When you find yourself caught up in a book until long past midnight, what is it that keeps you turning that page? Engaging, relatable characters? Gorgeous, multi-sensory settings? Or maybe it’s the powerful, evocative themes that teach us something about the world? All of these things make for an effective story, but when you “just one more chapter” your way through an entire book, it’s likely due to a simple literary device: the cliffhanger.
Cliffhangers are as old as storytelling, dating all the way back to the Arabian Nights . In this article we’ll look at the definition of a cliffhanger, some examples of cliffhangers from literature, and how to use cliffhangers to take your story to the next level.
What is a cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is a literary device that ends a section of a story on a big dramatic question. This section might be a scene, a chapter, or even an entire novel in a continuing series. The big dramatic question makes the reader want to keep reading to find out the answer.
The term “cliffhanger” found its way into modern language in the 1930s, when short serial films became popular with theatregoers. These serials would each end on a suspenseful dramatic question, keeping audiences coming back for the next installment. Some sources think the term “cliffhanger” emerged from Thomas Hardy’s 1872 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes , in which one chapter closes with the protagonist left hanging at the edge of a cliff. Butlong before any of this, the first storyteller to make use of the cliffhanger device was a brave young woman by the name of Scheherazade, the author of the Arabian Nights .
The overarching story of the Arabian Nights follows a wicked king who takes a new bride every night, only to have them knocked off the next morning. Scheherazade, fighting for her life with nothing but raw chutzpah, offers to tell the king a story. Only she’s just so tired, she can’t possibly tell him the ending yet… it will have to wait until tomorrow.
She does this for one thousand and one nights. The king agrees to keep her alive just one more day, just one more day, waiting to see what happens next. After this has gone on for a while he begins to reflect that maybe he’s been a bit of a misogynistic jerk, and decides to spare her after all.
Whether or not Scheherazade was a real person is open to debate, but her story demonstrates the power of the dramatic question—the only question, really, that matters in a good story: and then what happened?
When should you use cliffhangers in your story?
Cliffhangers are great survival tool to have on hand if you ever find yourself married against your will to a homicidal ruler with a weakness for a good story. If you manage to dodge that particular fate, however, cliffhangers are still a wonderful literary device to create tension in your story and engage your readers.
Cliffhangers are most effective at natural breaks in the story where the reader might get up to go to the bathroom, make some dinner, or turn off the lights and go to sleep like a responsible human being. These natural breaks might be things like the end of a chapter, the moment where you move from one point of view to another, and the moment where you jump forward (or sometimes backwards) in time. These are all easy places for the reader to put your book aside—the goal of a cliffhanger to make that choice as difficult as possible.
Even if they do put the story down until another day (readers do have lives that need attending to, on occasion), an effective cliffhanger will keep them turning your story over in their thoughts and excited to get back to reading it.
After you write your book and are sharing it with trusted beta readers to get their feedback, ask them to make a note of where they put down your book. Then, as you go back and edit, you can think about adding cliffhangers to those places to make them more exciting.
3 cliffhanger examples from literature
Cliffhangers are a mainstay of popular literature. Let’s look at a few examples of books that have used them particularly well.
1. The Outsiders , by S. E. Hinton
S. E. Hinton makes use of effective one-line cliffhangers to introduce dramatic questions and keep readers turning the pages. At the end of one chapter, the narrator says, “Things gotta get better, I figured. They couldn’t get worse. I was wrong.” This immediately shows the reader that something exciting is about to happen in the next chapter.
Another chapter closes by revealing that an unexpected character was actually a spy for a rival gang. This shifts the reader’s perception of the story world quickly and concisely, making them want to turn the page to find out where this new piece of information leads. Both of these instances, and others throughout the story, give the reader just enough information to make them want to learn more.
2. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
William Goldman’s classic adventure story is full of thrilling cliffhangers, including a famous one in which the story’s hero is literally hanging from a cliff face, making his way up to the top so he can rescue a kidnapped princess. What he doesn’t know is that a master swordsman is waiting to kill him as soon as he reaches the top. What will happen next? We have to keep reading to find out.
Goldman also uses its unique story-within-a-story structure to pause at several pivotal moments of tension: “Then the sharks went mad—”; “he started running for the underground entrance to the Zoo of Death—”, allegedly to give the reader a break from the scariness of it all but in reality, of course, to make them spin in circles wondering what on earth is going to happen next.
3. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman uses cliffhangers as a clever way to feed in essential information about the plot. One section in Neverwhere closes by revealing that someone the reader thought was an ally was really the unseen villain all along, before shifting to another character’s perspective. Now the reader has information that some of the characters don’t, and the actions of those characters begin to take on a new meaning. The reader has to keep reading the next chapter to see what happens when they find out the truth.
Another chapter ends with the main character completing a difficult trial to win a sacred object—a key. For a moment the reader thinks that things are finally starting to look up for the hero. Then, after the hero takes off towards the next step of their adventure, the chapter closes with the line: “‘We have lost the key,’ said the Abbot to himself, as much as to any of them. ‘God help us all.’” Immediately the reader knows that something isn’t right, and that the hero is walking into a trap. This makes them want to find out what happens next.
7 ways to use cliffhangers in your writing
Now that we’ve seen why, when, and how cliffhangers are used in great storytelling, let’s take a closer look at some of the specific ways you can use cliffhangers to increase tension in your story.
1. Reveal new information
Bringing new information to light is one of the easiest ways to build your cliffhanger. You can do this either by revealing new information to one or more of the characters, or you can reveal new information to the reader that the characters don’t know. Both work to create suspense in different ways. For example, you could suddenly reveal an illicit affair, a professional betrayal, or a secret misdeed that someone has been hiding. The reveal forces the reader to look at the story in a new light, and it creates a need to know what happens next.
2. Use foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a subtle yet effective tool for creating a cliffhanger. You can do this directly through action, dialogue, or narrative, or indirectly through mood and tone. If you show your characters having a happy celebration, but incorporate dark shadows and stormy weather, your readers will know that a turning point is on the way. You can also use metaphors and symbolism to hint at what’s to come.
To use foreshadowing more overtly, you can drip hints right into the narrative. For example, “I wouldn’t know until days later that it was the last time I’d see him alive.” Or you can incorporate foreshadowing into dialogue and action; for example, showing your character entering a forbidden room, leaving the reader to wonder why and what the consequences will be. The goal of using foreshadowing as a cliffhanger is to imply a change—your story has been going in one direction, but if the reader hangs on a little longer, they’ll be rewarded by seeing it go in a different direction entirely.
3. Put your characters in danger
The cliffhanger as old as time: put your characters in peril, and leave your readers to wonder how on earth they’re going to get out of it. This might be physical danger, like the classic dangling off a cliff, or it might be some sort of psychological, financial, or spiritual danger—for example, your character’s bank has just gone bankrupt, along with all their money.
This type of cliffhanger introduces a new threat that the character has to deal with immediately . The intensity and the immediacy of the threat will determine how badly the reader needs to keep turning the page.
4. Take something away from them
Just when things start going pretty well for your characters is, somewhat counterintuitively, the moment when your readers will start getting ready to close the book. You can hold their attention by taking something away from your characters that forces them to either fight to get it back, or adjust to a vastly new world without that thing that they’ve lost.
This might be something like losing a romantic partner, who’s announced that they’re taking a new job across the country, or maybe your character finds out they’ve lost out on a contest or scholarship that they were already planning their life around. Like other types of cliffhangers, this moment marks a turning point where your characters are going to have to take action.
5. Set a time limit
Introducing time constraints as a literary device is not only a great way to introduce a cliffhanger, but also to build on cliffhangers that you’ve already put in place. For example, maybe the partner with the new job offer has asked the protagonist to come with them… but at the end of the chapter, they reveal that they’ve been asked to start earlier than expected, so the protagonist has to decide in three days. Now we have a cliffhanger that’s building on another cliffhanger.
Time limits can also be used to raise the stakes in the classic “mortal peril” cliffhangers. For instance, one chapter might end with the hero dangling over the edge of a cliff by a rope—not ideal, but manageable; we know they’ll be okay. At least, until the rope starts to come apart, and suddenly the hero has to find a way to be okay very quickly before it snaps. Now we have a time limit, and a cliffhanger built on another cliffhanger.
6. Create an impossible choice
To create suspense, try giving your protagonist a choice between two irreconcilable options. Maybe Lex Luther tells Superman that he’s just sent one nuclear missile to California and another to New Jersey, and Superman only has time to save one of them. Maybe the protagonist has to choose between being with the woman he loves and supporting an elderly relative. When the character is faced with an impossible choice, the reader knows instinctively that it isn’t a real choice at all—there has to be a third option, but we don’t know what it is yet. And the only way we’ll find out is by turning the page.
7. Interrupt a pivotal moment
Much like the “reveal,” this cliffhanger type works by taking the reveal away—at least for a little while. Maybe your protagonist is just about to confess her love to her best friend, when she suddenly receives an urgent phone call from work. Maybe your character has just worked up the courage to confess to a crime, when suddenly an even bigger crime takes place. This major turning point quickly shuffles the characters’ priorities and leaves the reader wondering how they’ll react to this new development and what will happen next.
Use cliffhangers to hook readers into your story
As you can see, cliffhangers are about creating a sudden turn, or the promise of a sudden turn, in your narrative—a shift in what the characters think, feel, need, want, or understand. When a tale goes too long without one of these turns, the reader grows complacent—or worse, that thing that has destroyed many a promising writer’s career: bored.
Not all cliffhangers need to be as intense as a fraying rope on a cliffside, but the dramatic turns are what will keep your reader glued to the page long past their bedtime. And all you need is to keep them asking that one, big question: and then what happened?