If you’re writing a serial – or about a serial killer – you’ll have heard all about building cliffhangers in to keep the pages turning. But what grips the reader so much? Chances are, it’s not just the series of challenges your protagonists face, but the individuals themselves. Successful writers create one or more characters the reader will identify with and invest reading time in. The best cliffhanger ending won’t work if your reader doesn’t care about your cast.
It was easy for Dickens – although he probably wouldn’t have seen it that way – because a great deal of his writing was serialised, so the required length of the piece needed him to reach a dramatic crisis drawing the reader in and encouraging him to buy the next instalment.
You can learn from this by plotting the development of your story ensuring that it reaches a turning point or crisis or dilemma at certain stages and building towards that as you write.
If you find a character is in the way, stop and think. What is this telling you? Is that member of your cast taking you somewhere more interesting? Try developing him or her so that your reader gets swept along with their story. Using the Who, What, Where, When, Why mantra, spend a bit of time away from the main manuscript and put some flesh on the bones of this invader who’s disturbing your story line. Now stand back and consider whether this interloper deserves space in your work. If so, and it sounds enormous but you’ll be surprised how easily it can be done, shoehorn this monster in to the story at an earlier stage and suddenly, they’ll blossom in the chapter you’re working on.
It might be a nosey neighbour, an old schoolfriend suddenly rediscovered, or a disliked work colleague. There’s a reason your subconscious has been sidelining him or her, something we all do because we’re so busy writing the story we thought we were going to write, and now’s the time to include this person in your story. They will be an unexpected gift and who doesn’t like those?
Suddenly, your writing has gone onto auto-pilot, is less self-conscious and can take off. I can’t wait to see where it takes you and the point is, neither can your reader.
Congratulations! You’ve got yourself a cliffhanger.