Cliffhangers!

The Storyteller

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So, I have recently been rereading/editing the first draft I wrote of a humorous children's fantasy/adventure novel, and something that I've been noticing is I often don't end the chapter with a real strong cliffhanger, especially at the beginning of the book. I find that where the chapters end feels natural and still leaves the question of what will come next, but it rarely ends in the middle of an action sequence or after a big reveal.

I flagged these as I went through, making a note to myself that they lacked a proper 'cliffhanger' and considering which action scenes could serve to make cliffhangers. But honestly, I like where my chapters begin and end, and I feel like they are natural starting/breaking points. Also, I feel the action scenes are better to not be broken in half. There are some where an exciting and appropriate breaking point was in the middle (and these I did end a chapter on), but at other times I feel it would detract from the excitement and make it a bit clunky to break it apart.

So this is my question. How important are cliffhangers? Should every chapter end with one? Is it better to break up an action scene in a way that you might lose some of the effect of the scene in order to have a cliffhanger, or to end a chapter at a reasonably resolved state? Will publishers be less inclined to publish a book (especially a younger read) if it is lacking cliffhangers?

Or just other general thoughts on what makes a good cliffhanger, how much you rely on them, and so forth!
 

Gawian

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So, I have recently been rereading/editing the first draft I wrote of a humorous children's fantasy/adventure novel, and something that I've been noticing is I often don't end the chapter with a real strong cliffhanger, especially at the beginning of the book. I find that where the chapters end feels natural and still leaves the question of what will come next, but it rarely ends in the middle of an action sequence or after a big reveal.

I flagged these as I went through, making a note to myself that they lacked a proper 'cliffhanger' and considering which action scenes could serve to make cliffhangers. But honestly, I like where my chapters begin and end, and I feel like they are natural starting/breaking points. Also, I feel the action scenes are better to not be broken in half. There are some where an exciting and appropriate breaking point was in the middle (and these I did end a chapter on), but at other times I feel it would detract from the excitement and make it a bit clunky to break it apart.

So this is my question. How important are cliffhangers? Should every chapter end with one? Is it better to break up an action scene in a way that you might lose some of the effect of the scene in order to have a cliffhanger, or to end a chapter at a reasonably resolved state? Will publishers be less inclined to publish a book (especially a younger read) if it is lacking cliffhangers?

Or just other general thoughts on what makes a good cliffhanger, how much you rely on them, and so forth!

I'm not as experience as some of the -whisper- older chaps -whisper- here, but personally, I like cliffhanger chapters.

I don't think every chapter should be a cliffhanger, but more often than not, I enjoy them.

Especially if the chapter after isn't the follow up. I used to read a lot of Warhammer 40000 books, and in the Horus Heresy saga, they had a lot of books with 2-3, sometimes 4 different viewpoints. So you might get an action scene from someones point of view, which ends on a cliffhanger, and then the next chapter would be the same fight from the other point of view, up until the same cliffhanger, or maybe even something totally unrelated to that fight. Then a few chapters after, it would circle back to the 1st view point.

It was a little confusing until I got used, but not only did I appreciate the multiple viewpoints, I liked that it was a cliffhanger.
 

Venusian Broon

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I suppose TS, this is a 'how long is a piece of string' question.

I think it depends on what style you are writing and how you want to pace your story. I believe Dan Browns modus operandi is to have a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, more or less (or at least from what others have said about his writing, I have yet to read any of his books), so that would produce a breathless helter-skelter of a pace that goads the reader to get that 'ah I'll just read the next chapter to find out what happens' sort of feeling.

The thing is I do think to do a cliffhanger on each chapter it would mean you would likely have overall a pacey and quick style to generate all these endings - so it may alter your style a bit.

Personally I have all sorts of different pacings in my current WiPs, so no I won't be slapping on cliff-hangers on every chapter - just because I think that just as it might be good to have a very pacey thriller like a roller coaster ride, other styles (like mine) have moments of calm and different chapters as I believe doing the same thing time and time again can get repetitive for the reader. But then as more action gets into my plot, yeah a good cliffhanger here and there is always an excellent tool!
 

Kissmequick

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There's a difference between a cliffhanger ending, and one that is enticing the reader onwards

I am not a fan of the former (unless really well done, but even then not *every* chapter) but I do love the latter

It's the difference between your MC meeting the bloodthirsty Queen of the Elves and ending with:

She advanced towards me, knife and fork at the ready to eat my brains

and

All I had to do was persuade her I didn't taste nice

OK crappy examples. But the first is pausing mid action. The second is (arguably depending on what has come before) ending a scene while enticing the reader onwards. Brute force v subtlety.

A cliffhanger may not get me to turn a page and may wear your reader out

A nicely done, enticing end sentence will get me to turn a page
 

Venusian Broon

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OK crappy examples. But the first is pausing mid action. The second is (arguably depending on what has come before) ending a scene while enticing the reader onwards. Brute force v subtlety.

I'd say it entices this reader on - how does our protagonist get out of this?

So I don't really see much of a distinction (in general - your examples were fine :))
 

Twistedlemon

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Handy for a weekly story in a paper or website ... Otherwise annoying. Esp. in a multi-book series.

I can't even imagine if every 5-9 pages had a cliffhanger. It's like salt, it's nice when sprinkled in, deadly if it's overdone.
 

Twistedlemon

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I rarely add salt, I'm from the philosophy of I'm too lazy to add anything to food I just want to eat it.
 

The Storyteller

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I tend to prefer the more subtle approach! I think my first chapter ends with the MC encountering unexpected difficulties but deciding to go on with his journey anyway, and ending with mentioning that since he was lost, he couldn't have found his way home anyway. Lots of them end with the resolution of a scene, but with obviously more things to follow--the decision to go see a mystic, the arrival at a new location where the next step must be attempted, leaving it at a thoughtful moment where a character is reflecting on important things, and so forth. I tend to find they work for me--I find it interesting, and I agree that constant cliffhangers can annoy me, especially when they feel contrived--but I also don't want to hurt my chances of getting published by being too flippant about it. I have a handful of chapters that end at a climactic moment, but probably less than half of the total chapters end that way.

For a children's book, do you think that it would still get published and keep a younger audience's attention if the endings of chapters are of the more subtle intrigue? I'm inclined to think yes, but I'd like to know what more experienced writers think on that note.
 

The Storyteller

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Also, Venusian Broon, this book isn't super fast-paced. It's meant to be more of a fun read, with interesting characters, good themes/morals, and a hopefully exciting plotline to accompany it. But the excitement isn't the main feel that I'm going for. I don't know if anyone is familiar with Lloyd Alexander, but I think of some of his single books such as the Wizard in the Tree.

And Ray McKarthy, it is a single book, so no worries about a series!
 

Venusian Broon

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Also, Venusian Broon, this book isn't super fast-paced. It's meant to be more of a fun read, with interesting characters, good themes/morals, and a hopefully exciting plotline to accompany it. But the excitement isn't the main feel that I'm going for. I don't know if anyone is familiar with Lloyd Alexander, but I think of some of his single books such as the Wizard in the Tree.

And Ray McKarthy, it is a single book, so no worries about a series!

That's all right! I was just saying, I would have thought that putting lots of cliffhangers would make it fast-paced. Sounds like you have a good idea what works best - stick with it :)
 

Brian Rogers

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For a younger audience subtlety may not be the most appropriate. If we're talking YA then sure, but children may not catch any subtlety. If a chapter ends by resolving too well, a reader's emotions may drop off and they will stop reading and forget there was any more to the story.

What I would think about is looking for a "string" that threads its way from the first chapter to the end. The string can be subtle (an injury, memory/flashback, etc) that a reader will subconsciously start looking for and if your string applies to the actual plot you can turn that into a great way to draw the reader forward without creating cliffhangers everywhere. Each chapter can resolve except for that tiny "string".

Of course even with children you want them to be excited to keep reading so think of the flow of the book. Are there 100 scenes that are completely different or are the characters journeying and in each chapter something remains the same. If that's the case just changing that one thing that always was the same is enough to create cliffhangers that aren't subtle but won't feel contrived. They don't even have to add to the plot, you're just pushing the emotions of your readers so they DO keep reading and get to the messages you want to get out.

I'm just thinking out loud...well...typing, but in the end whatever you do, do with confidence and don't let us change your mind. You know your story best so I hope this just helps you keep the mental juices flowing!
 

The Storyteller

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For a younger audience subtlety may not be the most appropriate. If we're talking YA then sure, but children may not catch any subtlety. If a chapter ends by resolving too well, a reader's emotions may drop off and they will stop reading and forget there was any more to the story.

What I would think about is looking for a "string" that threads its way from the first chapter to the end. The string can be subtle (an injury, memory/flashback, etc) that a reader will subconsciously start looking for and if your string applies to the actual plot you can turn that into a great way to draw the reader forward without creating cliffhangers everywhere. Each chapter can resolve except for that tiny "string".

Of course even with children you want them to be excited to keep reading so think of the flow of the book. Are there 100 scenes that are completely different or are the characters journeying and in each chapter something remains the same. If that's the case just changing that one thing that always was the same is enough to create cliffhangers that aren't subtle but won't feel contrived. They don't even have to add to the plot, you're just pushing the emotions of your readers so they DO keep reading and get to the messages you want to get out.

I'm just thinking out loud...well...typing, but in the end whatever you do, do with confidence and don't let us change your mind. You know your story best so I hope this just helps you keep the mental juices flowing!


Hmm, not sure where my book would fall in those options... they have a quest that they are on, so of course no chapter is 'fully resolved' as the quest still needs to be completed. To succeed on the quest, they need to find certain items, so a chapter may include them finding and gaining one of the new items, and issue which in itself is resolved, but the bigger issues are not. At the very beginning, chapters end with things like discovering the main character is lost, the decision to go find a mystic, and later being sent off by said mystic with some ambiguous advice. Towards the middle the chapters more often have cliffhangers that feel natural to be, but especially with the first 4-7 chapters it doesn't end in the middle of a big moment etc.

Thanks for the feedback, at any rate! I'll have to try and revisit these endings and see if they have a 'string' in them. I have one person currently reading it who thinks they are great they way they end, but she is my Mom and she thinks everything I do is great! So that might not be the most reliable critique, lol.
 

SleepyDormouse

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I don't think children's books need big cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, they do need enough hook to keep you reading the book but not so much that you are desperate to turn the next page. I'm writing a children's fantasy too and my chapters are not all cliff hangers, they do have the "What will happen next" element but not all in desperate situations. Parts of the story where there is more action tend to be more cliff hanger-ry.

Have you looked at similar kids books to see how the chapter endings are handled?
 

The Storyteller

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I don't think children's books need big cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, they do need enough hook to keep you reading the book but not so much that you are desperate to turn the next page. I'm writing a children's fantasy too and my chapters are not all cliff hangers, they do have the "What will happen next" element but not all in desperate situations. Parts of the story where there is more action tend to be more cliff hanger-ry.

Have you looked at similar kids books to see how the chapter endings are handled?

Sadly, I am at my mom and dad's house for summer, so my library is at home! Very frustratingly, as I have actually thought about a few things I would like to check in some of my younger reads, especially ones I know I loved as a child.
 

SleepyDormouse

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Sadly, I am at my mom and dad's house for summer, so my library is at home! Very frustratingly, as I have actually thought about a few things I would like to check in some of my younger reads, especially ones I know I loved as a child.

I think you probably need to look at modern children's books. I'm not sure how old you are but the children's book market is fast moving and expectations are changing. Do you have a town library you could use?
 

The Storyteller

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I'm in low twenties, so I hope I'm not too out of touch! ;) A Series of Unfortunate comes to mind, which I think might have a similar voice as mine. I work at a school, so I'll take some time browsing around the kid's section in September!
 
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