There’s a BBC post about how cliffhangers came of age in the 19th century when fiction was consumed serially and writers wanted to leave readers wanting more. It’s known as the Zeigarnik effect (after a Soviet psychologist) who observed that waiters could remember the orders that were still in progress but couldn’t remember the orders that were completed. It seems we have an insatiable desire for resolution.
Cliffhangers are associated with genre writing these days or big telly bonanzas that we binge-watch for hours at a time. But they undoubtedly work to keep readers hooked (the end of any chapter is an opportunity for someone to put your book down… you want to drag them into the next one as quickly as possible). When they’re done well, they can be great. Done badly, they’re shit. (The Maze Runner is a good example of overused cliffhangers. Really, every 3 pages a chapter ends, and something ridiculous happens. I was exhausted after reading it.)
Write to Done offers great advice if you want to use them, like introducing threatening characters, using rhetorical questions, how to break with tension or switching the story line. Just think about the pacing and off you go. After all, who’d dare to criticise something that helped Charles Dickens make his living?
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