“I loved the way you cliffhanged me so often in your book.”
I spent a part of my teaching career at an international school in Hong Kong. One year I read aloud Red Scarf Girl to a class of grade five students.
It is the childhood memoir of Ji Li Jiang and describes how she and her family survived China’s Cultural Revolution. After we had finished the book I gave my students an assignment to write a letter to the author telling her what they thought of Red Scarf Girl.
I’ll never forget what William wrote in his letter. He thanked Ms. Jiang for sharing her difficult personal story and described a favorite scene where her brother deals with bullies. He ended by saying “I loved the way you cliffhanged me so often in your book. I just wanted my teacher to keep on reading. How could she stop when the story was so exciting?” I had explained what a cliffhanger was to the class but until I read William’s letter had never heard the word used as a verb.
Cliffhangers are certainly a good way to build suspense into writing and as the age of the children who are our target audience increases so can the suspense. Cliffhangers can warn of impeding disaster, reveal a secret, provide a surprising twist in events or have a character display a dangerous emotion. They can present a dilemma or pose a troubling question. It is probably not a good idea to resolve the cliffhanger as soon as the next chapter starts but rather thread the solution through the subsequent pages so the reader will continue to be engaged.
During my teaching career the book I read aloud to my students that did the very best job of leaving young readers ‘cliffhanged’ was Lloyd Alexander’s The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen. Virtually ever chapter ended with the author talking directly to the reader and asking intriguing questions about what would happen next.
Cliffhangers should never be forced or added primarily as a marketing feature. However a cliffhanger can enhance the quality of a story and make it more effective.
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MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free lance journalist for thirty years.