Back in September I saw this article on Facebook (I know, why do I still have a Facebook?) about the end of cliffhangers. I immediately thought to myself, well that’s funny because my day job literally involves cliffhangers… And with that I completely wrote off the article.
That is until a few weeks ago because it was still nagging me. Cliffhangers? Dead? Really? So I went back to the article that was plaguing me. Initially, the thesis of the short article was that Netflix’s binge watching method which we’re all pretty accustomed to at this point, means cliffhangers don’t mean as much. You just kind of go, sure, that lady’s back from the dead and having his ghost baby, NEXT EPISODE, YES I AM STILL WATCHING.
Ultimately, the writer concludes that Netflix has perfected cliffhangers. Uhh, okay so they aren’t dead? Lol clickbait will get ya. But, I thought it might be fun to explore what makes a good cliffhanger, not only for a Netflix show, but for our writing as well.
As a story lead at Radish, one of the things constantly on my mind is how we can create a good cliffhanger to entice readers to want to know what happens next. While the stories on Radish are serialized (like prime time TV shows that we all stream after they air live), all cliffhangers should have something fundamental about them: a question.
I think it definitely sounds easy at first, and sometimes it can be! (Those are the days, huh?) The question of a cliffhanger doesn’t need to actually BE a question, though it can be. At Radish we’d call it a hard or soft ending.
A hard ending can mean there’s a direction question or that there’s information ready to come out. Think of a mystery and if the chapter cut off when the detective says, “I know who did it.” This dialogue isn’t a question, but we’re certainly asking one! Who DID do it? How does the detective know? What does this mean for the characters? The plot? So c’mon who did it? AHH JUST TELL US!!
A soft ending might be ending on more of an emotional beat and it has us asking questions, but we’re feeling a little less…intense about the answers we want. Let’s say two characters who are developing crushes on each other, but things are still a little tense and they get in an argument. A chapter could end with the first character saying, “You know what? Forget it,” and walking away. We’re left wondering how the second character will try to resolve things and can they PLEASE FINALLY KISS? THX.
At Radish we might try to avoid a soft ending in favor of a bigger hard ending. If I take the character walking away, how could that become a hard ending? How can we make it feel stronger so the reader feels a stronger sense of urgency to turn the page or tune in next week? I might strengthen the two characters walking away by having the second character run after the first, catch up, and grab their arm—“Wait, stop!” What will they say?! Will they confess their feelings?
Hard endings aren’t inherently better than soft and both definitely have a purpose and the best option (in my opinion) is to have a mix of both. You want to make sure you have a balance of emotional and plot beats in the story. But ultimately, the main thing I think all writers should keep in mind is having those questions at the end. There should always be questions pushing us forward and readers need to have more by the end of a chapter. Creating question after question only gets your readers turning pages faster. Just make sure you know how to answer them! 😉
How do you like to end your chapters?