Cliffhangers are a literary device employed by authors to heighten the pace and keep readers turning pages. They are used most often in mysteries and thrillers, but they can be successfully used in almost any form of writing. How do they make people keep reading?
Cliffhangers typically raise a question, reveal an intriguing piece of information, or make a declarative statement that sets up the next chapter so that the reader is left with a choice; do I put the book down now and wait until later to find out what happens, or do I keep reading?
The purpose of a cliffhanger is to increase anticipation for what comes next by leaving something unresolved. While they are most often used at the end of chapters, they can also be used at the end of a book, especially if it is part of a series. Plenty of television shows also use this device to make sure you tune in the following week.
I used the following question as a cliffhanger at the end of the first chapter of Inn Keeping with Murder, which also served as a hook for the rest of the book:
In the flash of an eye, the Lexus crashed through the guardrail and sailed off into the Moon’s welcoming embrace leaving Ellen with only one lingering thought:
“What really happened to Rita?”
Here is an example of using a declarative sentence from my book Murder in the Past Tense:
Giorgio placed the skull back in the body bag. “This just became a crime scene,” he said.
“You know it’s a crime because she was put in a duffle bag?” the chief asked.
“Yeah. That and the big hole in the side of her head.”
You can also use foreshadowing to create anticipation for something dramatic yet to come. This is from Inn Keeping with Murder.
I downed a couple of Advil PM with the warm milk and went to bed, thinking only of a good night’s sleep, but boy was I wrong.
And lastly, you can set up a feeling of doomsday that will keep your readers turning pages. In this example from Inn Keeping with Murder, I don’t let up on the tension. I remind the reader that despite a terrible car accident, the threat isn’t over.
As the shadow floated by, a face turned towards me, a helmet of gleaming white hair shining through the darkness. The predator was still here.
Cliffhangers are fun for readers, but they are also fun for the writer to create. I get an intense feeling of pleasure when I’ve crafted a good chapter ending that will force readers to question whether they’ll read one more page or go to bed. Look for cliffhangers in the next book you read or TV show you watch and ask yourself whether the writer was successful or not.