Writing Yourself Off the Cliff

Why use cliffhangers? They build suspense and tension.


This post isn’t, thankfully, about that movie.

I picked up a novel in the airport last week. I’m not going to name that novel because I’m going to tank on it, and because I suspect that the author was coerced into the stylistic egregiousness I’m going to tank on him for, but it’s an eco-thriller of the type I usually enjoy.

What I didn’t enjoy were the cliffhangers. The author would stick the characters in a position of unresolved peril and then say:

Someone had to find the solution, and they had to find it fast.

They weren’t at the end of every chapter, but they were tossed in often enough (and in almost the exact same phrasing by at least two different characters) that by a hundred and fifty pages in, I’d counted half-a-dozen and they bothered me enough to put down the book.

Probably not what the author intended.

Why use cliffhangers? They build suspense and tension. They’re used in serials to get the audience to read or watch the next installment. Fair enough, if you’re putting out an eight episode TV series like True Detective. But using them over and over in a 500+ page novel is a red flag. If the story isn’t pulling the reader along into the next chapter, then there is a problem with plot and pacing. A cliffhanger is not going to salvage those shortcomings. Rework the plot and pacing. Let the story speak for itself.

Sadly, that novel did. The cliffhangers were unnecessary. I was engaged by two of the point-of-view characters and concerned enough about their peril that I would have read the whole novel to find out what happened to them. I didn’t need the author to put up a neon sign at the end of every other chapter that said “Characters in Danger! Can they be Saved? Read on to See What Happens.”

Having read other novels by this author, which did not contain this stylistic sleight-of-hand, but were shorter, I have to wonder if the author was coerced into throwing the cliffhangers in there due to editorial concerns about the novel’s length. They were glaring. They’re a departure from the author’s normal style. And they felt tacked on. They also frequently occurred at the end of chapters written from the two female character points-of-view. Without going into a feminist rant, I found myself wondering if either the author or the editor perceived those perspectives as weak? Undermining your own point-of-view characters is never a good idea.

So as a learning point for me, in the long uphill climb that is figuring out the craft of novel-writing, this novel was instructive. Use cliffhangers sparingly. Avoid repetitive cliffhangers – they quickly catch the reader’s eye (not in a good way). Particularly avoid associating cliffhangers with chapters or characters that feel weak – rework the plot or pacing instead.

And, above all, avoid any cliffhanger that involves Sylvester Stallone.


Author: ejfrostuk

Writer of sci-fi, urban fantasy and hard romance.

13 thoughts on “Writing Yourself Off the Cliff”

  1. In a series, I think it best to wrap up all the active plot threads by the end, and if there is a cliffhanger at the end it should be in the shape of foreshadowing what’s going to happen in the next book in the series and then in that next book, the plot winds its way toward the pay off before introducing the next cliffhanger in the shape of another foreshadowing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely agree. Novels should tell a complete story. To some extent, so should a chapter. If the reader is invested in the characters, they will keep reading – be it the next chapter or the next book in the series.


      1. I have a question: I have started writing 5-part series (SF/Fantasy) and in the first book in the series (I’m more than halfway through writing the rough draft), I have introduced a character who never appears in the first novel but will appear in a later book in the series. The main character is conflicted about this former lover of his and one chapter ( a flash back) is devoted to his relationship with this former lover but she never appears in the first book in the series.

        Do you think it is okay to introduce future characters in a series before they actually appear in a later book as long as they are not part of the major conflicts in the book they are first mentioned in?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, absolutely! I think J.K. Rowling did it well in the “Harry Potter” books – mentioning characters early in the series that the reader doesn’t “meet” until much later. I thought it was a thrill to finally see characters like Bathilda Bagshot come “on screen” after reading about them for several books, particularly when the character ultimately wasn’t what I expected. I think you can have a lot of fun with that as an author!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. The example you gave wasn’t so much a cliffhanger as a boring summary. And if the book was filled with summaries like that, I’d be upset too.

    A cliffhanger would be:
    She opened the door and there stood the villain with a gun to her sister’s head.

    A cliffhanger is simply putting in a chapter break just as the danger is ramping up. It’s not summarizing the danger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re quite right. Many of the female POV chapters ended with a character in danger and another character saying that someone had to figure out a solution, which was the line I quoted. It was incredibly annoying. And unnecessary.


  3. I enjoyed this. I also learned something valuable from you. I’ve been struggling with how to express myself about books I don’t like. You just showed me the way. On my blog I can post reviews of books I liked and in my blog posts I can talk about what I didn’t like stylistically about a book but not mention the author or book itself. I don’t want to be too harsh on anyone’s hard work but it has been frustrating me that I can’t express what I don’t like. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Please keep in mind I am not a writer at all. I blog as a reader. So it’s easy for me to critique, but I know that writing is not a talent or a skill I posses. However, I do know that most authors need and want feedback other than I liked the book you are so great. And readers need to know that maybe a work isn’t ready for enjoyment yet. Finding that balance without being disrespectful to anyone’s blood sweat and tears is proving a challenge.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. (You blog therefore you write?!)
          It’s always easier to criticize than create. I love your sense of respect. That you’ve recognized the need for a balance is half the battle. Kudos to you!


  4. I thought you were summarising the cliffhangers, not quoting one. That is astonishingly bad.

    I found similar problems in Hugh Howey’s Wool, a book I thoroughly enjoyed, despite its repetitive cliffhangers. His problem was to have the same realisation/cliffhanger but from different characters’ perspectives. The revelation for the second character, though, was old hat, because the reader already was aware.

    If you don’t mind me linking to a blog post, I went into it in more detail here:


    Great post by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting and linking! Your post on the cliff-hangers in Wool is really interesting. I don’t think I would have made it through the book. Seeing the same events from multiple perspectives is one of my least-favorite things, and to do it as a cliff-hanger would definitely turn me off as a reader!


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