Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Writing So They Can’t Put it Down

by Cindy Sproles @CindyDevoted

It was a fast read.”

In the beginning, hearing the words, “It’s a fast read,” almost made me feel a little sick. Was it a primer? Too elementary? But no. It was quiet the opposite. Being a fast read was one of the highest compliments I could have been paid. To have a reader pick up my book and continue to be so enthralled they couldn’t put it down, was a pat on the back.

Learning to write those page turners takes time and thought. It requires a fine balance between telling a solid story and making smooth, yet nagging transitions into the next chapter. I love to add a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. These last paragraphs or sentences at the end of each chapter are what tease the reader into flipping the page. They can’t bear not knowing what will happen next, so it’s important to understand a few things about these ending phrases.

The question is, exactly what is a cliffhanger and how do you insert them into your chapter without leaving a cheesy taste for your reader? First off, a cliffhanger is not always something earth shattering. In fact, the most effective cliffhangers come when the author leaves the reader holding on to a character’s thought or motivation. It’s the “what if” factor or ratcheting up the tension – something unexpected happens. . . or fails to happen, a new thought or change of thought process.

The writer has to look ahead. Consider foreshadowing (hints of what is to come) or leaving your reader in the middle of a thought. For example, your character makes a decision:  

Owen knew the answer. He held the key in his hand all along . . . talk to Ericka. Just talk to Ericka.

Leaving a character struggling to make a decision forces the reader to push forward. What did Owen say? Why was he afraid to talk to Ericka? What was so important? Raising these questions drives the reader ahead. If you haven’t noticed, readers are a curious bunch. They love wondering. So, keep them wondering.

Or, perhaps it’s a moment when the character realizes something important.

Example:  I flipped open the worn pages of his Bible and pressed my finger against the words. I had my proof. My vindication right in the lines of the Good Book. An eye for an eye. “How’s this Daddy? An eye for an eye . . .”

There are different schools of thought on the subject of cliffhangers, but for me . . . I love them and I practice them at the end of every chapter. Why? It’s a challenge for me as a writer and a ring-in-the-nose for my reader that allows me to clip on the rope and continue to pull them deeper into the story.

Some authors insist cliffhangers are unnecessary if you write a compelling story, but a compelling story should be filled with exhilaration and “take-your-breath realizations” that drive your reader into a deeper investment in the characters. Carefully placed cliffhangers are the icing on an already compelling story.

A good cliffhanger acts as a lure. It proves to be just as valuable as the opening hook in paragraph one of the first chapter. Sometimes the perfect cliffhanger is a simple statement from a character that reinforces the chapter’s tension.

For example:  There was nothing left to say. When the gavel hit the desk, guilty rang through the courtroom.

 Equally as important as utilizing a cliffhanger is knowing not to overuse them. When your reader is deeply invested in your story, their heart races, they wiggle in their chair with the intensity of the scene so there are times, very important times, that you give the reader the opportunity for a breath. Let them relax for a second. In other words, you don’t over write them throughout your chapter. Instead, you carefully craft it in the last paragraph or line so it leads smoothly into the next chapter. 

It’s important readers also experience success with the character. If you overdo it, your reader may feel the story is too intense or worse – hopeless. Ask yourself the question, “Can my reader take a breath?” If not – give them one. As much as we love drama and action, we need to experience some hope and peace. These strategically placed sentences, enrich your readers experience.

In a conference class under the late Ron Benrey, he shared his thoughts on the importance of a good cliffhanger. “A good story. . .a really good story, piques every sense and emotion of the reader, not once, but over and over. Carefully placed cliffhangers bring the story to life. It’s like the character reaches from the pages of the book, takes the reader by the wrist and yanks them into a fictional bubble which refuses to let them escape. This, and this alone, gives the reader an experience they long for.” 

As you study your chapters, carefully assess how you can apply a good solid chapter endings. Decide what type of emotion you need to tweak and then jump on it. Learn to make your readers hunger for the next page and give them the pleasure. When they finish your book and close the cover, they should have received reading experience they deserve. Your best hope as a writer, is an email that asks you for “more.” When that happens – it’s a win-win for you and for the reader.

Writing so they can't put it down - thoughts from Cindy Sproles, @CindyDevoted, on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Tips on writing cliffhangers right from Cindy Sproles, @CindyDevoted, on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Cindy Sproles is an award-winning author and popular speaker. She is the cofounder of Christian Devotions ministries and managing editor of Straight Street Books and SonRise Devotionals, imprints of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. Cindy is the executive editor of www.christiandevotions.usShe teaches at writers conferences nationwide and directs The Asheville Christian Writers Conference - Writers Boot Camp. 

She is the author of two devotionals, He Said, She Said - Learning to Live a Life of Passion and New Sheets - Thirty Days to Refine You into the Woman You Can Be. Cindy's debut novel, Mercy's Rain, is available at major retailers. Visit Cindy at www.cindysproles.com and book her for your next conference or ladies retreat. Also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Cindy - I agree it's like taking a moment to chunk up the logs in a fireplace or top off a delicious cup of coffee: it breathes life into the situation. Some excellent thoughts on this. I need to revisit my manuscript and focus on chapter endings and consider balance. Thanks. Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

  2. Dear Cindy, you give difference making gifts in your teachings. This one is a great treasure. Teach on! Carolyn Knefely; Simpsonville, SC

    1. I'm glad you like the teaching. It comes from learning from others with great skills.

  3. Thanks for all the good advice. I like cliff hanger chapters. But I also like quiet passages when I can breathe and get to know the characters.

  4. Cindy, I really like this line from the quote you shared: “A good story. . .a really good story, piques every sense and emotion of the reader, not once, but over and over." I think the "over and over" is key, and that appeals to me as a reader. Also as a reader, I have a love/hate relationship with cliff hangers. Before 10 PM, I love a good cliff hanger. After 10 PM, they make me kind of mad because I know I'm going to be tired at work the next day. :) Thanks for sharing!

  5. Ron Benrey was an amazing teacher. I've used so much of hos advice. As a writer, I love keeping you up at night.

  6. I enjoy reading stories that I can't put down. When the story is great, turning the last page is sad and makes me want more of the story. :-)

    1. And that is exactly what you want to strive for...readers who want more...who miss the lives of the characters.

  7. I've lost countless hours of sleep over those fast reads. The subtle cliffhangers you mention "trick" us into continuing even more than the dramatic ones where we can put it down and say "Well, I'll wait and see what happens tomorrow." Because sometimes we do just have to sleep. And go to work. And eat.

    1. Lol...sleep? Are you sure that is a necessity for a hungry reader?