Tension and Cliffhangers

By: Terry Odell

When we’re writing, we want the reader to keep turning pages. There are lots of ways to do this. Donald Maass speaks of “microtension” where every sentence makes the reader want to know what’s going to happen next. According to Maass, the tension, the friction, make the reader want to know the outcome of the immediate situation. It’s not necessarily part of the overall plot. He suggests looking at any random page of a novel and studying the following three components: Dialogue, Exposition, and Action.

Looking at Dialogue

Escalating the language can add tension. Stronger verbs, more reactions, show friction between speakers. Raise the reader’s apprehension.

Looking at Exposition and Interior Monologue

To add tension, try to add the opposite, or conflicting, or contradiction of inner emotions. Two ideas at war with each other—and this holds true for literary work as well as genre fiction.

Looking at Action

In action scenes, use less expected emotions that play off the action itself. Action does not create tension. The reader must be emotionally involved.

Tension comes from inside the POV character’s emotional reactions to the action.

Tension can be subtle. It can appear in sub text.

There’s also the bigger picture – ending scenes and chapters so the reader wants to turn the page. Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger can do that. One of my critique partners referred to them as “landings.” There’s nothing new about cliffhangers. According to Wikipedia, “Cliffhangers were used as literary devices in several works of the medieval era. The Arabic literary work One Thousand and One Nights involves Scheherazade narrating a series of stories to King Shahryār for 1,001 nights, with each night ending on a cliffhanger in order to save herself from execution. Some medieval Chinese ballads like the Liu chih-yuan chu-kung-tiao ended each chapter on a cliffhanger to keep the audience in suspense.”

Newspapers and Movies

Newspapers used to publish novels in a serial format with one chapter appearing every month. There are numerous online sites that use the same approach.

Cliffhangers were used in the movies, such as The Perils of Pauline, a weekly series which was designed to bring viewers back for more. Soap operas on television used this technique as well. In fact, “mini cliffhangers” are used in most television shows to make sure viewers don’t change channels at commercial breaks. If you’re a DVR watcher of television, rather than a ‘live’ watcher, you can probably sense when to pick up the remote even before the commercial kicks in.

The End…

So, cliffhangers and tension are good to keep readers turning pages. But what about the end of a book? I read a novella (which triggered the idea for this post) where the story simply ended. The heroine gets a call from her new boyfriend who has gone missing, and he basically says, “I’m in terrible trouble.” I turned the page but there were no more pages. What I could do, and this was undoubtedly the author’s intent, was buy the second novella in the series. Did I? Nope. No way, no how. I was incensed at being played like that (not to mention I really didn’t care much for the characters anyway), and wouldn’t plunk down a cent for more.

I checked reviews, and was surprised to find that many people left glowing reviews for the story, while only about 20% of the people leaving reviews felt cheated by the cliffhanger ending.

What about you? When you get to the end of a book or story, do you want a cliffhanger? Or do you feel cheated the way I did?


Terry Odell, Author

Although Terry Odell had no aspirations of becoming a writer until long after receiving her AARP card, she’s now the author of over thirty novels, novellas, and short stories. She writes mysteries and romantic suspense, but calls them all “Mysteries With Relationships.” Her awards include the Silver Falchion, the International Digital Awards, and the HOLT Medallion. A Los Angeles native, she moved to Florida where she spent thirty years in the heat and humidity. She now enjoys life with her husband and rescue dog in the cooler, dryer climate of the Colorado Rockies, where she watches wildlife from her windows. WebsiteFacebookTwitterGoodreadsAmazon,

Make then turn the page!