What Cliffhangers Reveal About Impact

Sat Sep 02 2017

We all know how cliffhangers work: create a moment of surprise, of uncertainty, of danger, suspense (literal or figurative), or anything else that makes readers anxious to know the outcome, then withhold the outcome.

That much is obvious, and we've all experienced it so often it probably doesn't need any further explanation.

What's interesting is why cliffhangers work, and what that mechanism implies for other moments in our writing.

Why cliffhangers work

To understand why cliffhangers work, let's look at one that doesn't:

Jack strode briskly up seventh avenue, the rain-slicked street reflecting an impressionist spray of colors from the lights of Times Square. He checked his watch as he came to West 45th. Two minutes. Maybe she'll be running late, he thought, hoping not to leave Sharon waiting.

He stepped off the curb, scarcely having time to register the garish orange helmet of the bike messenger before it collided with him, sending him to the pavement.

He woke, several hours later, to bright fluorescent lights and a soft beeping sound. "Oh, you're awake. I'll get the doctor." It was a woman's voice. He tried to look, but a sharp pain flared in his neck and a small, sharp cry emerged from his lips.

This situation ought to be a cliffhanger, but it isn't because it doesn't withhold the outcome. The scene races on, with scarcely time for a heartbeat, from the moment of surprise and uncertainty to the revelation of the outcome.

What the passage lacks is time.

Time is what makes a cliffhanger work. Not time in the story, but time for the reader.

Readers need time to process what they just saw. They need time to think about the possibilities, to let the potential ramifications of the event play out in their minds.

They need time to sit with that "Holy crap, is he ok?" feeling. They need time to wonder about poor Sharon, who must be feeling like she's been stood up. They need time to wonder how this accident is going to affect every other part of Jack's life that they're aware of.

But the scene races on, and bam, he's waking up in the hospital. Now readers can't spend any of their mental energy on those questions because their attention is now directed on the new material coming in.

Time gives cliffhangers their impact.

You can create that time in many ways, and it doesn't take much. What the passage above needed was a chapter break or scene break after the second paragraph. That's usually plenty all on its own.

Even though all the reader has to do is turn the page to reach the next chapter, or even just skip over a half-inch of whitespace to reach the next scene, that little break gives their brain time to do what it needs to do.

The simple interruption of the narrative allows the reader to pause. It gives them the choice of whether to immediately dive into the next part, or whether to think for a second about what they just read.

And usually, even though they're not really aware of doing it, readers will choose to take the pause. They might even re-read the last sentence, just to confirm that yes, you really did just hit Jack with a bicycle messenger.

Depending on how much you want to torture your reader with the suspense, and if your POV choice permits, you might extend the time by giving them a scene or a chapter from some other part of your story.

Dan Brown, since he tends toward multi-viewpoint story structures, does that all the time. Just about every chapter in a Dan Brown book is a cliffhanger ending. And say what you will about his writing, but in my view his mastery of the cliffhanger explains about 90% of his commercial success.

So how else do you use this?

Of course, high drama cliffhanger moments aren't the only times in your story where you want to create a sense of impact.

One character revealing big news to another. A character discovering something important. A character deciding something important. Those are all moments that have a big impact on your characters, and as such, ones you also want to have a big impact on your readers.

Just like with cliffhangers, all the reader needs is time.

You could go straight to the scene break or chapter break. But often, just a quiet passage in the narrative can serve the same function. Let's imagine that Sharon shows up at the hospital the next morning to reveal some big news:

"Jack? You have a visitor." The nurse eased Jack's bed up to a semi-sitting position. As his head lifted, he saw Sharon standing in the doorway, behind the nurse. Her eyes were red, mascara smudged.

"Just five minutes," the nurse said. "He needs rest." The nurse slipped out of the room, sliding the door shut behind her.

"Sharon," Jack began, his voice hoarse and dry. "I'm sor--"

"Shh." She crossed to the bed and slipped her fingers into his hand. "Jack, I'm pregnant."

Jack blinked. The room fell quiet but for the beep of the monitors and the low whir of the machine pumping painkillers through his I.V. Jack's thoughts whirled. But, we used a condom, Jack thought. What would this mean? Would she expect him to propose to her? Would she want to keep it? Would he? Was he even ready for this? Maybe she wasn't really pregnant. Maybe the test was wrong.

"Jack? Did you understand?" Sharon's face was a mask of worry lines. "Say something, please."

"Yes, I understand," he whispered. He met her eyes and tried for a smile. "What do you want to do?"

The "Jack blinked" paragraph creates the time the reader needs.

It's not whitespace on the page, but it's whitespace in the scene. It's a period in which nothing is happening in the room. This frees readers to think about the ramifications of Sharon's news, just as they would if they'd been given a scene break instead. And to help them along, Jack's thoughts mirror the same kinds of questions you probably want readers to be asking.

Give readers time

Time creates impact. Use cliffhanger thinking not just for your classic cliffhanger events, but for your story's most important emotional and revelatory moments too.

Because whether you fill it with actual whitespace or just a quiet passage, the power in those moments comes from the space between the event and its resolution, and the time it takes readers to cross that space.