Jane at Dear Author has a post about cliffhangers up today, with a survey asking whether people like them or hate them or don’t care. She’s talking about cliffhangers at the ends of books, which have issues of their own, and I left a comment there.
What really annoys me, though, are fake cliffhangers used at the ends of chapters. Something like, “Mary answers the door, then gasps in horror and draws back with her arms curled protectively across her face!” End of chapter. Reader goes “Ack!” and quickly turns the page, imagining that Ivor Evil the Villain is there with a flamethrower or something, only to find that the UPS guy’s on the other side of the door with a stack of packages that almost tipped over. He apologizes, hands her the one or two that belong to her, gets her signature and heads off to the next apartment, at which point the conversation Mary and her sister were having before the doorbell rang toward the end of the previous chapter is picked up and the story goes on. The cliffhanger was nothing, meant nothing, and was inserted only to be a cliffhanger.
That kind of a cliffhanger is completely bogus. First, there’s no reason to break a chapter there — there’s no change of time, location, POV, or even significant activity. Second, the tension fostered in the reader was a complete fake, with nothing behind it. It’s the writer saying, “Haha! I fooled you!”
Then they do it over and over.
I’ve gotten into discussions about this particular device in the past, and writers who do this sort of thing have indignantly explained that it’s “to get the reader to turn the page.”
I have two comments for that. One, a writer who pulls this stunt might keep me turning pages through this one book, but I’ll never buy anything with their name on it again. And two, if they think they have to resort to these kinds of fake-outs to get their readers to keep reading, they must not have any faith at all in their plot or characters.
Cheap trick. Doesn’t impress anybody. Don’t do it.
PS — usual caveats, you can make this work, especially if you’re writing melodrama-style humor, etc. Doing it with a straight face, though? Yuck.