered questions)

• End with the hero receiving devastating news

• End at a point of no hope or very little hope

• End with a loss (physical, emotional, or relational)

• End with emotions in an upheaval

• End with a new problem or threat that is just arising

• End with dangling a "carrot" out of reach for our character (something they desperately want)

• End with the characters in a bad situation, but with the glimmer of something good about to happen

• End with an accident or alarm

• End with a ticking-clock winding down, a time-bomb about to go off

Obviously there are many more ways to incorporate cliff hangers into our novels. Maybe not every genre can have quite as many cliff hangers as The Maze Runner. But no matter what we write, we can look for ways to drive our readers to the edge of a cliff where they're hanging on for dear life.

What about you? What are some other ways to add in a cliffhanger? Do you think one is necessary at the end of every chapter? Why or why not?


  1. I just finished reading The Maze Runner too, and I loved it! Those cliff-hanger chapter endings really did keep my fingers turning the pages.

    I like cliffhanger chapter endings. Though I don't think they always need to be dramatic. Depending on the tone of the book, a subtle hint can be enough to keep my interest.

    1. Hi Rebecca,
      Good point about cliffhangers not needing to be dramatic. In fact, I think it's good to vary the cliffhangers. It may start to annoy readers if every single chapter ends on a really dramatic moment. I think Dashner did a good job in varying how he ended his chapters with different sorts of cliffhangers.

  2. Cliff hangers definitely keep me coming back for more, both in books and TV shows. It helps keep the story from being too predictable. I don't know if I could put a cliff hanger in every one of my chapters, though.

    1. I like the way you put it, that cliffhangers keep us coming back for more. That's really true! As far as putting one at the end of every chapter, I don't (although I will definitely be looking for more ways in the future to do that). However, I think there are other techniques (like unanswered questions) that can also help keep our readers coming back.

  3. Cliffhangers work for me as a reader, and so far, according to my beta readers and critique groups, I've been able to incorporate them quite well into my writing. One thing I'd like to figure out, though, is how to finish a book with an ending that balances satisfaction for readers with enough of a cliffhanger to entice them into the next book of a series. :)

    1. Carol, that is definitely a tricky balance to find. I think The Maze Runner actually did a good job with the ending. The kids were able to make it out of The Maze, so there is a sense of resolution. But we are left with the sense that more danger awaits them. There are also enough unanswered questions that make the reader want to find out what's going on.

  4. Jody, you've done a terrific job covering the range of cliff hangers. Authors who do a good job with these keep me turning the page. They're also authors of books I want to keep reading. Thanks for the review.

  5. What happens AFTER the cliffhanger. Say, the first sentence of the next scene or chapter? Personally, I'm in favor of a complete change to a sub plot, leaving the cliffhanger hanging for a chapter or two. It's evil.

  6. Reading on cliffhangers is good learning for me. My cliffhanger is the Red Indian throwing out the water cooler in One flew over the Cuckoo's nest.
    Ludlum put coat hangers in every sentence, so the Al Queda decided to put him out of business take. I have saved this url. Plan to read regularly. Thank you.


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