ALWAYS LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE
To brag for a moment, I know that in my own writing I have a flair for the melodramatic. In particular, cliff-hanger chapters are one of my fortes. I look at the end of a chapter as a chance to throw in plot complications, or introduce a hairpin-turn in the story, or reveal something about a character that forces a fundamental shift in the reader’s paradigm, etc. Rare is the reader who can resist turning the page when a chapter ends with our protagonist in imminent danger, or to find out what effect some sudden revelation has on the direction of the story. Many writers struggle with this, because their idea of how the story should progress doesn’t lend itself to a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter.
I think they get hung up on the imagery that the term cliff hanger conjures. A cliff hanger doesn’t have to be as melodramatic as having your character hanging by her fingernails from a cliff. As writers we are adept at thinking in terms of metaphors and symbolism. You need only look at the progression of events in your story as metaphors for “hanging from a cliff.” Every story has plot-advancing elements, some greater than others. Any event in your story that advances the plot is a candidate for such cliff-hanger style chapter endings. You need only reveal the impetus for the movement of the plot at the end of one chapter, then go on to show how the plot is advanced by the event in the next chapter.
For example: Earlier in our story June insists that a charming rogue she meets in the waiting room of the hospital where she works accept a small check from her to help him pay for his mother’s operation, in spite of his obvious prideful refusal. Later, she goes to the hospital to try to track him down after discovering that the check cleared her account with a couple of extra zeros tacked on. Where is the cliff-hanger in this plot-fragment?
If you end your chapter after she gives him the check, where is the suspense? How does her giving him a check directly lead to a plot development? What is there in that event that tugs at the reader’s curiosity and compels them to turn the page?
Consider, rather, the scene in which June is sitting at her computer, sipping a latte and balancing her checkbook. Not a very dynamic scene, right? But suddenly the balance in her check register doesn’t reconcile with that of the bank on her computer screen. What could the discrepancy be? She starts looking at all of her expenditures one by one, and what does she find? A withdrawal of $5000 from her bank account. Who did she write a check to for $5000? She finds the entry in her register, but that check was written for $50! Who did she write it to?
THAT MAN! (BUM-BUM-BUM!)
And there is your cliff-hanger chapter ending. What is the event that causes the plot to leap forward? Not the writing of the check itself, but the discovery that it had been forged for a much higher amount.
The (BUM-BUM-BUM) at the end is my representation of the proverbial dramatic music just before a scene change in a movie or TV show, we’ve all heard it. If you can sing (BUM-BUM-BUM) to yourself after reading the end of your chapter and it give you goosebumps, then you have yourself an effective cliff-hanger.
You should be able to extract one such cascading event in your plot for each chapter, and end your chapter with it. If you don’t have enough of these to end each chapter with one, then you need to re-examine your entire plot progression, because it is definitely moving too slow.
Also, don’t stand on chapter equity. If you have to present a shorter chapter in order to end it on a cliff-hanger, or a longer chapter, do it. Just keep in mind that if your chapters are getting to long, perhaps you aren’t getting to the point quick enough. Consider breaking things up a bit if that turns out to be the case.
Again, the idea is to keep your reader turning the pages until the end. The books you remember reading that you now describe as, “I couldn’t put it down!” were effective in keeping you curious about the next plot development. They were able to do this by maintaining your sense of suspense all of the way through to the end. That is how you want readers to remember your story.