On Cliffhangers

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One of my most-requested topics of advice involve cliffhangers -so let’s dive right in:

What is a cliffhanger?
Simply put, a cliffhanger is a plot device where the scene you’re writing comes to a suddenl crisis point or revelation that puts your protagonist in a precarious and sometimes dangerous situation- and then you leave them there!

Perhaps you’ve got your character cornered by a pack of dogs or they just ran into their

horrible ex-boyfriend or they’re literally hanging off the edge of a cliff and what do you do to help them out?
Nothing- at least for now as you’re a sadist putting your reader through the emotional roller coaster- a good thing if you’re a screewriter.

Most cliff hangers are written at the end of a scene with the intention of

having them resolved in the next scene. Clifhangers exist for the sole purpose of getting your reader to turn the page so they can figure out what the heck is going on.

Cliff hangers are a great device to use especially if you really want to captivate and engross the reader and stand out from most of the other boring scripts making the rounds out there.

Some people like to say they know what a cliffhanger means but how do you set one up?

Do you write a cliffhanger abruptly?

That depends. In many stories- especially action or thriller stories- there are instances where you want to draw out to the moment and prolong the suspense.

In more drama-oriented or comedic stories, the cliffhanger is more effective when it comes in like a slap in the face. You want to deliver it hard and fast.

For quick cliffhangers, if it’s taking more than maybe three sentences to write then it’s probably not a cliffhanger. Better to deliver that surprise and then move on to the next scene.

Where is the best place to put a cliffhanger?
Usually they go at the end of a scene or sequence so you can use this reader momentum to move them easily in the start of the next scene.

In all honesty, your entire screenplay should be one mini cliffhanger after another- with increasing intensity or stakes for the characters. Even if your screenplay suffers in dialogue or character development, steady and rising cliffhangers will at least keep your script from becoming tedious.

Cliffhangers become a leash to bind demanding readers and producers to your story and keep them from looking for a distraction while reading your story.

When writing an extended cliffhanger, you should remember to use a story device that resolves the mini cliffhangers with an even worse cliffhanger until your characters can end the torture by some stroke of genius on their part or thru really tough struggle.

Keep in mind that it is often a good screewriting practice to avoid resolving the cliffhanger at the start of the next scene. Holding off a resolution gives your script an added punch and keeps your readers guessing- and admiring your work.

Your readers start getting subjected to that magic word that all writers cherish- suspense.

So it’s okay to make your readers sweat a bit when resolving a cliffhanger but you don’t want to make them wait too long unless the secrecy is necessary for the plot.

You want your readers to be intrigued and interested. Keep in mind that not all cliffhangers need to be Life & Death type cliffhangers- but at least the emotional stakes need to be present for your characters.

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