Cliffhangers, Resolutions, and Tension

Last time, I discussed conflict as the engine that drives a story forward. Conflict is one of the primary ways to create tension in a story.

Tension not only makes the reader want to find out what happens next, it is a valuable tool to direct pacing — how fast or slow the story feels.

Chapters Follow Tension

We are so used to seeing chapters that it’s easy to just accept them as the normal unit of construction for a novel. However, chapters are a choice. Some books eschew them entirely. The reason that they’re so common is that they’re useful for breaking the story into discrete sections.

The length of chapters can influence pacing, with shorter chapters tending to feel faster, and longer chapters tending to feel slower. However, it’s a little more complicated than that, and the complication has to do with tension.

Tension ebbs and flows throughout a story, and tends to follow an arc. The conflict, mystery, or other source of tension is introduced, then the tension increases to a peak where it is most problematic or concerning to the characters. Finally, the tension proceeds to a resolution where it stops being relevant.

Chapters tend to feel like good units of story when they follow one of these arcs of tension.

Resolutions or Cliffhangers?

Looking at the way tension ramps up and down, an obvious chapter structure is to start with the introduction of a source of tension and end with its resolution.  This structure provides a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. It makes the chapter feel like a little self-contained story within the larger narrative.

An alternate structure utilizes cliffhangers. A chapter with a cliffhanger ends at the peak of the arc of tension. This is a critical moment when the characters are really struggling, and there is no resolution yet in sight.

If several cliffhanger chapters follow one after another, it results in a structure where the chapters are offset against the tension. The middle of the chapter is where arcs start and end, and the end of the chapter is where the tension peaks.

Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger like this creates the maximum impetus to the reader to keep reading. This style of chapter is often used in fast-paced thrillers to achieve that heightened feeling of action and suspense.

Balance

Pacing is a tricky thing. A novel that is constantly high-tension or continually escalating tension can wear the reader out, to the point that they become inured or annoyed with the continuously high stakes. There are a variety of tropes (this, that, the other, etc.) to describe this kind of narrative, and there are a lot of potential pitfalls.

One of the ways to add variety to the narrative, and to even out the tension is to alternate between fast- and slow-paced sections. A  fast-paced chapter that ends in a cliffhanger could be followed by a chapter that ends with resolution. You may also choose to increase or decrease the tension within a sequence of chapters to follow larger arcs in the story.

With multiple characters or sources of tension, different arcs can be interleaved. One arc can be ramping up as another is resolving. Of course, this adds complexity as all the different elements play off each other.

Cliffhangers and Consequences

Tension plays a major role in pacing, and the structure of chapters is closely related to that. When sections feel too fast or slow, adjusting chapter breaks or the arcs of tension within chapters can help. Tension in each chapter also contributes to the larger arcs of the story.

It may feel comfortable to always end your chapters with a clean resolution, or always go for the cliffhanger, but it’s worth understanding both options and keeping them as tools in your writer’s toolbox. The choice to end a chapter on a cliffhanger or a resolution is a relatively small one, but the consequences go beyond that chapter, across the rest of the story.

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