The secret to writing novels that readers can't put
down is simple -- in theory. All you have to do is making the ending of each chapterso exciting that your reader can't help but turn the page.
That's a nice theory. How do you do it in practice? The answer depends on the kind of novel you're writing. The purpose of a novel is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. Each category of fiction creates its own mix of emotional experiences. Each category makes a promise to deliver a certain kind of emotion at the end of thenovel. A romance promises to deliver love. A suspense novel promises to deliver safety. A mystery promises to deliver justice.
As your story progresses, your reader tracks how close you are to delivering the final emotional payoff for your story. If the payoff looks like it's getting closer, your reader's tension eases. If it looks like the payoff is getting further away, your reader's tension tightens.
When something happens at the very end of a chapter to make the payoff suddenly look dramatically less likely, that's a cliffhanger. Lee Child is a master of writing cliffhangers. Child is the author of a series of thrillers starring Jack Reacher, a drifter who left the Army after 13 years as a military cop. Now Reacher hitchhikes around the country, running into one set of bad guys after another and reluctantly puttings right.
Reacher is a skilled street fighter who knows every dirty fighting trick in the book and uses them to get out of trouble. That's a great skill to have when you get in fights with thugs three at a time, or you're threatened by guys with guns.
In one scene in KILLING FLOOR, the first novel in the series, Reacher and a businessman named Hubble are put in prison on a trumped up charge late one night. There's been a murder in town, and both Reacher and Hubble are incidentally connected, even though they're not suspects. They're supposed to be put on the holding floor for nonviolent prisoners. By mistake, they've been put on the floor with the hard guys -- lifers.
By the time Reacher realizes the mistake next morning, the guards aren't around and he's got a pack of toughs in his cell, and they've got rape on their minds. Hubble is cowering in the corner and is clearly not going to be any help. Reacher is on his own.
A lot of authors would end the chapter right there. It would be a nice cliffhanger. Lee Child doesn't do that, because that's not good enough. Instead, he continues the scene. Reacher takes on the first guy, smashes his face with one good head-butt, and then shoos the other thugs out of his cell.
A lot of authors would bring on more hard guys to make some sort of threat against Reacher and end the chapter
there. That would make an even nicer cliffhanger, because it would increase the number of Reacher's enemies -- and now they're forewarned that he's a good fighter.
Lee Child doesn't do that either, because it's still not good enough. Instead, Reacher talks to his cellmate Hubble about the reason they've been arrested. He learns that Hubble's been involved in something crooked that he can't talk about and he's been threatened by somebody he won't even name. If he tells who, Hubble says, they'll nail his limbs to the wall. They'll cut off certain parts of his body and feed them to his wife. They'll cut his throat. They'll cut his wife's throat. They'll make his children watch. Then they'll do unspeakable things to the kiddies. That's where the chapter ends. That's a cliffhanger with some bite to it.
The reason this works better than ending the scene with a physical threat to Reacher is because Jack Reacher can take care of himself, and the reader knows it. A threat against Reacher is just an invitation for a great fight scene. A treat against Hubble, though, creates conflict. Reacher is a drifter who just walked into town, and he barely knows Hubble. Reacher would just as soon walk right on out of town. But now he has to make a choice -- will he get involved or will he leave Hubble in trouble?
The reader doesn't know the answer to that. The reader wants Reacher to get involved, but Reacher hasn't really got a reason yet. He knows he can't be responsible for fixing all the problems of the world, of which there an unlimited number. So he'd just as soon walk away. Will he or won't he?
In the next chapter, Reacher and Hubble go down to the bathroom. They're trapped inside by five huge guys -- Aryan Brotherhood types. Two of them hustle Hubble out of the way, and the other three single out Reacher. It's clear these guys have come to kill. Again, Lee Child doesn't choose this as the cliffhanger ending to his chapter. Instead, he lets the fight run its course. There's a guy choking Reacher from behind and a guy in front about to punch his lights into next
year. Reacher kicks the guy in front of him where it counts the most, breaks the little fingers of the guy choking him, and gouges out the eye of the third wannabe killer. All in a day's work for Jack Reacher.
Next thing you know, the guards rush in, break up the fight, and take Reacher and Hubble up to the holding floor where they should have been to begin with. Reacher does a little thinking and it's clear to him what's going on. The whole thing was a setup. The guards must have put the Aryan boys up to killing Reacher. Not just any guards. The head guy. Somebody important, wants Jack Reacher dead. Somebody who controls the people who run the prison. Somebody big
and nameless. That's where the chapter ends. Again, it's a good solid cliffhanger. Jack Reacher is in danger from somebody he can't see, can't name, and therefore can't fight. The reader doesn't know if Reacher is up to this kind of danger. Neither does Reacher. But this puts tremendous pressure on Reacher to get out of town as soon as he gets bailed out of jail. If he
doesn't, he'll be in over his head against somebody he's unqualified to fight. Leaving Hubble still in massive danger.
The next two chapters have Reacher getting bailed out of jail with Hubble and talking with the cops. He's planning to leave town, but some of the cops are good guys, and they're trying to get any information they can from him before he goes. Then the fingerprint information comes in on the murder victim. The cops have a positive ID on the corpse. They
show it to Reacher, and suddenly he's got all kinds of reasons for staying in town and getting to the bottom of this mystery. Because, by some awful coincidence, the dead man is Reacher's brother. That's a cliffhanger.
Reacher doesn't owe Hubble anything, and he could leave him to his faceless foes. But not when Hubble's enemies are the ones who killed Reacher's brother. Now it's personal. Now Reacher is committed to battling Big Faceless Evil, whether he wants to or not. He's in the crucible now. How in the world is he going to get out? And the story is launched -- with a cliffhanger.
What makes these cliffhangers work? We can extract several principles from the scenes we've seen:
* A good cliffhanger attacks the weak character, not the strong one. It was better to end a chapter with a threat to Hubble than a threat to Reacher.
* A good cliffhanger attacks a strong character at his weakest point. It was better to threaten Reacher with a politically powerful and invisible enemy than to threaten him with a thug.
* Moral obligations are strongest when they involve people close to your character. Reacher might not stay in town to rescue the stranger Hubble, but he has to stay to find justice for his brother.
You're probably in the middle of reading a novel this week. Keep an eye out for any chapter endings that qualify as cliffhangers. Ask yourself these questions:
* Why did the author end the chapter where he did?
* Would the cliffhanger have been stronger if it came earlier or later?
* What emotional forces is the author using to make you turn the page?
* How can you use what you learned about this cliffhanger in your own novel?
If it's 3 AM and your reader hasn't finished your book yet, she really has no business going to bed yet. If you can keep her up all night, she'll hate you in the morning. But she'll buy your next book for sure.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 23,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
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