Monday Motivation: What keeps you turning the page?

 In All About Writing, Monday Motivation

You’ve read The Da Vinci Code and you know that one of the devices that Dan Brown uses to get his many millions of readers to become compulsive page turners is cliffhangers at the end of each of his short chapters.

Alternatively, you might despise Brown and his potboilers, and aspire to write something as delightful as a Harry Potter blockbuster.

You want to emulate these best selling writers – or at least score just a tiny fraction of their sales. (The Harry Potter books have sold over 400 million copies in 68 languages.) Fair enough.

And you have decided, as I say, that cliffhangers are the secret of their success. The truth is, there are a couple of other vital ingredients: think character and plot, for instance. But it is undeniably true that cliffhangers generate tension and suspense, and tension and suspense are vital ingredients of any thriller, or, indeed, of any book at all.

So what, precisely, is a cliffhanger? I got an email from the executive producer of the television show I write for which spelled out the requirements for a cliffhanger very clearly, and I thought I’d share her insights and prescriptions with you.

A cliffhanger sets up a question, she says, that impels you to want it answered.  It doesn’t have to be a big question, and it doesn’t have to involve guns.*

The question could be as little, says my EP, as “what’s in the box?” Although I’d suggest that’s not quite enough, unless the box happens to be ticking.

She then gets down to the nuts and bolts of a scene intended as the climax to an episode in our series.

Two men are examining a car wrecked in what appears to have been an accident, in which one of our major characters was killed. The car is in the police pound. The men are not police investigators, but they are both skeptical of the official story.

One of them finds that the rear bumper has a number of scrapes and dents on it. He calls his buddy to have a look and says: “This wasn’t an accident. Someone hit the car in the back and forced it off the road. This is murder.”

So, the question is: is this a cliffhanger? Undeniably, this is a hugely dramatic moment, a turning point in the drama. The discovery that the death of a key character was engineered will lead to who knows what further revelations. Will the perpetrators be found? Will justice be served?

So one could argue that the scene, as written, raises large questions in the minds of the audience. But a true television cliffhanger is one that impels the audience to tune in tomorrow to see what happens next.

What happens next in this story is unlikely to be the identification of those responsible. Those two questions: will they catch the baddies, and will justice be served, are unlikely to be answered immediately. That might take days, weeks or even months. As the EP said in her email: “It is not a cliffhanger that forces you to go tomorrow to get an answer that is burning, itching overnight.”

But what if, my EP said, you ended that same scene with one character seeing something of interest on the car, going down on his knee to examine it, and then calling his friend with these words: “Come and look at this, I think I’ve found something.” Note that the camera should not reveal what it is that he is looking at.

On the face of it, this is much less “dramatic” – but it does raise, as the EP said, an immediate burning question: what has he found, and what is its significance? The question will be answered, not in days or weeks or months but in the opening scene of the next episode.

Now, the fact is that cliffhangers, although they often happen at the end of chapters (or episodes), can also be very useful throughout your narrative. They can occur at the end of scenes. They can create tension at the start of a scene which is not relieved until some way into the scene. All these intertwined lines of tension collectively create suspense.

And suspense is what keeps us turning the page, whether the book we are reading is J.K., Rowlings’s The Deathly Hallows or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge.

Happy writing,


* Although guns can obviously be useful. At the end of I think it was Season Two of The West Wing gunmen ambush the President’s cavalcade. The episode ends with the terrorists spraying the cars with bullets. We have no idea who’s been killed. Terrific cliffhanger.

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