May 04 2010
Especially early on, end your chapters or comic book issues with a cliffhanger to keep readers hanging on. That doesn’t mean that you have to place a character in grave physical danger. Here are some other options to convince readers that something interesting is just around the corner.
- A new character makes an exciting entrance. Somebody that enters a scene doing something unusual will probably pique our attention more than somebody that just sort of ambles on stage. For example, if Amy is working for a debt collection agency, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting if her new partner just walked up and introduced himself like anybody else would. But if the partner walked into her office wearing a bulletproof vest or SWAT gear, then we’d wonder what Amy had gotten herself into.
- The reader and/or character(s) learn or find something shocking or fascinating. For example, you can reveal the tip of a new iceberg. “Detective Smith had been so sure the butler was the killer, but he had to reexamine that hypothesis after discovering the butler’s decapitated body stuffed under the kitchen sink.” What we learn for sure (that the butler is dead) is not quite as interesting as the questions it raises: If he’s not the killer, then who? What else did we get wrong about the case? Why kill the red herring? Seriously, who stashes a body under a sink? It’s what we don’t know that will make us want to keep reading.
- Foreshadowing danger. Detective Smith finds another decapitated body, but this time the killer has painted a message on the wall with the victim’s blood. YOU’RE NEXT, JIM. Who’s Jim? Why does the killer want him dead? Can the detective save Jim in time? Why would the killer leave a message? Please note that this danger does not have to be physical–it just needs to threaten something really important to the character. For example, if the protagonist is the new girl at school, you might end a chapter with her inadvertently causing some grave slight to the head cheerleader. We’ll worry about how the cheerleading squad will get back at her.
- A character is placed in immediate danger. In silent films, this meant tying up the damsel to the train tracks, but it doesn’t have to be physical or involve an antagonist. For example, if Ironman’s flying around and suddenly his jets cut out. Or if a recovering alcoholic (like, ahem, Ironman) reaches for a beer.
- Something interesting is about to happen or starts to happen.
- The characters are on the verge of doing something interesting. After Caesar crosses the Rubicon, heads are gonna roll. The only question is whose.
- The characters are introduced to an exciting (often mysterious) new location. Something that makes us wonder “what’s gonna happen here?” For example, if the characters discover a secret room in somebody’s house, what will the characters find there? Why was it being hidden? What else is the character hiding? How far would the hider go to keep it hidden?
Cliffhangers are even more important for comic books, I think. A comic book writer needs to push readers to find and buy the next issue, which takes more effort than flipping to the next chapter of a novel.
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