Storytelling: Cliffhangers

Everyone loves a good cliffhanger, right? Or do they? In my experience it depends on a few things, and while they can be effective tools to keep your audience hooked, there’s a time and place for them. Here are three considerations to make when deciding on a cliffhanger for your story, and how you can know whether or not it’s a good fit for your storytelling goals.

1. Consider Your Medium

In this case, medium refers to the type of story you’re telling from a material perspective. Your story may be a novel, or a screenplay, or a piece of flash fiction. All of these mediums are consumed in different ways and so they attract different types of readers.

For example, the difference between a piece of flash fiction and a novel is about 49k words at minimum (the medium definitions vary according to who you ask, but I go more in depth on my concept of word counts in this post). This massive discrepancy means a few things in this particular contrast case:

Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is anything under 1k words, which means that you only have a few minutes of your reader’s attention. This is why flash done right is always intense, it’s cramming an entire story into a very small space. A huge advantage of the medium is that it’s highly likely that your audience will read the entirety of your story. A huge disadvantage is that there’s so little room for the story itself.


Novels are anywhere between 50k words and 100k words, and the sweet spots for word counts vary by genre. An advantage of this medium is that there’s plenty of wiggle room for the story to breathe and grow organically, with lots of room for character development and narrative arcs. A disadvantage is that you have to very carefully structure your story so that your readers stay engaged for a long period of time.

So what does this mean for cliffhangers?

I picked a high contrast example for this question, and the short answer is that novels (and longer forms in general) are better equipped for cliffhangers because there’s room to set up the cliff from which your readers will hang. In my opinion, flash fiction as a medium is exclusively comprised of cliffhangers. Pieces of flash fiction are snapshots into a universe where your reader stays just long enough to get an impression that they can carry with them.

A final medium consideration to make is whether or not you want to work within a series. This is the classic use of cliffhangers so that the audience will come back for subsequent books. But the reason why cliffhangers in series work is because each book has some kind of satisfying resolution, whether there’s a cliffhanger or not. “Satisfying” can mean different things depending on your reader, which brings us to the second consideration.

2. Consider Your Genre

Different genres attract different audiences, and every reader approaches your work with certain expectations. For example, there’s a reason why the phrase “happily ever after” is associated with the romance genre: it’s a reader expectation that there will be full-circle resolution during the story that they can carry with them after closing the book. There’s also the popular “happy for now” ending, which is a form of cliffhanger and almost always sets up a second story.

My contrasting example for this section is the horror genre, which requires a very different storytelling approach because of that shifting definition of “satisfying.” Basically, readers of horror are looking to get spooked and have that narrative trailing off into an uneasy after. In this case, cliffhangers can check the satisfaction box, and it’s a common reader expectation that there won’t be a happy or hopeful ending.

This is where the concept of resolution comes in. I’ve talked about the basics of a story before, and there’s a reason why resolution made the list. There has to be some kind of glue holding the story together so that it has a finite beginning and ending (also known as an arc). Readers need to know whether they have read the story in its entirety, even if it has a cliffhanger ending. There’s a stark difference between a cliffhanger ending and an incomplete story, and your readers will know the difference, so approach your story with resolution in mind and pay attention to the genre you’re working within so that you can meet your audience’s needs. Which dovetails into the final consideration.

3. Consider Your Audience

Medium and genre considerations can only take you so far. What these questions really boil down to are your audience’s expectations and how you as a storyteller can find and then check that satisfaction box for them. Consider what you want your audience to get from your story, and then evaluate whether or not a cliffhanger would serve that ultimate goal.

Here are some questions to ask when weighing the pros and cons of adding a cliffhanger to your story:

  • Does this story stand on its own? Or are you planning on having it lead into complementary stories?
  • How should your audience feel at the end of this story?
  • What other stories within your chosen genre end on a cliffhanger? Were they received well?
  • Are you working with multiple narrative arcs? If so, are you planning on resolving the potential cliffhanger at some point?
  • What would be considered “satisfying” to your target audience?

In Conclusion

Cliffhangers are a literary tool that can hook certain audiences and turn off others. My advice is to balance them with different kinds of resolution, take your target genre and medium into consideration, and always (always!) keep your audience in mind.

If you’re still on the fence, try writing it! There’s always the editing stage to fine-tune your story, so if you want to try out a cliffhanger in the draft, then definitely go for it. Who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something about your story along the way, something that will outlast the editing rounds and make it into the final copy.

What do you think? Do you like or dislike writing cliffhangers? What about reading them? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss out on any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!

– Katy

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