Oh no! Mary is dangling over a pit of hungry tigers! Will she survive? Better read the next chapter to find out!
A cliffhanger can be a fun and compelling strategy to use in your writing, but what lots of writers don’t realize is that the cliffhanger itself is actually the second part in a two-part sucker punch. If you haven’t done part one correctly, your reader won’t be compelled keep reading and your cliffhanger, and your book, will be DOA.
A cliffhanger is deceptively hard to write because it is actually made up of two parts: The Establishing Stakes Scene and the Threatening the Stakes Scene, otherwise called the Cliffhanger Scene. The Establishing Stakes Scene must come first because the Cliffhanger Scene only works if your audience understands what your character stands to lose. If you love Mary and want to see her successfully become a circus ringleader like she promised her dying mother, then you’ll be on the edge of your seat when she dangles over a pit of tigers. After all, if she dies, she certainly won’t be able to be the ringleader, and that’s what we’re here to see. This why the Cliffhanger Scene is only as good as the Establishing Stakes Scene before it. The Establishing Scene makes the readers care. No matter how intense, how scary, your cliffhanger is, the stakes must be established beforehand or your cliffhanger will fall flat on its face. Even if your characters are being eaten by tigers.
Writing a good cliffhanger is like hitting a home run—you have to “wind up” first before you can hit the ball out of the park. If you don’t wind up—squaring your feet, holding the bat at the ready, making your grip good and loose—you might not even hit the ball at all.
Let’s work on another example. Mary’s dying mother told Mary she will only rest easy if Mary can finish a painting for her. If Mary doesn’t finish the painting, her mother will haunt her. At the end of the chapter, Mary runs to the art supplies store to find they’re out of paint! Oh no! Better keep reading to see what Mary does in Chapter 2!
Running out of paint at the art supplies store isn’t a huge deal in real life. Just wait ’til tomorrow and the paint will probably be back in stock. But because we know Mary has a deadline and her mother will haunt her otherwise, we know this paint is important. We’ll worry for her should she fail to finish that painting. The stakes have been established. We know what’s at risk.
Let’s test your knowledge so far with a new example: Mary’s dying mother wants her to finish that painting. She runs to the art store to get paint, which is in stock this time. But in the checkout line, Mary gets a call from her boss saying she’s been fired! Oh no! What now!
Is this a good cliffhanger?
We have to remember that there’s a formula to cliffhangers. We need to establish the stakes and then threaten those stakes. Mary getting fired from her job isn’t really going to come in the way of her finishing that painting, at least not as far as we can tell from the example. We’re threatening stakes we never established in the first place!
Not only is the formula important, but using the right elements in that formula is important too. The Establishing Stakes Scene is here specifically so that you can take those exact same stakes you set up and threaten them. If you want to threaten different stakes, you need to establish those instead. They’re inextricably linked.
A good cliffhanger is only as good as its Establishing Stakes Scene.
Need someone to have a look at your cliffhanger? Nervous about your Establishing Stakes Scene? I’m available to schedule an editing session here!
Logan Austin is a freelance editor and passionate storyteller.