R.L. Stine first learned the value of a cliffhanger by tormenting his younger brother with ghost stories, refusing to finish them in a single sitting. A “cliffhanger” is a device that compels readers to find out what happens next in a story. Writing great cliffhangers is key to making your book a page-turner and it’s one of the easiest ways to make your writing more suspenseful. Some writers might feel it to be a “cheap trick” or an easy gimmick, but it’s a tried and true way to get kids to read—and keep them reading.
R.L. Stine spends much time working on original cliffhangers. In fact, it’s how he ends most chapters. In The Haunted Mask, for example, he ends one chapter with a frightening moment in which the main character is grabbed from behind; but at the top of the next chapter, readers discover that this was just the character’s friend. He says he’s used this trick in hundreds of different chapters, but it’s worth it because it keeps kids reading.
In order to write a good cliffhanger, cut your story or scene off slightly before its natural conclusion (usually at the end of a chapter). An abrupt ending rattles the reader and gets them to ask: what’s next? This is particularly effective when applied to situations where the characters are in a physically or emotionally heightened state. Are they being chased? Are they in the middle of an argument? Does their success hinge on one element of the story, and that element is taken away or lost? Then what? Cliffhangers put characters in precarious circumstances and create interest while deepening the plot. Cliffhangers can be as grand as life or death situations, but the method, once honed, can be applied just as effectively to the minutiae of ordinary life.
Middle grade and YA novels are often too linear and predictable, regardless of whether or not they’re well-written. Among other things, Bob thinks Goosebumps and Fear Street remain popular because the stories have enough twists to keep kids feeling surprised again and again.
Include at least two or three twists in your story. These help keep readers engaged, especially in the middle of your book when your plot might otherwise start to drag. Carrying readers through the middle of a story is challenging, and there needs to be enough excitement to keep them reading to the end. A great twist will surprise the reader and turn their whole understanding of the story on its head.
Trick your readers by planting “false leads.” Also known as “red herrings,” these are details added to purposefully mislead people and prevent them from predicting an outcome. While adult mysteries are filled with carefully hidden clues, children’s horror novels should be packed with tricks to lead kids astray and thereby surprise them even more when something (like the true identity of a monster) is revealed.
There are several ways to accomplish a clever and believable twist. One of the more important things to keep in mind when writing any twist, however, is that twists that stem from characters feel more believable than twists the come from thin air. Misdirection and foreshadowing are also great tools to implement when leading up to a plot twist. Think about your ending, and then work backwards: can you swerve the story in a deliberately misleading direction, then bring it back for a satisfying conclusion? You can hide plot twists in the main plot, subplots, other plot points (or even other plot twists!). Twists can come as early as the prologue, but should be kept to a minimum nearing the end — unless your novel will have a sequel, and you’re ending your book with a cliffhanger.
American author O. Henry was a master of the plot twist. In fact, a surprise ending in a story is also called an “O. Henry ending.” Read a bit about him and browse some of his short stories here for inspiration on surprise endings.
Children’s books,books for young adults, and certain genres like romance or science fiction benefit from conclusions that present a complete resolution. Other genres, like literary fiction or historical fiction, however, leave room for ambiguity at the end. When writing your way to the ending, try to write like a reader. Anticipate what your story needs to come to a close on the page, and which loose ends you can leave up to the reader’s imagination. Leaving some story points up for debate is perfectly fine and acceptable, but it’s worth exploring all the different endings you can possibly write before settling on the mechanics of the final chapter.
How Endings Impact Story Structure
Knowing what ending you’re heading towards is helpful to constructing a tight plot. When peppering in cliffhangers, twists, or other writing mechanics, always make sure to keep in mind that these elements work within the broader framework of your narrative. Work in your twists according to the final outcome you desire for your novel’s ending. Once you add an element to you book, such as a surprising new character or some sort of plot twist, you’ll need to go back and establish that character or story element early on in order to prepare your readers for what is coming down the line.
Write out a rough summary of last scene of your novel. Once you know how the story ends, you can write a plot—complete with twists and turns—that gets readers there. Practice writing cliffhangers for your novel. Remember, cliffhangers serve to pique readers’ interest about events to come. Take a look at the first scene in your rough outline and write five potential cliffhangers that would make it impossible for a kid to not go on to chapter two. Good cliffhangers drive people crazy, and if you look at most of the popular shows on TV today (think: Game of Thrones), you’ll notice that each episode ends with a cliffhanger so well-crafted that it’s often painful to watch. In the same way, you want to write chapter endings that make young readers obsessed with moving on to the next scene, over and over again.
Review how you plan to end your novel, and develop five surprise endings, each one increasingly more outlandish. Push yourself to make them as strange and original as you can—this may be what a reader remembers most about your book. Most of all, remember to have fun with your story! You are your first reader, after all, so it’s important to keep yourself entertained and engaged, through to the final page.