Make Your Writing and Marketing More Engaging with Cliffhangers

Three ways to use cliffhangers to captivate your audience

Nicole Bianchi
Jun 28, 2019 · 6 min read

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.

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.

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 story’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.

(I share more about writing engaging blog posts here and here.)

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.

The Takeaway

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 to delight your audience.

If you enjoyed this article, get access to all of my free writing guides, including my guide to using Medium to grow your email list.

Nicole Bianchi is a writer, copywriter, and storyteller at nicolebianchi.com. By day, she works with business owners and creatives to help them clarify their websites’ messaging and craft compelling words that resonate with their audience. By night, you’ll probably find her writing a story or reading a good book.

This article originally appeared on nicolebianchi.com

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Writer, Copywriter, Storyteller. Get my newsletter for exclusive articles & resources on how to craft compelling words: www.nicolebianchi.com.

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Nicole Bianchi

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Writer, Copywriter, Storyteller. Get my newsletter for exclusive articles & resources on how to craft compelling words: www.nicolebianchi.com.

Copywriting Secrets

Learn how to write compelling words and reach your audience online

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