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Posted, Aug. 9, 2004
Updated, Aug. 9, 2004


QuickLink: A67379

Writing Tool #18: Internal Cliffhangers
Use them to move readers to turn the page. PLUS: Read previous writing tools.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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What makes a page-turner, an irresistible read, a story or book that you can't put down?

Well, lots of things. But one indispensable tool seems to be the internal cliffhanger.

During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal I read a remarkable story by David Finkel, who writes for the Sunday Magazine of The Washington Post. The title of the piece was "How It Came to This: The Scandal in 13 Acts." More specifically, it answered this question: "How the heck did Monica Lewinsky get into the White House in the first place?"

The "13 Acts" were numbered parts or chapters. It was a fascinating tale, a "page-turner," even if there weren't that many pages to turn.

At the end of each chapter Finkel would plant a story element that motivated the reader to keep reading. It might be an important question without an answer, or a dramatic turn of events, or a moment of insight, or a bit of foreshadowing.

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For example, Finkel concludes chapter 8, which describes the taped conversation between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp about the famous soiled blue dress, this way: "And on they went, only one of them aware of the importance of the conversation they'd just had."

You don't need a cliff to write a good cliffhanger.

I found a great example of the internal cliffhanger in my own backyard. A page-one story in the St. Pete Times described the struggle to keep desperate folks from jumping to their deaths from the top of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. This turns out to be a terrible problem, not just in St. Pete, but wherever a high, dramatic bridge lures the desperate or suicidal.

Here's the opening segment of the story by reporter Jamie Jones:

The lonely young blond left church on a windy afternoon and drove to the top of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

Wearing black pumps and a shiny black dress, she climbed onto the ledge and looked at the chilly blue waters 197 feet below. The wind seemed to nudge her. It's time, she thought.

She raised her arms skyward and pushed off the edge. Two boaters watched as she began a swan dive into Tampa Bay.

Halfway down, Dawn Paquin wanted to turn back. "I don't want to die," she thought.

A second later, she slammed into the water. It swallowed her, and then let her go. She broke through the surface, screaming.

The internal cliffhanger at the end of that passage made it impossible for me to stop reading. The reporter organized the whole story that way, dividing the work into seven sections, each separated from the others by the visual marker of three black boxes. Each of the sections has a bit of drama at the end, a reward for the reader, and a reason to plunge forward.

The cliffhanger is not thought of as an internal device. We are more inclined to associate it with serialized film or television adventures with big endings. The super-sized ones come at the end of one season and sustain your interest until the next, as in the famous "Who Shot J.R.?"

Think of it as the "to be continued" effect, and consider how much we sometimes resent having to wait six months to find out what happens next.

I stumbled upon the internal cliffhanger by reading adventure books for young readers. I'm holding in my hand a reprint of the very first Nancy Drew mystery story, "The Secret of the Old Clock." I'm quoting from the conclusion of Chapter XIX:

Clutching the blanket and the clock tightly in her arms, Nancy Drew partly crawled and partly fell over objects as she struggled to get out of the truck before it was too late. She was afraid to think what would happen to her if the robbers discovered her in the van.

Reaching the door, she leaped lightly to the floor. She could now hear heavy footsteps coming closer and closer.

Nancy slammed the truck doors shut and searched wildly for the keys.

"Oh, what did I do with them?" she thought frantically.

She saw that they had fallen from the door to the floor and snatched them up. Hurriedly inserting the right key in the lock, she secured the doors.

The deed was not accomplished a minute too soon. As Nancy wheeled about she distinctly heard the murmur of angry voices outside. The robbers were quarreling among themselves, and already someone was working at the fastening of the barn door.

Escape was cut off. Nancy felt that she was cornered.

"Oh, what shall I do?" she thought in despair.

There you have it, the internal cliffhanger, daring you to stop reading.

Think about it. This technique energizes every episode of every television drama, from "Law & Order" to "The West Wing." Even "American Idol" forces the viewer to sit through the commercial break to learn which performer has been voted off. Any dramatic element that comes right before a break in the action is an internal cliffhanger.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox
Workshop:

  1. As you read novels or nonfiction books, begin to notice what the author places at the ends of chapters. How do these elements drive you to turn the page?
  2. Pay attention to the narrative structure of television dramas. Writers of these shows often place dramatic elements just before the commercial break. Look for examples that work and for ones that fail to keep the viewer intrigued.
  3. Lead a discussion of what it would take to put a mini-cliffhanger right before we ask readers to 'jump' inside the paper?
  4. What if we put a mini-cliffhanger at the end of the first screen full of text online so that readers could not resist a click or scroll?
An earlier version of this piece appeared last year on Poynter Online.

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  • Great work, Mark Phillips.
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