Today is our fifth and final post in my HOW TO WRITE A REAL PAGE-TURNER series. In week #1 I defined what a page-turner is and why authors should write them. Week #2 I shared five Sure Fire Fun-Suckers, what to avoid that are sure to put your readers to sleep. Week #3 I discussed the first of three Page-Turner techniques, Shorter Chapters. Week #4 was the second technique, Multiple Points of View. Today let's tackle the third technique:
#3: CLIFFHANGER CHAPTER ENDINGS
Now, the three techniques I presented are by no means exhaustive. There are many other techniques writers use to create page-turners, such as varied pacing, action, and so forth. But the three I discuss here can be applied not only to new writing projects, but also to manuscripts in need of a little umpf. They don't require entire rewrites, just a little tweaking here and there.
So what is a cliffhanger chapter ending? Simply it is the sort of chapter ending that leaves a nagging question in your reader's mind, a question they feel compelled to answer by turning the page to find out what happens next.
There are four types of chapter endings that can get the job done:
Foreshadowing is a hint or suggestion that something important, scary, shocking or life-altering is about to happen. Take a look at this chapter ending from Devil in the White City by Erik Larson:
“Even Depew, however, did not foresee the true magnitude of the Forces that were converging on Burnham and Root. At this moment he and they saw the challenge in its two most fundamental dimensions, time and money, and these were stark enough.
Only Poe could have dreamed the rest.”
Turn the page.
2. UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
While all cliffhanger endings create a question in your reader's mind, some create a partial image or expectation that can only be fully realized by reading on. The following example is from Wonder by R.J. Palacio:
“My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”
The author here gives us just the briefest suggestion that something is wrong with this kid's face, but what?
Turn the page.
3. HEIGHTEN SUSPENSE
Chapter endings can also be used to increase anticipation for the reader. You've built up his expectation of something truly traumatic or climatic, and just as that expectation is about to pay off you draw it out just a little bit longer. Take a look at how Dan Brown achieves this in The Da Vinci Code:
“Langdon could hear the tape rewinding now. Finally, it stopped, and the machine engaged. Langdon listened as the message began to play. Again, the voice on the line was Sophie’s.
‘Mr. Langdon,’ the message began in a fearful whisper. ‘Do not react to this message. Just listen calmly. You are in danger right now. Follow my directions very closely.’”
That's the end of the chapter! And of course we have to know what those directions are and what danger he is in!
Turn the page.
4. DROP THE BOMB
Finally, chapter endings can be used to provide a sudden and startling revelation that will make your reader gasp. Here is a biggie from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
“The crowd draws in a collective breath and then you can hear a pin drop and I’m feeling nauseous and so desperately hoping that it’s not me, that it’s not me, that it’s not me.
Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smoothes the slip of paper, and read out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me.
It’s Primrose Everdeen.”
Turn the page.
TRY IT OUT:
Now, take some time and read through your current work in progress. Search for that AH-HA moment in each chapter, where something remarkable or shocking happens or is revealed. End your chapter there, either right before or after that climactic moment. That's right. Just cut it.
Begin your next chapter either where you left off, or if you're writing in multiple points of view, switch to somewhere/someone entirely different. Then come back to that AH-HA moment later on.
Not every chapter has to be a cliffhanger chapter ending, and not every ending has to illicit a gasp from your readers, but there should be plenty of motivation for your readers to turn those pages late into the night.
If you're not confident about pulling this off, I highly recommend you pick up a book or two that you consider page-turners and study--not just read, but study--that author's techniques and then apply them to your own writing.