If you’re a writer, you want readers to be compelled to read on past a chapter, instead of finding it the perfect place to stop. If you’re a reader, you want that too. We’re all searching for that book we can’t put down. Why wouldn’t we want that for our own writing?
Cliff-hangers are taunting and cunning tools. If you can dangle a question or teeter on the edge of a compelling moment, readers will have more reason to continue on. It seems simple enough. Don’t end a chapter on a boring note. Still, I check my writing and too often I find that I end a chapter in a lyrical way instead of one that prompts the need to turn the page.
When it comes to writing cliff-hangers, your two best friends are tension and intrigue. If I’m reading your story, I need to feel either the rising stakes of the plot or a compulsion to find an answer to a clue you’ve teased me with.
Don’t just send your character to bed. Let them find something in their bed. Be disturbed from their sleep by an unknown figure. Whatever you do, don’t let your character lie there, stare at the ceiling and wonder about things. Just because your character is mulling over questions in their head, doesn’t mean that it will amount to any inquisition on the part of the reader.
Don’t hang your character off a cliff at the end of each chapter. Action is good but life threatening or strenuous situations at the end of each chapter are tedious, not to mention ridiculous. Yes, even if your protagonist is a super spy action hero man. Just because cliff-hangers are good literary tools does not mean that you have to constantly bash the reader over the head with them.
The important thing to remember is that to get the reader to continue with the story, they have to care. They have to be compelled to know more. If you can itch at their curiosity, you have them. If you have managed to make them care about what happens to the protagonist, they will want to know if they manage to catch up with the poachers on their rusty bicycle.
Cliff-hangers do not have to be extravagant and you do not need one at the end of each chapter. Still, take a look at the last sentence of a chapter you have written and think about whether it would entice you to read on or if you are just indulging in a clever line of purple prose.
A chapter doesn’t have to be a stop. It can be a pause and a brief one at that. You just have to keep up the pace and remember to add a little kick when the time’s right.