By Marni Graff
In continuing our talk on cliffhangers, let’s turn to Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, who calls cliffhangers “read on prompts.” He mentions nine different ways all of the above information can be utilized. I’ve adapted these and made minor changes but they reflect his system and clarify how to use this device by naming the categories.
Impending disaster: Centers on an event the character(s) can’t ignore. A classic example is the detective knocking on the door. Maybe a river is flooding and everyone is in danger. But this should always precede a very dramatic part of your story. It’s a demand for action, or even an accident, some kind of happening that requires a response.
Dangerous emotions: A favorite of romance writers, this is the kiss or the almost-kiss; or maybe even the slap in the face! It heightens the emotional tension. Variations in other genres could be a mistaken identity revealed, or a gift that’s refused. Use it to communicate conflicting emotions when characters are attracted to each other and not acknowledging it.
Portent: I call this foreshadowing. Directly implies forthcoming or future action and conflict and is a hint to readers that something important is about to happen. A big plot change is coming, or characters are at a crossroads. Works great for building suspense at any stage of a book. I even used this on the cover of The Golden Hour, with its cozy, domestic scene of a roaring fireplace with a sleeping dog in front. Astute readers notice the discarded child’s toy in the corner . . .
Mysterious Dialogue: These are lines that let the reader know a character knows something is wrong. It can be a question between two or more characters, and may focus on the Who, What, Where, When and Why questions. “Why are you here?” she asked the police officer.
Secret revealed: This is a plot point given as a clue. Later in the work it will be useful to provide a supposed lead or shown to be innocuous; earlier on it is used to move the story forward.
Major decision or vow: Usually an internal commitment for action on the part of a main character. “I will avenge my sister’s death.” You can use this for the antagonist vowing to create mayhem or take revenge, too.
Announcement: of any kind, can be shattering event, an accusation, or even a statement of fact. “I hated him.” It can drive the story forward to a new short or long-term goal or plot complication. OR it can the reverse and work as a plot reversal or setback.
Reversal/surprise: A true reversal, when something appears to be headed one way and turned suddenly so there is a shift in the reader’s perspective. Maybe the supposed good guy kicks a dog, which reveal character and changes how he’s viewed. Or it can be a situation the reader expected to happen, and it doesn’t. Can even be a tranquil event that turns deadly.
Question left unanswered: This can be a true mystery or a missing object. Think of the old trunk in the attic the protagonist stumbles over and its contents raise questions. Or a character finds an old letter that gives information but not enough. This is good for increasing suspense and revealing a major clue. You can use it for a mid-book complication, or even to start the final climax.
I hope these examples will show how you can use cliffhangers to keep readers flipping the pages of your work. After all, that’s what we really want, isn’t it?
Marni Graff is the Award-winning author of The Nora Tierney English Mysteries, and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries. The Nora Tierney English Mysteries feature American Nora living in England. THE BLUE VIRGIN received First Prize in the Mystery and Mayhem Award for Best British Cozy from Chanticleer Review and is set in Oxford. THE GREEN REMAINS takes Nora to the Lake District and murder follows and won the same award for Best British Cozy. THE SCARLET WENCH , shortlisted for the same award, finds Nora involved in finding the murderer from a visiting theatre troupe living amongst her and her son at the lodge where she’s staying. A copy of SW is in the archives of the estate of Noel Coward, as all of the chapter epigrams are lines from his farce, “Blithe Spirit” which figures in the action. The fourth, THE GOLDEN HOUR, debut July 2017. The entire series has also been narrated for Audible books by British actress Nano Nagle.The first Trudy Genova Manhattan Mystery, Death Unscripted, is based on Graff’s real-life work as a medical consultant for a New York movie studio. Trudy has that job, too, but in her case, murder follows. This is the book P. D. James insisted Graff write and is dedicated to her. This book was named a finalist for the IAN Awards and is shortlisted as Best Mystery from Chanticleer Media. In progress is Book 2 in that series, DEATH OF AN HEIRESS. Graff is Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press, an author’s cooperative based out of Baltimore, MD, and writes this crime review blog, Auntie M Writes. Also known as Auntie M, MK and Marnette, Marni grew up in Floral Park, NY. She currently resides in rural North Carolina, and lives on the Pungo River, part of the coast’s Intracoastal Waterway. Graff is the author of screenplays, stories, essays and poetry, in addition to the two mystery series. Her creative nonfiction was most recently seen in Southern Women’s Review, Fine Line Anthology and, and Shelf Pleasures. Her poem about Amelia Earhart in an anthology of poems dedicated to the pilot that is on display in Earhart’s hometown museum. Marni Graff @GraffMarni www.auntiemwrites.com
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