Principle #7 – The Power of Storytelling
Let’s talk about the spinning top.
It’s spinning and spinning and the audience, we’re waiting for it to fall over. And then – cut to black.
I mean… Are you kidding me? I want to know if it falls over or not. And we’re all rooting for it to fall over, but we will never know. Enraged, furious, discussing and rewatching the movie, again and again, to find out if he is in a dream or not.
I’m talking about Inception of course, and I hope you’ve seen it. If not, go ahead and do that. And I mean, is it a stroke of genius or was it a mistake to use the cliffhanger? And is a cliffhanger even worth it using it at the end of the story? Let’s find out in this new episode.
Hi, I’m Diana, and this is Story Artist.
You’re probably familiar with the term, but let’s still define cliffhanger. It’s supposed to come from a serialized version of Tom Hardy’s book where one of his protagonists is literally left hanging on the cliff at the end of the story. So what does it mean? It means that you never give an answer to a matter of life and death.
You never fully release the tension. You never fully give answers to the questions raised in your story. And is it a good idea to do so? How can you use this tool? Because this tool can be quite powerful. But how can you use it in order to be effective?
Recently the final season of The Man In The High Castle was released and it got quite bad reviews because it was left hanging on a cliff. It has a cliffhanger as an ending in the final episode, where the people would walk through the portal and it’s like: Where are they coming from? They’re coming from everywhere. Who are these people? What’s everywhere? We don’t know, and we’re left hanging on a cliff.
It can be quite a difficult question. So today we’re going to discuss the why, the when, and the how of the cliffhanger, because it’s quite a powerful tool in the storytelling arsenal if you know how to use it right.
Why a Cliffhanger?
Let’s talk about the why first.
Why end on a cliffhanger? The obvious reason is to raise tension and to leave the reader anticipating more. And it makes absolute sense.
If you are stopping with a cliffhanger in the middle of your story or at the end of an episode or at the end of a serialized book or at the end of a chapter, for example – we are going to talk about it more in-depth in the WHEN section. So the why is to raise tension, to build anticipation and to leave your reader wanting more so that they cannot stop reading or watching or whatever medium you’re walking on.
But they cannot stop. And they cannot go out of your story because you leave them hanging with tension. If you end on a cliffhanger and the story is over, it’s obviously to provoke discussion. So why did Nolan do that? He did it because he wanted to end the story on something that would provoke discussions. And it definitely did.
I mean, Nolan’s kind of, he likes those cliffhanger endings. He did the same in Memento and it provoked discussions. I mean, everybody who’s watched inception can discuss endless hours about whether he was in a dream or not and bring arguments. And it might be a stroke of genius if you do it right.
But with The Man In The High Castle, the cliffhanger was more of a confusing moment rather than something: is it? Or is it not? And this is something of that R. L. Stine says. We’re going to talk about it in the HOW section, but just for now, the WHY is to provoke discussions and to leave your reader wanting more, even if the story’s over.
When to use a Cliffhanger?
So let’s talk about when to end on a cliffhanger.
The best use for ending on a cliffhanger is inside your story. So, for example, at the end of a chapter, at the end of a paragraph, or if it’s a serialized fiction piece at the end of every episode, every series.
You can also use this amazing tool with content marketing, and with emailing, for example. If you end an email like this or, but then the next email is to come, obviously in a couple of days and a couple of the next days. Or you can end, let’s say with a blog post, if you normally divide your blog posts into sections, or you have a series of blog posts. But let’s talk about one first.
When you divide it into sections, it’s good to end with a cliffhanger. By the ending of a section, when you go into the next one when you have like 5 hacks to lead a more productive life, and then by the end of the first half, you end with a cliffhanger and release the tension in the second or third hack for example.
This way you force the reader to go on reading because he wants to find out the answer to the question you’re raising. He wants to release the tension. You can do this with a blog post or at the ending of paragraphs and blog posts, emailing, YouTube videos, podcasts – if you want them to listen to the next podcast.
So with every piece of serialized fiction or in the middle of your story, it’s an amazing tool. By the end of your story, it’s quite tricky. But I like what R. L. Stine suggested with the cliffhanger ending. And he likes to do it because it obviously fits the genre. And this is one of the other very important examples: It has to fit the genre.
I don’t think that romance readers will appreciate if you end with a cliffhanger. I really don’t. I don’t think that historical movies or period pieces will appreciate a cliffhanger ending. Not so much. It has to be science fiction. It has to be horror. It has to be something that is quite supernatural or fits into that niche because the genre does kind of expect that.
But you have to be careful about this. This is why the ending of Chris Nolan’s film works better than The Man In The High Castle. First of all, because The Man In The High Castle’s ending is a serialized TV piece with several seasons. I don’t think it’s a good way to do that because you had the readers or the audience invested into that for such a long time, and you really want to answer all those questions and you really want to bring those character arcs to a satisfying ending.
And the problem with The Man In The High Castle is that it was not only a cliffhanger, but it was really, really confusing. So what you want to do instead, let’s get back to R. L. Stein’s trick, you answer all those questions, you bring it to a satisfying ending. And in the very end, when the reader thinks everything’s fine, you raise the question: Or is it?
And this is the thing that Chris Nolan did. So he brought everything to a satisfying ending, and we have this amazing of Cobb, he returns home to his kids. And then you have this spinning top. And he asks: Or is it?
So this is an amazing device if you want to end on the cliffhanger. But be aware if you do that, you might raise a lot of discussions and you might scare off readers who actually wanted to see a happy ending for your character, or at least a satisfying one. One where all of the questions are answered.
How to use a Cliffhanger?
Let’s talk about the how.
So there’re actually only two possible scenarios for ending on a Cliffhanger or bringing in a cliffhanger, and it’s:
– Some new information enters the scene, and that raises a question your reader needs to have answered
– the character gets into a situation where you don’t know how he’s gone and get out of it, because it’s quite tricky and it might be a matter of life and death, but it doesn’t have to be, it just has to be tricky and it just has to fit the context of the story in order to raise this question: how the heck is he or she going to get out there?
Now, let me introduce the open-loop technique. I heard about it in a Andrew Chaperone’s from tiny little businesses email course, and it’s quite simple. But it kind of blew me away.
And the open loop is the technique of when you raise a question, introduce something, you raise some new information, and then you move on to something else.
And there is like: What? I need this answered. Why isn’t he answering it? Where’s the answer? And you have to read.
For example, for this course, it was about email. So if you raise this question about something new and then you move on, the reader has to read the next email because his brain won’t let him do otherwise.
He has to finish the thought. He has to answer the question.
Let me give you an example. If in an email you say: I know one amazing secret of success that will turn every reader into a fan. But then I move on, talking about something else, about productivity, blah, blah, blah. Or I say: Let’s talk about it in the next meal. First I want to tell you this.
You’re like: What? Okay, I need to find out the secret. What is this amazing secret?
Or if you’re talking about fitness, I have an amazing diet that will blow you away and you will lose, I dunno how many pounds in how many weeks, but something that really works. But I’ll talk to you about it in the next section. First, let’s explore healthy living. You’re like: What? Okay, this is a cliffhanger and I need to know that. So I’m going to keep reading. I’m gonna keep reading the next section, paragraph, the next email in order to find out.
And this is an amazing technique, both for fiction and nonfiction as well. So you can introduce it in fiction, too.
You can bring up some new information or some new person, and then move on to the next chapter, to another POV, for example, or you have something else happening that prevents this question from resolving right now. They’re starting to talk and the main character says, okay, I have this new information. Have you heard about that? And before they can start talking about it, something happens and they have to flee, blah, blah, blah, and you need to know: What was he talking about? I need to resolve this. I need to find the answer to this question.
And this is an amazing tool, an open loop, be it in fiction, be it in nonfiction.
So a cliffhanger is all about raising intention and about creating a sense of urgency. And this sense of urgency has to prevail in every piece of content. Fiction, nonfiction, blog posts, marketing, sales, speech even.
You can use cliffhangers in sales pages in order for your reader to finish your sales page. You can use it to really strategically open a new loop and then finish the loop at the end of your sales page. Or if your reader is asked to click somewhere in order to find out.
But make sure that you find a plausible reason to withhold this information from your reader. Because if your reader feels teased, if he has the impression I’m just getting teased here and it’s no fun. He’s just withholding this information for no reason at all. He will feel cheated.
Instead bring in something new, some new information. For example: , I’m going to tell you this secret of how to turn readers into superfans, but first, you need to understand this and this principle in order to understand the secret.
Okay, this makes sense, you tease him but then you have to explain this principle. And I don’t feel cheated because I feel like, okay, if I need to understand this first, I’m going to read this first in order to find out.
The same with fiction. Bring in some plausible reasons, not just, okay, I have this piece of information, but I’m not going to tell you right now. Why not?
And you have to create this sense of urgency with every piece of content. Because, in this day of age, people don’t really finish reading content. And I know from myself, like when I watch YouTube videos, I’m just scrolling forward.
I’m just doing something parallelly. Like I’m listening to that. I’m working on that. I’m commuting. And our attention is always on demand, and we are battling for the attention of our readers. So a cliffhanger is a huge, huge thing. It’s an amazing tool. It’s an amazing weapon in the battle for the attention of your reader.
So be sure to use it right. Be sure to use it in order not to disappoint your reader and make him furious and angry. But to raise tension, create a sense of urgency and then move him along the story. It’s really important to not reveal everything at once. If you do this, you have lost.
For example, if you have a blog posts and blog posts, and you have subdividing titles, don’t reveal everything in the title. Why should I read the section if you said everything in the subtitle? Make the subtitle instead a cliffhanger. Something that leaves the reader hanging, and he’s like: okay, I need to read the section in order to understand the subtitle in order to have this question answered that you as the author raise in the subtitle. And this is a mistake. Many, many authors make.
The same with email. The same with storytelling. Don’t try to squeeze exposition, explanation, information into huge blocks. Instead raise questions and answer them as the story’s progressing and make sure that there’s always one or several questions that are creating this sense of tension and urgency in your story. If there are no questions hanging in the air, there’s no real reason to finish reading your story.
You have to make sure there is always one or several questions hanging in there. And once you answer one, because we need it in this very moment in your story, make sure to raise another one. And bring it to the very end of your story. You can end with a cliffhanger if it fits your audience, but the cliffhanger is most powerful when used inside the story in order to bring your reader through the story as it is progressing.
There’s one huge mistake that many authors and writers and bloggers make that cost them a lot of readers, literally losing readers. And they could fix this mistake really easily. What it is and how to do this, I’m going to tell you in the next episode. Yeah, it was an open loop, but you will get the answer to the cliffhanger in the next episode.