Use “Internal Cliffhangers” to Keep Readers Hooked on Your Story from Beginning to End
A guest story-dissection from story-dissector extraordinaire Todd Brison
“That was one helluva story!”
My friend Todd Brison messaged me after I ran an article entitled “My Life Began the Day I Lost $250,000.” He immediately began praising me for my use of “internal cliffhangers” to which my reply was - “What the hell are internal cliffhangers?”
There’s one thing you need to know about Todd - he’s a serious nerd.
And I mean that as the highest compliment.
When it comes to dissecting books, articles, and movies, few people do it better.
So rather than try to package up Todd’s advice, I asked him if it’d be cool we ran his dissection of my story in its entirety to a) explain “internal cliffhangers” and b) show you how his mind breaks down effective stories.
This is Todd typing from here on out
You’re watching “Outlander,” and Young Ian gets kidnapped by pirates right before the end of the episode. You’re reading “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” and Filch catches Harry Potter and friends smuggling Norbert the dragon right before the end of the chapter. You’re watching “Pirates of the Carribean 2,” and you discover, right at the end of 151 minutes of your life that you will never get back, that Barbosa is in fact not dead, and you find yourself wondering WHY in the world you just paid full price for half a movie.
The last one is just me? Oh, OK.
Cliffhangers are familiar. They’ve been done and overdone in every storytelling medium. What you may be less aware of, though, is something called an internal cliffhanger.
Internal cliffhangers are the subtle words and ploys that keep a reader moving from paragraph to paragraph, and not just from page to page or chapter to chapter. In film or television, this is relatively easy. Go to a spooky mansion and make your two main characters split up. Show Sally climbing the stairs, looking at dusty pictures. Cut to Jim slowly opening a door and peering into the dark room behind it. Bam — instant tension. But in writing, you don’t have visuals. How can you deploy internal cliffhangers with words alone?
Instead of drowning you in research, let’s rip apart Mike’s story as the 9 lessons I found in his 900-word story are enough to keep you busy writing for days.
Let’s dive in.
Lesson 1: Jump Right Into the Action
“The phone rang. This was it, I thought. At last, all the years of struggle I’d endured were about to be worth it.”
After a great headline, a better first line. This opening creates an instant cliffhanger because your mind begs the question: “What is happening?” Michael uses three main tactics that immediately plunge us into the story.
The first tactic: he doesn’t give anything away upfront.
Michael doesn’t tell us who’s calling. He doesn’t tell us where he is. He doesn’t tell us why the phone call might be important. Those cards are too interesting to be given away right at the start. Think about your favorite TV shows for a moment. What happens at the beginning of each episode? Do they introduce characters formally? Do they tell you what’s going to happen? No, they often open with a scene that forces you to wonder what’s going on.
For example, the very first episode of “Frasier” begins with our main character shouting at someone into a microphone. The very first episode of “The Crown” begins with a sick man coughing and spitting blood. The very first episode of “How I Met Your Mother” begins with a proposal. Immediately, we ask questions: “What is Frasier doing?” “Why is this man so sick?” “Will this woman accept a wedding ring?”
Coming back to our main example, we ask: “Who is calling Michael that this phone call has so much power?”
The second tactic: immediate use of a concrete action verb.
Selection of a tangible action verb like “rang” may seem like an innocuous group of words, but Mike’s choice here is backed by brain science. Research has shown us that our brains respond to reading descriptions like this. When you scan the opening line — the phone rang —it isn’t just the language processing area of your brain at work. Your mind is lighting up in the same areas that would go off if a phone actually rang beside you.
The third tactic: Michael sets the stakes.
To be invested in any story, the reader must understand the importance of what’s happening. Note the phrasing here. He doesn’t say: “This was an important phone call.” He says: “At last, all the years of struggle I’d endured were about to be worth it.”
You read on, wondering if Michael’s effort will pay off.
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Lesson 2: Add Storytelling Into Your Exposition
“Growing up with a severe speech impediment and social anxiety, I had a very limited view of what I was capable of accomplishing. But as I grew into adulthood, I began to push myself far beyond my comfort zone. I hired a communication coach and threw myself into a sales job, where I’d be forced to talk to people every day. And I became good at what I did, working my way up to managing a sales team. I got a taste of success, and then I wanted more. I began dabbling in real estate investments in Central America.”
Can you imagine if the story started this way — with a thick exposition paragraph giving us the detail and background? This story would have never taken off. That’s why great opening lines are important. Since you’re already wondering why the phone rang, you’re willing to learn who this Michael person is. As he spills out concrete and tangible details, you begin to understand more about the stakes.
“If he did all this work, no wonder he’s stressed out about the phone call,” you think. Your eyes flit toward the end of the paragraph, a warning sign catches your eye:
“I got a taste of success, and then I wanted more.”
The seeds of destruction have been sown. Michael’s reference here reminds us of the lessons laid down in nearly every story told: the hero who wants more and is punished.
You must know what happens next.
Lesson 3: Answer Old Questions While Opening New Ones
“ I was 29 years old, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I could do anything. I was about to close the deal on the sale of my investment property, which would net me a $250,000 payout.”
This is the genius of good writing: that one is consistently wrapping up old threads and opening new ones.
Michael closes a few doors in this paragraph. After the struggle of speech impediments and forced growth, he has arrived — a seemingly invincible 29-year-old. We also have a pretty good guess now about the concrete stakes of this phone call. He’s referenced a $250,000 payout. That’s not all he does in these two sentences, though.
Look at the verb choice again: “I was about to,” and “which would net me.”
The minute you receive closure on one part of the story, you’re pulled back into the future. You’re seeing what Michael is seeing. You can visualize the win. You want that $250,000 just as badly as he does. And then, after a paragraph break, something happens:
Lesson 4: End Your Paragraphs at Moments of High Drama
“But the moment I heard the voice on the other end of the line, I knew something was wrong. My stomach began to drop.”
This is a classic cliffhanger play. Instead of doing it at the end of an episode, Michael leaves a paragraph break, making us suffer a gaping 12 pixels of white-spaced tension.
You obviously continue.
“After a long pause, the man — my partner in the deal, and someone who I’d once considered family — gave me the news. ‘Michael, the money isn’t coming,’ he said. ‘The deal is dead.’”
Note the finality in this last line here: “The deal is dead.”
Mike doesn’t use the word “finished” or “fallen through.” He doesn’t retreat to a word like “over.” A lazier writer would sink even further, tossing out a pitiful helping verb like: “isn’t happening.” No, the deal must be “dead.” This is a powerful metaphor. It helps us understand exactly how Michael felt at the moment. The devastation of this phone call is drilled home. It’s not just a bad day at the office.
If the word choice here is good, the rhythm of the sentence might be even better. As you read through the paragraph, you move from a long sentence to short ones. This gives you the feeling that you’re flowing along nicely… until you slam into the brick wall.
For the writing technicians, this is called “hypotaxis” (the long sentences) and “parataxis” (the short ones). The content of this paragraph is interesting, but you could easily write it in a boring way. The structure keeps our attention by varying the number of words between sentences. We can’t help but want more.
After 220 words, the story of the phone call wraps up. Even though many of our questions have been answered, we know Michael’s story is just beginning. If you’re viewing this story through the three-act structure, this is the end of act one. No matter what goes on after this point, we know his life can never be the same. In addition to each paragraph having cliffhangers, the whole first scene is a cliffhanger for the rest of the story.
What happens next?
Lesson 5: Use Positive and Negative Turns
“I did my best not to completely lose it.
Things would be okay, I told myself. No matter what happened, the house was still mine. I would simply list the property again, attract a new buyer, and get back my investment. Not the original plan, but not the end of the world.”
The secret to internal cliffhangers is that they don’t have to be wildly dramatic at every turn. Indeed, they don’t even have to be negative or dangerous. Consistent dramatization is also boring. What an internal cliffhanger must do, though, is force the reader to think: “What’s going to happen next?”
If you’ve seen any of the Rocky movies, the scene above should sound familiar. We want to believe our hero has hope, that he might fight his way back from the catastrophe we just watched him go through. This part of the story is the equivalent of Michael taking four consecutive punches to the face and then, bloodied and battered, attempt to pull himself up by the ropes.
We get a brief glimmer of hope, and then…
“But then I received another surprise.
Unbeknownst to my friend at the time, his father had changed the deed of the property to his own name. Then he sold it out from under me — for $30,000 in cash, I would later learn, and five luxury cars valued well over $200,000. One crossed-out name, one new signature, one measly phone call, and everything that I’d been working toward was gone. It wasn’t long before my sanity and confidence went with it.”
…wham. A devastating uppercut.
From a storytelling perspective, we’ve just taken a sharp negative turn. In your mind, you’ve transitioned from “Oh crap,” to, “Oh my god.” Suddenly, a big problem becomes an impossible one.
A good story should feel like a roller coaster. In literary terms, it should have plenty of positive turns and negative turns. One minute you’re laughing. The next you’re crying. As you watch the main character weave his way in and out of the events, it would be quite boring if only good things or only bad things happened.
Quick note — a less compelling but still accurate telling of this same event would look something like this: “His father sold the property out from under me. It was all over. I wouldn’t get the money back.”
Lesson 6: Tell the Story
“To say that I felt completely paralyzed would be an understatement. I sat in my car, thinking about everything and nothing at all. I wondered what the hell I was going to do next. Then I did the only thing I could think of to numb the pain of losing a quarter of a million dollars — I drove to the closest bar.
Over the next 21 months, as if I was writing my own country song, I smoked my breakfast and drank my dinner. My parents were scared. The few friends I didn’t manage to piss off or push away were worried. The only reason I hadn’t been admitted to rehab or the hospital was that I was too ashamed to tell a doctor the truth: I needed serious help.”
At this point in the story, it honestly doesn’t matter as much what Michael does with his writing. Why? Because he has us. We’re invested.
Think about the last time you watched through a movie that didn’t meet your expectations. It was average through and through. Why didn’t you turn the movie off?
Easy — when you’re hooked, it’s hard to wriggle free.
In this case, we’re deep in Michael’s story. We want his character to win. This is why we spring off the final sentence of this section (“I needed serious help”) and into the beginning of Michael’s redemption.
Lesson 7: Indicate Progress With Verb Change
“Finally, as a Hail Mary attempt to straighten out my twisted head, I decided to take what money I had left and I bought a one-way ticket to Barcelona. I once read that some people travel because they’re running toward something, while others travel because they’re running away from something. At the time, I fell into the latter category. I was lost. My confidence was shot. But I knew I had to do something.
After I loaded up my backpack with some clothes, a few books, and other scattered belongings, I gave my parents one last hug at JFK airport and I boarded the plane.”
Lesson Three pops up again here, but there’s something else at play.
In the first half of the story, things are happening to Michael. The scenes are meant to drive anticipation, and the verb structure echoes that. However, in the second half, Michael is in motion. Even though he takes a few wrong steps, we as an audience move from wondering what’s going to happen to watching those things happen. The story keeps you hooked.
What also keeps you hooked at the end of this paragraph is a change of location — “I boarded the plane.” We don’t have any sense of where Michael’s story takes place up to this point, but it doesn’t matter. Intuitively, we know a change in geography is significant. Michael is literally leaving the scene of his misery in order to make a change.
Lesson 8: Pay Off the Cliffhangers
“And then something happened. The moment I stepped on Catalan soil, I felt a shift. My shoulders dropped. Gravity lessened. The city streets seemed ripe with opportunity. The air smelled clean and crisp. For the first time in close to two years, I felt like I could breathe again.”
As we immediately wrap up the cliffhanger of getting on the plane, we know something has already changed here for Michael. “I felt like I could breathe again.”
The mood of the story shifts. His decision to go has already given him benefits. But can he vanquish all the other enemies he’s faced in this story? Alcoholism, binge eating, anxiety, doubt, and fear?
“Within weeks, instead of running from life, I began to chase it. I started eating well and walking everywhere. I lost the 60 pounds I’d gained during my two-year blackout. I allowed myself to be playful, and I finally gave my curiosity the respect it deserves. I threw myself back into work I cared about — while seeking out people who were doing what they could to make the world a better place.
For once, instead of trying to reinvent myself to become the person I thought other people wanted me to be, I focused on taking the steps to actually get to know the real me. In the process, I learned to smile without having to fake it.”
If this were a fantasy story, what you’re reading here is the final battle.
Michael strikes blows against all the things that plagued him in his downfall. As an audience, we see him clawing out of the downward spiral. Once again, you can see an avalanche of action verbs: “I started; I lost; I allowed; I gave; I threw; I focused; I learned.”
These are the sword thrusts into the weak spots of Smaug, the final wand blast against Voldemort, the escape from the Demogorgon.
“All of this came to a head eight months after I arrived. I was walking down the rainy streets of Barcelona with a woman I had just met. Suddenly, the sun came out, and in one fluid motion, this comfortable stranger stopped in a fleeting ray of light, tilted up her head, closed her eyes and smiled. At that moment, I was finally able to see all the beauty that exists in the world.”
This is the climax of our story. Michael receives enlightenment. He’s a new man. In a rush of excitement, we feel the same relief and change he does. However, there are still loose threads to resolved.
The climax is not the end.
Lesson 9: Finish the Story
“My life today couldn’t be more different than the one I had prior to boarding that plane 10 years ago. I may not be what society deems as mega-successful, but I’ve never felt like more of a success. I get to wake up every day and be me. And the best part, is I have the privilege of seeing that same woman every morning laying next to me.
We live in a slow country town. Our apartment is small. We share one car. I can’t remember the last time either of us bought new clothes. But we have each other and our two little boys. That phone call may have cost me $250,000 — but the journey it took me on was worth every penny.”
End a story with the climax alone, and you leave disappointment in the taste of your readers. However, if you can bring everything around full circle (another writing topic for another time), your work is much less likely to be forgotten. In the literary world, this part is called the resolution. In other words, it’s time to wrap all the loose ends from our cliffhangers up into a nice little bow.
This is why we put up with cliffhangers: for the satisfaction of their fulfillment.
With these final words, we now know the transformation is complete. Michael has gone from desiring success to finding it. He has moved from a fast, out-of-control life to a slow, manageable one. This last paragraph of the story closes any doubts we might have left and leaves us with the perfect picture — happiness found where it was least expected.
No further cliffhangers needed.
If you enjoyed Todd’s thinking, give him a follow here for more dissections of what hits and his explanations of why certain stories miss.
Catch you next week and best to you and yours over the holidays.
The Write Life with Sledge, Gorman, Moore, and Thompson is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.