31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep: Day 20 – How (And When) Do I Use Cliffhangers?

Daaaaaaayyyy 20 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”! It’s been quite the adventure so far, hasn’t it? If you’re only just joining us on this adventure, welcome! You can catch up by checking out the other posts in this series here, or you can check out the corresponding YouTube videos here. Today is all about cliffhangers, something all writers seem to love but not all writers know how to use. So that’s why I’m here! To teach you how to use them correctly!

A cliffhanger is where a moment of action or a pressing issue is left unresolved. When used correctly, it’s a great way to keep readers turning the pages. If you leave a chapter or  book off on a cliffhanger, then it gives the reader incentive to keep reading or buy the next book in the series. When used incorrectly, though (aka, if you use them excessively), they can make the reader weary and ultimately result in the reader putting your book down and never picking it back up. That, obviously, is the exact opposite of what you want.

“So, then, when should I use a cliffhanger?” you ask. The question, though, is when shouldn’t you? It seems like there’s a general misconception floating around the writing world that all chapters should be left off on cliffhangers. And by this, I mean I totally fell for this and tried to do just that with the first draft of my (soon-to-be published) debut novel The Caspian Chronicles: The Forbidden Prophecy. DO NOT DO THIS. Not every chapter can or should end on a cliffhanger. It’s like a joke. If you tell it once, it’s funny. If you tell it twice, it can get a giggle because it’s fresh. But if you tell it over and over, it gets real old, real fast. You’ve got to save it, and only use it when you know it’ll enhance the moment. The best cliffhangers usually happen after moments of action or drama (and your novel can’t be all action and drama all the time, so the cliffhangers should be few and far between).

Also, as a general rule, novels shouldn’t be ended with cliffhangers unless they’re a part of a series and aren’t the last book of that series. Of course, there’s exceptions to every rule. In this case the exception is if you feel like a cliffhanger would really drive home the theme of your novel. That would probably be the only acceptable circumstance to end a stand-alone novel/the last novel in a series with a cliffhanger, and even then you’ll need to be prepared to have some very frustrated, angry readers.

There’s also a lot of people who believe that the first book in a series shouldn’t be left off on a cliffhanger. They think that book one should be a self-contained story. Traditional literary agents and publishers especially tend to hold this belief. Some don’t even like you to pitch your book as the first in a series at all. That’s a whole mess we’ll be getting into in the last few days of this month, but just keep it in mind if you’re looking to traditionally publish your novel.

Personally, I tend to disagree with this line of thinking (which is funny, because technically The Forbidden Prophecy could work as a stand-alone, even though it sets up a lot of things for the next three books in the series). I mean, obviously if you’re planning on traditionally publishing you should take my opinion with a grain of salt, since I’m not the one who’ll be representing and publishing your novel, but if you’re planning on going the self-publishing route, then I say you should do whatever the heck you want. It’s your series. If you’re planning to publish the entire series no matter what, meaning that you’ll publish them even if your sales aren’t amazing, then I don’t really see why you shouldn’t get your reader excited for the next book by leaving book one off on a cliffhanger. If you do leave it off on a cliffhanger, though, I feel like I need to emphasize that you need to publish the next book in the series. If you leave a reader wanting more and then you never give it to them, that will absolutely tarnish your reputation as an author, and that trust will be a bitch to earn back.

Which actually leads nicely into my next point, which is how to effectively use cliffhangers. Like I mentioned before, the point of cliffhangers is to draw out moments of action or drama. If your protagonist is in utter peril or their relationship with the love interest hangs in the balance, spread it out over two chapters or books. Just don’t leave a cliffhanger unresolved. It should be resolved in the next chapter or within the first few pages of the next book, or else your readers won’t be happy with you at all. Don’t make your cliffhanger a gimmick, where you tease something amazing and then don’t follow through with it, either by making the resolution anti-climactic or by just not addressing the problem ever again. This mostly tends to be an issue when people try to end every chapter with a cliffhanger even when there isn’t anything super dramatic happening, but it can happen in dramatic moments, too. For example, don’t end a chapter with two characters breaking up, and then have the next chapter start with them saying something like, “Just kidding!” As a reader, wouldn’t that infuriate you? It would infuriate me. So don’t do it.

Cliffhangers are fun to read and fun to write. Great cliffhangers can make a reader throw a book across the room–at least, that’s how I measure success. My favorite cliffhangers have driven me to the point of anger, not because they were bad, but because they made me emotional to the point where I didn’t know what to do with myself. The reason I was so emotional? Because the cliffhangers ended on something super dramatic that’d been making me emotional to begin with. So find the moments in your book or series where you know reader emotions will be at an all-time high… And then yank the rug out from under them, either with a small chapter break or with a big ol’ book break. That’s what makes cliffhangers the most effective.

And that’s actually the last bit of writing advice I have for you (for now). Don’t worry, this month ain’t over yet. It’s just that the remaining topics are all post-NaNoWriMo related, like titling your novel (which is actually Sunday’s topic), how to write a back cover copy, querying your novel to agents, and more! You know, all of that important stuff. As for tomorrow, that’ll be another review of my own progress with prepping for NaNoWriMo. So I’ll either see you tomorrow for Day 21 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”, or else I’ll see you on Sunday for Day 22. Either way, we’ve got great things ahead of us!

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