Constructing good hooks and cliffhangers.

It is rare for me to read a book and then run right out to purchase another by that same author for immediate consumption.  Even in the case of a good series, I usually find myself wanting to take a break before reading another installment.  That being said, after I finished my latest read, I felt compelled to immediately buy its sequel.  This unexpected reaction got me thinking.  What did this author do that was so successful at making me want more?  And more importantly, how could I do that to my readers?

The book I am referring to is, In the Belly of the Bloodhound, a novel in the Bloody Jack series, written by L. A. Meyer.  The novel was well written, the story and characters were engaging, and I found myself immersed in the intricacies of the novel’s Napoleonic era setting.  All of those things were important, but I do not think they were entirely responsible for my desire to immediately purchase the sequel.  I believe it had more to do with the way Mr. Meyer crafted the novel’s cliffhanger ending.

Potential spoilers: In the following, I describe several plot points from the novel In the Belly of the Bloodhound by L. A. Meyer.  If you have not already read the book, it is possible that I could spoil its ending for you, so read on at your own peril.

The ending of the novel is an obvious and unapologetic cliffhanger.  The heroine stands on the deck of a royal navy ship, watching her classmates disembark.  They are all home and free at last.  Just as the heroine is about to step from the ship to join her friends, she is, grabbed, arrested and charged with crimes against the crown, crimes she committed books earlier.  Her danger from the royal navy was well foreshadowed throughout the book and this ending was not a surprise.  So why did it still have the desired affect when so many other cliffhangers I’ve read have not?  I’ve given that question a lot of thought.

The first reason I think Mr. Meyer’s cliffhanger is so successful is, to borrow a line from the Hippocratic Oath, it “first does no harm”.  I believe a poorly constructed cliffhanger can do a great deal of harm when it comes to coaxing a reader back.  If a hook is just awkwardly tacked onto the end of a piece, purely as a marketing device, the result is often transparent and off-putting.  The cliffhanger needs to be a part of the story from  start to finish.

The second thing a good cliffhanger does, is that it does not interfere with or leave any of the story’s main plots hanging.  This certainly carries on in the “do no harm” spirit and may at first seem to contradict my first point, but it doesn’t.  There is nothing more infuriating than a story without a conclusion.  Purposefully leaving main plot points unresolved and calling that a cliffhanger is bound to leave your readers upset.  A good cliffhanger should be foreshadowed early and interwoven throughout the story, but in a quiet backseat kind of way.  When the reader gets to the cliff they should be screaming, “no, no, no”, but afterwards they should say, “of course that happened, it was inevitable.”  In the book I’ve been referencing, the main plot question is; “can and will the girls escape their captivity?” The cliffhanger does not interfere with the resolution of that main plot point.  It uses the resolution of that plot point, the girls being rescued by the royal navy, to trigger the cliffhanger question; “will the rescuers (royal navy) realize that one of the rescued girls is a girl they have a warrant for?”  Separate, but intertwined.

The third and fourth thing a good cliffhanger needs is a sufficiently high cliff and a character the reader cares about.  These two sound obvious, but I’ve gotten to the end of more than a few novels, read what I know was supposed to be the hook for a sequel and thought “nah, who cares”, or “I’m ready to be done with this character”, either way it is a death sentence.  Good characters are necessary for any story and there are already volumes of how-tos covering that subject.  The sufficiently high cliff comes from good planning I believe.  Mr. Meyer’s sets up the cliff he uses in In the Belly of the Bloodhound  long before he uses it.  The reader doesn’t have to be told when the heroine is caught how dire the consequences will be for her, they already know, understand and care.

Not all writing projects need or can use a cliffhanger, but attracting reader notice in today’s market is difficult, so leaving them wanting more has never been more important.  Putting this post together has made me reconsider how I will approach my current and future writing projects.  I hope some of you will share your thoughts about developing and keeping reader interest throughout a series here in the comments section.

Thanks for reading.

1 comment for “Constructing good hooks and cliffhangers.

  1. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    June 2, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    I will admit there is one author that I look for every time I’m in a used bookstore, just because the ending to his first novel was so intense. If I am recalling correctly, it met all the criterion that you list above. I was infuriated with some of the things that happened to my favorite characters in the book, saw the inevitable conclusion of the major plotline in the novel, and yet was still desperate to find out more.

    I really hesitate to say the author’s name or the books. Its embarrassing to me now after having read the second one. It starts out a few years later with major changes to the characters that don’t make any sense given their personalities and beliefs in the previous book. The main female character for unfathomable reasons decided she wanted to be a prostitute… *sighs* I kept dutifully reading, but it seemed like the author was following the pattern of his previous book which had been so successful, and had completely forgotten that characterization and plots that made sense were kind of important too.

    This is not the only author I torture myself in this way, faithfully picking up every book I find from them in hopes that they will demonstrate the sheer brilliance of the first novel that I read. I’ve been so disgusted by every novel of theirs that I have read that has disappointed me so much that admitting their names on this blog feels like picking my nose in public and then touching doorhandles.

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