Writing

How to Write a Cliffhanger: 14 Tips for Writing Page-Turning Cliffhangers With Dan Brown and R.L. Stine

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 2 min read

A cliffhanger is a plot device in which a component of a story ends unresolved, usually in a suspenseful or shocking way, in order to compel audiences to turn the page or return to the story in the next installment. A cliffhanger can end a chapter of a novel, a television episode, a scene in a film, or a serialized story (book or movie).

Cliffhanger endings usually fall into two categories:

  1. The main character comes face-to-face with a dangerous or possibly life-threatening situation.
  2. A shocking revelation comes to light, threatening to alter the course of the narrative.

Practice your cliffhanger endings with the following tips from Dan Brown and R.L. Stine.

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4 Tips for Writing Cliffhangers from Dan Brown

Dan Brown with paper in chair

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Author Dan Brown is known for his masterful use cliffhangers in his bestselling suspense novels. “Cliffhangers pose big questions at the end of a chapter or section,” Brown says. “Typically, a cliffhanger stops during a climactic event midway through the action instead of at its natural conclusion. Is your hero about to push the villain off of a racing yacht? Stop where the hero has the villain in his grip. Leave the reader thinking, ‘All right, I’ll read just one more page....’”

Brown suggests these strategies for creating cliffhangers:

  • Move the last few paragraphs of a scene to the next chapter.
  • Create a section break between your work.
  • Introduce a new surprise that the audience will not expect.
  • Use pulses, or short sentences or phrases to remind the reader of lurking danger.

Learn more about how Dan Brown uses cliffhangers here.

10 Tips for Writing Cliffhangers from R.L. Stine

R.L. Stine in library desk with hands crossed

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Cliffhangers aren’t just for adults—they’re a great device to use to keep young audiences engaged in a story as well. Author R.L. Stine keeps young readers engaged through the entire Goosebumps series by employing cliffhangers. He advises writers to develop the very end of the novel first and creating at least five potential cliffhangers for each chapter ending.

To successfully build up to a cliffhanger, Stine suggests using descriptive elements to remind readers of potential danger. He also advises using these structural elements to frame a cliffhanger for maximum impact:

  • Start chapters with a sense of urgency.
  • Keep passages concise and cut out superfluous descriptions.
  • Blend descriptive passages into action scenes.
  • Stay grounded in a protagonist’s sensory experience.
  • Find plausible ways to withhold key information from a reader (i.e. narrate from the point of view of a character who can’t get/doesn’t know the information).
  • Open a chapter in the middle of a scene.
  • Open a chapter or section with a question, an interesting fact, or a change of pace.
  • Use a “pulse” to remind the reader of lurking danger.
  • Use flashbacks to open new sources of suspense.
  • Finish a chapter with a cliffhanger ending.

Learn more about how R.L. Stine uses cliffhangers here.