3 Tips To Keep Your Reader READING: Cliffhanger Endings

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Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

 

Cliffhangers

Most of the time we as writers get a scene completed and we say, “That’s enough, I’ll stop writing and end the chapter here.” We solved one of the mini hurdles. Whew! Time for a drink.

But

If we give readers that feeling of something being resolved, THEY may stop and go have a drink – and never pick our book up again!

Your audience will probably keep reading if the story is well written, but why give them the chance to stop?

Did you ever watch a reeeeeeally good TV series where you found yourself saying, “Wow, I can’t wait to see what happens next week!” Odds are, they baited you with a cliffhanger ending. Lost was like that, and it made viewers nuts for that show. You want that.

You want crazy, rabid readers who cannot put your book down.

Yeah, but HOW do I make my book un-put-downable?

Read the chapters below and I’ll explain more at the bottom.


Chapter 19 “FINAL”

 

I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet and I already felt like I was behind schedule.

I convinced my wife I needed to at least get cleaned up and shaven before trying to talk to people. Especially about this.

I shampooed and scrubbed as fast as I could. Things were getting stranger and stranger. The three tragedies, the dreams—like we were headed for a meltdown or something. I had no real idea where to turn or what to do.

I got dressed and headed downstairs, snatching my laptop off my desk before going into the kitchen. Mallory sat at the table with her chin in her hands, watching Sophie’s every move out of the corner of her eye. Sophie, for her part, did the same, slowly and carefully eating her cereal, her movements stiff and robotic. The TV blathered on with cartoons, but my wife and daughter put on a show of their own for each other, pretending to be relaxed.

That would be good enough for now. I grabbed my keys. “I’m heading out.”

Mallory looked at me. Her eyes were still red and puffy from crying. She would have asked where I was going but she probably figured I didn’t really know. Maybe the church, maybe somewhere else, but I had to at least act like I was doing something.

“I’m taking my computer.” I help up the laptop. “Just in case.”

“Okay,” she said. “Be careful.”

I walked over and gave her a kiss. “I’ll be back in a little while.” Then I kissed my daughter. “You be good for your mother.”

“Okay.” Sophie whispered.

“We’re going to get dressed and run some errands.” Mallory leaned back and sighed, massaging her temples. “I need to get rid of some of this nervous energy.”

“Sounds good.”

As I pulled my car out of the garage, I thought about where I could go. The rain had been coming and going all morning, and the winds were getting stronger. Leaves were picked up and thrown around with every gust. Our little hurricane off the coast was making an effort to impress everyone.

Some of the websites I saw might have been helpful, but most were complete garbage. Obvious scam operations. Psychic hotlines. Stuff not even worth placing a phone call to. I hadn’t followed up with Our Lady of Mercy, either, because I didn’t feel they could do anything more at the moment. That left my options limited, but I couldn’t convey that to my wife.

A lot of our local restaurants and coffee shops had internet access. I could stop in and continue yesterday’s search. In fact . . .

I pulled over and snapped open my laptop. The screen from the prior day’s searches was still up—Help For The Hopeful, blinking at me.

What was up with that little site? I’d done some bizarre searches yesterday, and it popped up in several of them. I tried to look into the meaning of lion dream, checked into paranormal activity, did some searches on demonic possessions, exorcisms . . . the little black and white ad with the tiny blinking cross was everywhere, but it didn’t seem like it belonged anywhere.

I propped my elbow on the car window, rubbing my chin and watching the rain. The winds batted my car. On the passenger seat, the little ad on my computer continued to flash.

What the heck. I have nothing to lose.

The Wi-Fi signal at a nearby fast food restaurant was strong enough to use from my car in the parking lot. I didn’t want anyone looking over my shoulder while searched for bizarre stuff.

I shut off the engine and stared at the little ad, it’s line of text scrolling across the bottom: All problems have answers.

The tiny cross in the ad was like a little lighthouse, beckoning me.

I clicked the link. The page was very plain, just a local phone number and the words: Talk with people who understand the isolation and frustration of a problem that seems to have no answers. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

That was all it said. No asking for money, no 900 number to call. Nothing that really said much about anything. No promises of a psychic that has all the answers, or a church that will solve the problem in ten steps. Just the tiny blinking cross and a promise of help.

Right now, that seemed a decent first step.

It would offer help, or it would be BS. There was only one way to find out.

Any internet scammer worth his salt would have a website promising to solve all my problems, that much I knew. What I didn’t know was how I would avoid all the rip off artists and still find somebody who could help. And that didn’t think I was crazy. If nothing panned out, I could always go back to Father Frank and see what else he could suggest.

I pulled out my cell phone and dialed.

A man answered. “Hello?”

I cleared my throat and sat up straight. “Uh, hello. I saw your ad . . . I was wondering if you could help me with a problem I’m having. Did I call the right place? Is this Help for the Hopeful?”

“It is.” The man said. “What sort of problem do you need help with?”

I sighed. “Well . . . one that will probably make me sound crazy.”

“Okay, well, first—don’t worry about that. And I’m not going to ask you for any credits cards because we don’t accept any money from people we help. So who sounds crazy now?”

His voice was deep and Texas-y, with a deliberate tone. Unwavering. Unquestioning. Confident. I have to admit, getting the money thing out of the way appealed to me. I leaned back in my seat. “Are you local? It looks like I called a Tampa number.”

“We have an office in Tampa, but right now it’s forwarded to my cell phone and I’m across the state in Melbourne. I’m supposed to be doing a little fishing, but it’s not working out too well.”

“Fishing?” I glanced at the bands of rain thrashing my windshield. “Oh, like fishers of men. That sort of thing. Are you part of a church?”

“No, like fishing for fish.” He said. “The weather’s not cooperating. Way too choppy. Gonna have to call it a day already.”

The sunny days earlier in the week would fool a lot of people into thinking it would be calm seas. It wasn’t. Sunken Spanish galleon 101.

“But, yes, I am what you could consider part of a church. A priest kind of part.”

Interesting. I was tempted to ask what kind of church, but very few churches have clergymen that refer to themselves as priests.

“You never answered my question.” Over the phone came banging around of some sort. He was probably packing up his fishing gear. “What sort of problem do you need help with?”

I ran my hand through my hair and took a deep breath. “I’m not even sure it’s a real problem. I mean, I’m not sure what to call it, but . . . I—my family—we seem to be having a lot of bad luck that’s kind of centered around certain people. And certain dates. Really bad things seem to happen every year, almost like they’re on a schedule.”

I held my breath and waited for the embarrassing laughter or anger—some kind of negative, degrading reaction to an obviously insane statement.

“Well that sure doesn’t sound like your everyday kind of problem.” The man said. “What’s your name?”

“Uh.” I quickly considered giving him a fake name, but my mind blanked. I wiped my hands on my pants. “My name is Doug.”

“Well, Doug, it’s a pleasure. I’m John Reed but my friends call me Tyree. Why don’t you let me pack up my fishing gear and I’ll call you back when I’m on dry land again. That’ll take me about an hour. Sound good?”

An hour? “You must be pretty far out to sea.”

“No, I’ve been visiting at one of those bars where you can pull up in your boat and now I can’t find my keys.”

Great. A drunk. It’s still morning, even on the other side of the state. I shifted on my seat.

“They sell bait and ice, you know?” Tyree said. “I haven’t been drinking. I don’t drink. But with all this on and off rain we’ve been having, it’s messed up the fishing.”

That was a relief—and an immediate dose of shame for thinking bad about him. Heat rose to my cheeks. “Sure, no problem.”

“Besides, they got this cute little bar maid I like to have a look at now and again.”

“A man of the cloth checking out girls?” That didn’t sound like a priest. My defenses rose again.

“Well, you know what they say. Just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you can look at the menu.”

That was backwards. I was about to correct him when Tyree cut me off.

“I’m a sinner, Doug.” More equipment noises banged in my ear. “We all are. Even you. Maybe that’s the source of your problems. Wouldn’t be the first time. But I’ll call you back in an hour, okay?”

“Okay, Mr. Tyree,” I said. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. And it’s just ‘Tyree.’”

“Tyree. Got it.”

“Okay. One hour.”

The wind let up so the rain could come straight down now. Leaves and bits of trash littered the parking lot and stuck to my windshield and the hood of my car.

I don’t know why, but as I ended the call I felt a sense of relief. I suppose getting something like that off your chest and not being laughed at, that eased my mind. I felt Tyree was genuinely interested helping us—but a good con man would make a sucker feel that way, wouldn’t he?

He seemed to anticipate my concerns. That was either intuitive and helpful or completely scammy. I shook my head and tapped the steering wheel, staring out at the watery parking lot. Any help is better than no help, right? Or would the wrong sort of person end up hurting my family worse somehow? Lure us in when we’re vulnerable and end up scamming us somehow?

I glanced at my computer. When I was fresh out of college, I took a job at a marketing company as an assistant to one of the big producers. The first thing I’d tell new associates was, if your leads are weak, create more leads. I nodded to myself. My options were weak. I needed to create more options. I needed a plan B in case Tyree ended up going nowhere the way Father Frank did.

A gust of wind sent debris flying off the grass by the dumpster. Somebody had left it open and papers came flying out. One landed on my windshield.

It was a glossy flyer for a blues quartet, and some college kid had probably been paid to put these on all the doors in the neighborhood or the cars at the mall. In this crappy weather, the dumpster got them instead. I put down my window and reached around to peel the colorful paper off the wet glass, when the words at the bottom of the flyer lit me up like a neon sign on the Vegas strip.

My heart jumped. I started the car and raced out of the parking lot, grabbing the wheel with both hand and bouncing up and down in my seat. A new option was taking shape.


Original Chapter 19, An Angel On Her Shoulder

 

It was first thing in the morning and I already felt behind schedule.

I jumped in the shower after convincing my wife that I needed to get cleaned up and shaven before trying to talk to people. Especially about this.

Things were getting stranger and stranger. The three tragedies, the dreams; it was like we were headed for a meltdown or something. I had no real idea where to turn or what to do.

I got dressed and headed downstairs. Michele had calmed down enough to watch Savvy eat breakfast. Both of them looked tense, but were trying to appear relaxed, putting on a show for each other. That would be good enough for now, I guess.

“I’m heading out,” I announced, grabbing my keys.

Michele looked at me. She would have asked where I was going but she probably knew I didn’t really know. Maybe the church, maybe somewhere else. But I had to at least act like I was doing something.

“I’m taking my computer,” I said, holding up my laptop. “Just in case.”

“Okay,” she said. “Be careful.”

I walked over and gave her a kiss. “I’ll be back in a little while,” then I turned to Savvy. “You be good for your mother.”

“Okay,” Savvy said, not taking her eyes off her cartoon.

“What’s your plan for the day?” I asked Michele.

“We’re going to get dressed and run some errands,” she said. “I need to get out and get rid of some of this nervous energy.”

“Sounds good.”

As I pulled my car out of the garage, I thought about where I could go. It was raining on and off, and the winds were getting stronger. Leaves danced around with every gust. Our little hurricane off the coast was making an effort to impress everyone.

Really, some of the websites I had seen yesterday might have been helpful. I hadn’t called any or talked to anyone, but I wasn’t convinced that Our Lady of Mercy could do anything more than they had already done. That left my options limited, but I couldn’t convey that to my wife. Not now.

There were a lot of restaurants and coffee shops around where I could use the computer to access the internet. I could stop in and continue yesterday’s search. In fact…

I quickly pulled over and snapped open my computer. The screen from the prior day’s searches was still up. Help for the Hopeful blinked at me.

What was up with that little site, I wondered. I had done some bizarre searches yesterday, and it popped up in several of them. I had tried to look into the meaning of lion dream, I checked into paranormal activity, did some searches on demonic possessions, exorcisms… the little black and white ad with the tiny blinking cross was everywhere, but it didn’t seem like it belonged anywhere.

What the hell. I have nothing to lose.

I drove over to a nearby fast food restaurant. Their Wi-Fi signal was strong enough to use from my car in the parking lot. I looked at the little ad.

“Don’t get dragged down by all the doom and gloom you read on the internet! ALL problems have answers AND solutions.”

The tiny cross blinked, a little lighthouse beckoning me.

I clicked the link. The page was very plain. Just some simple text and a phone number.

“ALL are welcome here! You can talk with people who understand the isolation, the loneliness, the FRUSTRATION of a problem that seems to have no answers. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Help for The Hopeful.”

That was all it said. No asking for money, no 900 number to call. Nothing that really said much about anything. No promises of a psychic that has all the answers, or a church that will solve the problem in ten steps. Just the tiny blinking cross and a promise of help.

Right now, that might be enough.

I looked at the phone number. It was a local. Tampa. What are the odds?

Still, I knew that internet ads were technically proficient enough to create the appearance of a local number and then route you over to a main directory someplace else. But it was a place to start. It would offer help, or it would be bullshit. There was only one way to find out, and none of the other stuff I’d looked at even seemed legit enough to make me pick up the phone.

I didn’t have a lot of options. Father Frank had been helpful, and gotten my wheels turning, but he wasn’t providing answers. The internet was a crapshoot at best, but if nothing panned out there, I could always go back to Frank and see what else he could offer. Any internet scammer worth his salt would have a website promising me that they could solve all my problems, that much I knew. What I didn’t know was how I would avoid all the rip off artists and still find somebody who could help. And that didn’t think I was crazy.

It’s a sick world out there. When you open your computers search filters to let in all the crazy stuff, what you end up with is some serious hard core porn. Even a search on the word religion would turn up pictures of a naked nun. But the only way I was going to find what I was looking for was if I opened every possible option, and sorted through it all myself.

I did the searches. It took hours, between sales reports for Riley. I’d already looked at exorcisms, possessions, demons… I feared a con artist around every corner. It felt impossible to find somebody who could help.

But here was an ad that seemed to speak to me. Help for the Hopeful. It was worth a shot. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed.

“Hello?” a man’s voice said.

“Hello,” I said. “I saw your ad for Help for the Hopeful. I was wondering if you could help me with a problem I’m having. Did I call the right place? Is this Help for the Hopeful?”

“It is,” the man said. “What sort of problem do you need help with?”

I sighed. “Well… one that will make me sound crazy.”

“Okay,” he said. “Well, don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you for any credits cards. We don’t accept any money.”

Then he chuckled. “Now who sounds crazy?”

I have to admit, getting the money thing out of the way appealed to me. I leaned back in my seat. “Are you local?” I asked. “It looks like I called a Tampa number.”

“We have an office in Tampa, but right now it’s forwarded to my cell phone and I’m across the state in Melbourne. I’m supposed to be doing a little fishing, but it’s not working out too well.”

“Fishing?” I asked. In this weather? “Or, like fishers of men, that sort of thing? Are you part of a church?”

“No, like fishing for fish,” he said. “The weather’s not cooperating. Way too choppy. Gonna have to call it a day already.” The sunny days earlier in the week would fool a lot of people into thinking it would be calm seas. It wasn’t. Sunken Spanish galleon 101.

Then he added “but, yes, I am what you could consider part of a church. A priest kind of part.”

Well that was interesting. I was tempted to ask what kind of church, but very few churches have clergymen that refer to themselves as priests.

“You never answered my question,” he said. He was banging around some type of equipment as he talked, probably packing up his fishing gear. “What sort of problem do you need help with?”

“I’m not even sure it’s a real problem. I’m not sure what to call it. But I seem to be having a lot of bad luck that is kind of… centered around certain people. And certain dates. Really bad things that happen every year, like they’re almost on a schedule.”

“Well that doesn’t sound like your everyday kind of problem!” the man said. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Dan.”

“Well, Dan, it’s a pleasure. I’m John Reed but my friends call me Tyree. Why don’t you let me pack up my fishing pole and call you back when I’m on dry land again. That’ll take me about an hour. How’s that sound?”

An hour? “You must be pretty far out to sea.”

“No, I’ve been visiting at one of those bars where you can pull up in your boat and now I can’t find my keys.”

Great. A drunk. It’s still morning.

“They sell bait and ice, you know?”Tyree said. “I haven’t been drinking. I don’t drink. But with all this on and off rain we’ve been having, it’s messed up the fishing.”

“Sure, no problem,” I said.

“Besides, they got this cute little bar maid I like to have a look at now and again.”

“A man of the cloth checking out girls?” I asked. That doesn’t sound like a priest.

“Well, you know what they say. Just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you can look at the menu.”

That was backwards. I was about to correct him when Tyree cut me off.

“I’m a sinner, Dan,” Tyree waxed. “We all are. Even you. Maybe that’s the source of you problems. Wouldn’t be the first time. But I’ll call you back in an hour, okay?”

“Okay, Mr Tyree,” I said. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. And it’s just Tyree.”

“Tyree. Got it.”

“Okay. One hour.”

I sat in the parking lot, considering the bizarre phone call and the inclement weather. One part of me was thinking, any help is better than help. The other part of me was thinking, this guy might be a waste of time and that would be worse than no help. Then I thought, if these were sales proposals, the first thing I’d tell my salesperson was, if your leads suck, create more leads. The same was true here. Maybe Tyree would be some help, maybe not, but I didn’t have any other options at the moment.

How can I create more options?

Then he remembered Ybor City.


ANALYSIS

To see me talk about cliffhangers, have a look at THIS  for what to do, or THIS for what not to do (the second one eventually says what to do, too.).

 

Cliffhangers simply ask a question a reader has to turn the page to find out the answer to. Usually, we writer types end our chapters a little after we should, and start the next chapter without a bang.

Instead, we should end chapters with a cliffhanger and start each chapter with a grabber opening. “Call 911!” is pretty grabby. Likewise, saying  “I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet and I already felt like I was behind schedule” is much less urgent, but still kinda grabby. In both we are wondering why – and wanting to see what happens.

How To Write A Good Cliffhanger Ending To A Chapter

(We might address this two or three times because cliffhangers are awesome and they come in different types and sizes. More examples is better.)

First, in each chapter, you must:

  • have good writing
  • have interesting characters
  • have a compelling story/scene

Don’t worry if you don’t have cliffhanger endings if you don’t have that stuff. You can edit the chapter endings to add or create cliffhangers. Quality counts. Get the other stuff right first, then

  1. AS you answer a question in the scene or chapter, ASK another one before the end of the chapter so readers have to turn the page to find the answer.

  2. Do this as near to the end of the chapter as you can. Make it the last line if possible.

That’s it. Almost. Because I said there were 3 tips.

Now, cliffhangers are easier said than done – and in those two videos we discuss ways new authors often do it wrong – but doing them right isn’t that hard.

When this chapter started, what question were did we want an answer to? Several, but basically Doug was tasked with getting help for the family. He found it, possibly, in Tyree,

BUT

  • Doug worries that Tyree may be a con man. That’s a little rock I’m tossing at my character.
  • If Doug worries about it, readers will. That’s tension.

But, okay, in this chapter we wanted Doug to find some help to carry him on his journey, and he did. Tyree says he will help Doug.

Also, we planted that Help For The Hopeful seed a while ago, with Doug’s internet search where the ad kept popping up. It was still on his computer and it “beckoned” him. (For those of you scoring at home, he refers to the ad’s blinking cross as looking like a lighthouse. Lighthouses usually were warnings to stay away from the rocks and not crash your ship as much as they also marked a port of entry. It cuts both ways.)

Tease me, baby!

We end the scene with Doug exuberant. (But we didn’t use that word, did we? We had him grabbing the steering wheel and bouncing up and down, lighting up like Vegas – words we’d use with a happy feeling. Don’t worry; as you write more and edit stuff like that into your second and third drafts, you become aware of it and will put it in the first time. That torturous, mind numbing exercise – along with deleting your crutch words, and was, and on and on – is part of how we learn to not do it ever again.)

BUT WE DON’T TELL YOU WHY HE’S EXUBERANT

We teased you!

And you did what? You hated being teased so much, you wanted to turn the page to see what Doug discovered on the flyer.

Aha.

That’ Tip #3 for you skimmers. Call it a cliffhanger enhancement, but it’s good to do as long as you have something worthwhile for your reader as a payoff.

Then tease them again in the next chapter!

Not to be crude, but the reason a “strip tease” is popular is because of the tease. Nude is awesome. I love me some nude. But being teased drags it out and brings in other elements. Suspense (Will she take off her top?). Tension (When is she gonna take off her top? I was supposed to be home thirty minutes ago). Mystery (What do her boobs look like? Do they validate parking here?).

Those work with anything, by the way. Chippendale’s guys, a movie, whatever. We all know the blockbuster Jaws. Suspense (Will the shark eat somebody else?). Tension (When will the shark eat somebody else? I have to go to the bathroom). Mystery (What did that swimmer girl’s boobs look like at the beginning of the story? Does this theater validate parking?).

And we know teasing works because we’ve done it all our lives!

  • Ever have a friend in grade school wondering if a certain boy liked her, and you pretended you found out he did and you were all like “I’ve got a secret”? You were teasing.
  • Ever tell your kid “Maybe Santa will get you that Hatchimal/Beany Baby/Tickle Me Elmo/Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle”? You were teasing.

We love that stuff!

And we hate it!

We have to know the answer – so we turn the page. Maybe the answer is there but maybe we have to wait a little while for it, too. 

Kinda like you’re having to do when I set up these posts.

 

Now:

head shot

Let me have your comments. The next chapters will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Available in paperback and audio book, too!

10 thoughts on “3 Tips To Keep Your Reader READING: Cliffhanger Endings

    • Good. That’s the whole point of doing things that way, to make you want to find out and keep turning pages.

      This book is OK at that. The Navigators is awesome at that. And based on the good results, it’ll be something I try to employ a lot of going forward because it’s just more fun for everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

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