The Subtle Art of Endings Both Small and Large

The other day when I ran my little cliffhanger contest to give away an arc, one of the commentors suggested I speak more about how to do this. While I do not profess to be a pro or have all of the answers, I can discuss what I do or try to do, and open up discussion here for others to chime in. As we’re all here to learn, right?

So, what is a cliffhanger? The term typically brings to mind the hanging ending of a story, like the classic dangling over the cliff, fingers losing their grip one by one, until just before tragedy strikes, the story cuts off, to be continued. Sometimes it’s the big surprise reveal, which television is notoriously good at. “The good guy is actually a bad guy? Wait, wtf?” Cut to commercial and see you next week. The question you are always left with is, “What happens next?” It does not have to be huge and dramatic. The point is to leave you wanting.

This is the key to pacing in any type of story, whether it be a literary family drama or an end-of-the-world thriller. Every chapter in the story should end up leaving you wanting to read more. I think a lot of writers worry about making the end of every chapter in a book like a bomb waiting to explode. This isn’t true. You want the entire story to create this effect, building up throughout the course of the story to the ultimate climax, but it’s pretty much impossible to achieve this effect on a chapter by chapter basis. So, don’t try to do it. You’ll end up frustrating yourself.

Being left wanting can take many forms. When I wrote Deadworld, I had several threads to weave together. There was the major action thread involving catching the villain. How are they going to be able to catch him? Will they be able to? There was the individual character threads. What is it that motivates these people? What are their personal problems? How will these issues effect the story and will they be resolved? Then there was the relationship thread. Will the hero and heroine get involved? Can they handle it or will it all fall apart? Will they fall in love or not?

You have a lot of questions right there to deal with. When I plot (yes, I”m a major plotter), I take these questions and figure out what the answer will be. Then I figure out the important steps along the way to get to these answers, some of which may not end up completely resolved. To achieve the cliffhanger on a chapter by chapter basis, you need to leave the reader wondering about some aspect of your story questions. This does not require to be left dangling on the precipice of danger. The key is to leave the reader feeling like things are about to change or that a particular change is going to take the story in an other direction. It can be very subtle or highly intense.

In Deadworld, my heroine, Jackie, has some serious personal issues, and these gradually reveal themselves and come to a head in a dramatic crisis moment that makes (hopefully) the reader wonder if she will be able to ultimately succeed in not only catching the villain, but as a person in general. There are chapters where particular elements of this get revealed. They aren’t crisis moments necessarily (some are, some aren’t), but just things that should have the reader thinking, “Oh, that’s going to cause some problems down the road.” Using the thread analogy, you want them to get woven tighter and tighter as the story progresses, tugging on each one, sometimes softly, other times with a good yank, so that overall, tension builds in steps until it peaks at the end.

Yes, I know, easier said than done. But honestly, you don’t have to stress over the endings of every bit of story. Every chapter doesn’t need an “oh, my god!” moment. Cliffhangers come in a wide array of emotions, the only common element being to leave the reader interested in discovering more about whatever element you are leaving them hanging about. I’ll even provide a little example here. This is the ending of one of the early chapters in Deadworld.  Jackie and her partner, Laurel are discussing the new case over lunch. There’s no huge reveal here, just a sense that things are going to get problematic.

“Promise me, Jackie. Be very careful with this one.”

Jackie could feel the heat of the finger pointing at her chest. The seriousness of Laurel’s voice tightened her stomach. “Ok,” she said, laughing off the tense moment, but she knew better. Laurel was never wrong about these things. “I promise.”

What did we get here? Laurel worries about Jackie. It’s implied that Jackie doesn’t always go the safe route on things. Jackie doesn’t like conflict between them. She laughs off the moment. Why does Laurel’s ire stress her so much? Finally, Laurel is never wrong about these things (something supernatural), implying that trouble is surely around the corner. Several questions raised, and very little answered. What answers there may be raise other questions. It’s not complicated, but it does involve some planning. It’s difficult to leave off at the right moment in a chapter if you have no clue what you’re building toward down the road. To me, this is the danger in “pantser” writing (which still works mind you, but to me, involves more editing down the road). I’ve tried writing without excessive plotting, and I have a very hard time with it. That’s just the way my mind works.

Ok, I’ve rambled enough here. Hopefully, I’ve expressed my thoughts on the topic clearly, so that you have a decent idea of what I mean. To sum it all up: know the key elements in your story, both character and plotwise, and leave every chapter with the reader wondering about one or more of them. Simple, right? 🙂

Tip of the Day:  Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too. –Esther Freud

Happy writing everyone!


2 responses to “The Subtle Art of Endings Both Small and Large

  1. Good advice and well expressed. I like the idea that a “cliffhanger” ending doesn’t always have to be a BIG SCARY MOMENT, but can be subtle….leaving the reader with an unanswered question. And that question can be about the plot or the character’s emotional journey, etc.

  2. This helps a lot Jim. Thanks! I had considered cliffhangers to be like “gotcha” moments, and when I wrote them, they tended to feel gimmicky. This helps iron out how to do them subtly. Thanks again! 🙂