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The Ultimate Cliffhanger Guide: Using ChatGPT to Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

suspenseful character running through the streets

Fiction writers know how important it is to keep their readers engaged from the first page to the last. And nothing does that better than a well-crafted cliffhanger, a piece of story that leaves the audience in suspense at the end of a chapter or scene. But creating effective cliffhangers isn’t easy–it takes careful planning, excellent pacing, and a solid understanding of the different types of cliffhangers that can build suspense and tension. Fortunately ChatGPT is great at helping with these elements.

In my experience, creating cliffhangers happens in three different stages during my writing process: at the level of brainstorming, at the level of writing, and at the level of editing. In this post, I’ll explain four types of cliffhangers and how ChatGPT can help create them at any stage of your process.

The Pause

Image: Midjourney

The pause is a type of cliffhanger that involves stopping the action at a critical moment, such as right before a character is about to make a life-changing decision or right before a significant event is about to take place. The goal of “The Pause” is to build anticipation and leave readers wondering what will happen next.

For example, in Stephen King’s novel “The Shining,” there’s a scene where the protagonist, Jack, is waiting in the hotel lobby for his son and wife to return from a trip outside. The silence and stillness of the lobby, coupled with Jack’s mounting anxiety, creates a palpable sense of tension that keeps the reader on edge.

At the level of brainstorming or outlining, use ChatGPT to suggest places where a pause might be effective. Do this by giving ChatGPT the outline you have and asking it where a pause might be effective to build tension.

Another great way to use ChatGPT for this kind of cliffhanger is during the editing phase. You can feed ChatGPT some of your writing and ask it to help create more detail and description to slow the pace, effectively creating a pause. Or, as you go through your work and find a place that needs more tension,

PROMPTS:

“Analyze the following outline and suggest places where a pause type cliffhanger might add tension to the story: [insert outline]”

“Keeping in mind that my character has [trait], can you help me brainstorm scenes for a pause twist that would be especially tense because of [trait]?”

The Twist

woman waiting alone in the dark, suspense, fear
Image: Midjourney

The twist cliffhanger involves a sudden, unexpected plot twist that changes the course of the story. The twist should be significant enough to leave readers shocked and eager to find out what happens next.

The twist is a very common cliffhanger type, especially near the end of stories. One of my favorite creators who uses twists incredibly effectively is M. Night Shyamalan. I don’t want to give away any major surprises about the plot for those who haven’t seen it, but there is a huge revelation at the very end about one of the main characters that makes you rethink everything that comes up to that point. A perfect twist.

Beginning at the brainstorming stage, ChatGPT can offer suggestions of types of twists or places to put twist elements. After telling ChatGPT the basics of your story, ask it for specific brainstorming. For instance, ask ChatGPT something like: “What if the main character was actually the villain all along?” or “What if the character who seemed innocent was actually the mastermind behind the crime?”

Another great use of ChatGPT is when you already know what your twist is going to be but need help to figure out where to plant small clues that might point to the twist in hindsight. You can do this in the context of the entire novel, or down to the scene by asking ChatGPT to brainstorm clues for the twist, as in the prompts below.

PROMPTS:

“Does the following twist make sense in the context of this story: [twist]?”

“Assuming that [twist] is the twist for this novel, help me brainstorm places where small clues can point to the twist throughout the novel without giving it away.”

“What clues can I add to this scene that will support [twist]?”

The Reveal

Image: Midjourney

Similar to a twist, a reveal is a cliffhanger that involves revealing a crucial piece of information at the end of a chapter or book, often leaving readers with more questions than answers. The reveal can help build suspense and intrigue, making you readers eager to find out what happens next.

For instance, in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” by J.K. Rowling, readers learn that a major character, who has been portrayed as a villain throughout the series, is actually a hero who has been working behind the scenes to protect Harry Potter. This revelation leaves readers wanting to know more and wanting to see what happens in the next book.

One way to use ChatGPT to create reveals is to brainstorm character motivations. The motivations of characters can play a significant role in creating effective plot twists and reveals. Do this by digging into character development, one character at a time, until you hit on something useful. I like to start with using ChatGPT to create backstories for my characters. I ask for alternative backstories several times for the same character and very often, after a few rounds of this, I find a possible alternate storyline that I can use as a reveal underneath the main character.

You can also use ChatGPT to brainstorm potential connections between your characters, events, or plot points you may not have thought about before. Exploring these hidden connections may lead to a plot twist or reveal that is both unexpected and satisfying.

PROMPTS:

“Can you suggest some surprising connections between [character A] and [character B] that could lead to an unexpected plot twist?”

“Are there any events in the story that could be connected to create a surprising revelation for the reader?”

“Can you help me brainstorm a connection between [plot point A] and [plot point B] that would create a twist ending?”

The Danger

woman running through street, suspense, thriller
Image: Midjourney

The danger cliffhanger puts your characters into immediate danger. Think life threatening situations, fights against the clock, and other physical elements that heighten tension and keep the reader turning pages. Time tension is very often useful here (as in, find the hiding place of the bomb before it goes off.) The danger cliffhanger is a regular in action or thriller stories to create a sense of urgency and keep readers on the edge of their seats.

In Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the protagonist Robert Langdon is pursued by the authorities and hunted by the villainous albino monk Silas, leading to several dangerous situations that all add tension to the story and create that delicious cliffhanger feel of needing to know what happens next.

At the brainstorming step, use ChatGPT to come up with potential dangers that might befall your characters and ways to incorporate them into your story. For instance, ask something like this: “What are some unexpected dangers that could arise in this particular setting?”

As you are writing, you can also heighten the danger by analyzing your scenes. Enter part or all of your scene, or even a quick synopsis of it, and ask ChatGPT to suggest ways to heighten the danger for that scene or to create danger that might be specific to a particular character’s personality (for instance, putting Indiana Jones in a pit full of snakes.)

PROMPTS:

“What are some potential threats that this character may face based on their actions or decisions?”

“What are some ways that the antagonist could escalate the danger in this situation?”

ChatGPT is a great resource for constructing cliffhangers in fiction. As always, the more specific you are in your prompts, and the more you pry at one topic, the better the responses will be. If you want to learn more about creating great fiction prompts, visit my resources page, or check out my book, ChatGPT for Fiction Writing.

I hope these examples have helped you understand how to use ChatGPT to create effective cliffhangers that leave your readers on the edge of their seats, eagerly anticipating what will happen next in the story!

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