Cliffhanger endings have been delighting and frustrating readers ever since the 1800s.
The term “cliffhanger” was coined when Victorian author Thomas Hardy serialized the chapters of one of his novels in a newspaper.
One chapter ended in suspense with the hero hanging desperately from a cliff. Would he plunge to his death or not?
The Victorian ladies and gentlemen were probably quite flustered during their games of whist as they traded fan theories and waited impatiently to find out what was going to happen in the next chapter.
I’m sure you can probably relate to their plight. Cliffhanger endings have become a staple of TV show episodes and sometimes even appear in movies.
This year, you might have been one of the Marvel fans who flocked to see Avengers: Endgame. The previous film Avengers: Infinity War ended with a cliffhanger — the seeming victory of the film’s villain, Thanos.
Fans were left in suspense, wondering how the superheroes would manage to defeat the villain and undo all of the destruction he had caused. People were so eager to find out what was going to happen in Endgame that it became the second highest grossing movie of all time. (Shhh–no spoilers in the comments. I haven’t seen it yet.)
Something similar happened back in 2003 when Return of the King was released in theaters. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers had both ended on (you guessed it) cliffhangers, and fans rushed to see the final installment in the fantasy trilogy.
Funnily enough, back then Return of the King became the second highest grossing film of all time too.
That’s the power of a cliffhanger ending. It makes people become so invested in your work that they wait with bated breath for your next creation.
In today’s post, let’s look at how you can use the power of cliffhangers to make your writing and marketing captivate your audience too.
Why Cliffhangers Are so Powerful: The Zeigarnik Effect
Before we dive into how you can use cliffhangers, it’s helpful to understand why they are so powerful.
Cliffhangers actually trigger a psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect.
In the 1920s, Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed that restaurant waiters were able to remember a complex order when they were in the process of delivering the order. However, once the order was completed and paid for, they promptly forgot that information.
Zeigarnik’s research showed that the human brain dislikes unfinished tasks. Those waiters were able to remember the complex order because their brains were in a state of tension. They were anxious for the task to be resolved, and so the information about the order was at the forefront of their brain.
Similarly, when you watch a movie or read a book that ends on a cliffhanger, your brain anxiously awaits the resolution.
Movies like Fellowship of the Ring or Infinity War don’t stand on their own as a complete story. You have to watch The Return of the King or Endgame to find out how all of the loose threads will be neatly tied up.
Important note: This is different than a book or movie that has a satisfying ending, and then the author or director decides to create a sequel.
In that case, you might read (or watch) the sequel because you love the characters and the world of the story, but there isn’t the same urgency to find out what happens that a cliffhanger creates.
How You Can Use Cliffhangers in Your Writing & Marketing Campaigns
When used correctly, cliffhangers can make your writing and marketing more fun and engaging. Let’s look at several ways you can use cliffhangers effectively.
1. The Cliffhanger Technique in Books and Blog Posts
As we have seen, you can use cliffhangers in a book’s conclusion to create anticipation for a sequel.
But, if you’re not writing a series, you can use still use cliffhanger endings in your chapters to keep your readers glued to the page.
Now, you don’t necessarily have to do this with every single chapter (that will probably be exhausting for your reader), but, where it makes sense to do so, you can end your chapter with a line that teases the upcoming chapter.
In fiction, this is pretty straightforward. End your chapter when the suspense level is high. Your hero is hanging from the cliff, and it seems his doom is sure.
Or maybe you end the chapter just when the hero is going to discover a vital piece of information. Your reader has to read the next chapter to find out what that information is. Cliffhangers ensure your story is fast paced and keeps the attention of the reader.
And you can use them in nonfiction too!
At the end of a chapter in a nonfiction book, you might write something like,
You probably have questions about how you can implement these strategies. Don’t worry. In the next chapter, we’ll dive into exactly how you can do just that.
And you can do something similar with your blog posts.
If you’re writing about a complex topic, you might be able to break your blog posts up into a series.
For example, let’s say you’re writing about how to become a successful freelance writer. Your first post might be about how someone can improve their writing skills, your second post about how to get clients, etc.
At the end of each post, you can acknowledge the questions your readers still have, tease your upcoming post that will answer them, and tell readers to stay tuned.
2. The Cliffhanger Technique in Emails
Do you send newsletters to an email list? You can use the cliffhanger technique to increase your open rates and engagement.
For example, if you use your emails to share links to your latest blog posts or other resources with your email subscribers, you can tease an upcoming resource you’re creating.
Let’s say you write about minimalism. You might include several lines at the end of your email like this:
P.S. Today, I shared with you why I became a minimalist. Next week, I’m going to share the rest of the story: what happened when I threw away 80% of my belongings and moved to a tiny house. Keep an eye on your inbox on Tuesday when I’ll send you the link to that post.
If your readers love your blog posts and are interested in the topic you’re writing about, they’re definitely going to be watching their inbox on Tuesday for your email.
3. The Cliffhanger Technique in Social Media
You can also use cliffhangers on social media to increase engagement. Brandon Stanton, who created the photoblog Humans of New York, does this effectively on his Facebook page.
Brandon shares portraits of people he encounters on the streets of New York City. In the photo’s caption, he includes a quote from the conversations he has with them. Usually, he shares one photo of a person accompanied by one quote.
But sometimes the interview requires a longer series of photos and quotes. For example, he’ll post the first photo and note in the caption that it’s the first in a series of three. The caption often tells a suspenseful and emotional story, breaking off right at a critical moment.
Stanton will wait a few hours before posting the next installment.
His fans go crazy in the comments. “Can’t wait to read the rest,” they type eagerly. Or: “There goes the rest of my day waiting for the next two parts.”
The next time you’re creating posts for your social media accounts, think about whether you can create a series with cliffhanger endings like Stanton does.
4. The Cliffhanger Technique in a Product Launch
Finally, cliffhangers can help create excitement and anticipation from your audience when you’re launching a new product or service.
Internet marketer Jeff Walker created the “product launch formula” that taps into the cliffhanger technique. You’ve probably seen it followed by many bloggers who sell online courses.
They create a series of videos usually marketed as a free training to their email list. (To be most effective, the training should be very helpful and valuable and not just a marketing ploy.)
Each video introduces a problem, presents a solution, and then introduces another problem which will be solved in the next video (the final video is often a live webinar with a sales pitch at the end for the product).
Let’s use the minimalist as an example again. Maybe she’s selling a membership to an online minimalist community.
Her first video might explain why you should become a minimalist, but then ends with the problem of how to get started (a problem that she promises to solve in the second video). The second video offers a solution, but then presents the problem of how easy it is to get discouraged on your minimalist journey. And…you get the idea. 😉
The cliffhangers in each video make people keep watching and also make them eager to learn more about the product when it’s finally pitched at the end of the training.
Because of the Zeigarnik effect, people are excited to find out how your product or service can help them.
The cliffhanger technique is a fantastic way to hold the interest of your readers and make your writing and marketing more effective and engaging.
However, because it does create tension in the minds of your audience, it’s best to use it moderately.
You don’t want your audience becoming frustrated with you because every piece of content you post ends on a cliffhanger.
And you also don’t want to dilute the power of the technique. Brandon Stanton’s audience is always very excited for his 3-part photo series because he only does them occasionally each month.
They’re unlike the other photos he shares and that makes them unique and special.
Experiment and see how and how often you can incorporate cliffhangers into your writing and marketing. I’d love to hear from you in the comments how you will use this technique.
And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend who you think might find it helpful too. Thanks for reading!