Hooks and Cliffhangers

In long prose novel writing, one of the ways you keep the reader engaged in the story is to directly connect one chapter to the next.

If you intrigue the reader towards the latter part of the chapter and imply or promise to satisfy that intrigue in the next chapter, they’ll almost always stick around.

In contrast, if you write your chapters more like self contained pieces, without directly tying them together, readers are likely to find the pace of the story too slow or worse, lose interest altogether.

Same thing in comics.

Of course, in comics we break it down to scenes and pages, not chapters.

And when stringing scenes and pages together, a particular emphasis falls to the last panel of the page (or last panel of the scene at the scene level).

If you intrigue the reader in the last panel, the reader will almost always glance over or flip the page to continue for the payoff.

So what exactly do you put in these last panels?

What is this “intrigue” I speak of?

A hook of course.

You’ve heard me talk about hooks elsewhere on the site and in the books. At their core hooks are questions the reader MUST have answered.

I also find it helpful to look at hooks as breaks in cause and effect.

You deliver a relevant cause in the first panel, then in the second, reveal the effect.

Of course, technically, you can deliver either cause or effect spread out over a series panels. BUT, you get a lot of weight and momentum, if you anchor the cause in the last panel.

For example, let’s say your hero soldier is in the jungle, surrounded by zombies. He complains to his friend about running out of ammo and the number of zombies, then in the last frame of the page you show a close up of the soldier’s gun clicking with an empty chamber. You’ve set up the cause, “the gun running out of ammo”, if your reader is engaged at all by the story, they’ll be intrigued and flip the page over to find out the effect of that gun running out of rounds.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reversing the order and delivering the effect first, then the cause.

For example, let’s say the same hero’s ammo holds out and he shoots all the zombies. Huzzah! Then in the last frame his chest explodes with gun shots. You’ve shown the effect, the reader is gonna flip the page to find out the cause or how/why that just happened.

Hooks are all about setting things in motion that are so relevant and intriguing the reader wont be able to sleep at night without seeing their resolution.

Perhaps the most recognizable hook in comics is the classic cliffhanger. Computer says cliffhanger is, “an ending to an episode of a serial drama that leaves the audience in suspense.”

I like to go a little further and define a cliffhanger as, “a break in cause and effect, containing an uber-amount of one or more core story elements; tension, jeopardy, conflict, suspense, whateva.”

Cliffhangers are extremely potent.

Traditionally coming in at the end of an issue, book, or series, cliffhangers carry so much punch they stay in the reader’s mind for an extended period of time.

The majority of hooks you use throughout a book don’t need that level of impact.

And in fact, trying to set a really dramatic cliffhanger at the end of every scene (or page), will dilute their effect as a whole, and may even come across overdramatic or campy (and negatively impact the reader’s experience, unless that’s the nature of the book you’re going for).

The key thing to remember when setting hooks is that the content of the hook needs to have high relevancy to the story. And it needs to contain high levels of one or more core story elements—every hook in the book doesn’t need to be an uber-cliffhanger, but flat, timid hooks won’t be effective.

Another thing to keep in mind is resolution and consequences of the hook.

Many times a cause and effect will resolve itself naturally in the two (or so) panels you take to show it.

Going back to our second zombie example, the guy’s guts get blown out and we see he’s been shot by his best friend. That son of a bitch! The hook has resolution—the hero’s dead, the best friend is actually a villain. The narrative can flow into the next scene taking the story wherever it’s gonna go.

But sometimes, the hook doesn’t quite resolve itself or, the consequences of the actions aren’t immediately clear, or you complicate the situation by pushing one hook immediately into another.

For example; Indy’s on a rope bridge filling up with bad guys. He cut’s the supports and in the last panel of the page everybody falls towards the fast moving rapids below. That’s the cause of the hook. On the next page, panel 1 Indy hits the water. Panel 2, his hat floats to the shore. Panel 3, a couple of alligators swim into the water.

So in this scenario, by the third panel in on establishing our “effect”, we see Indy hitting the water, but there’s no resolution as to what happened to him. Did he drown? Hit his head on a rock at the bottom of the river? Maybe he’s fine? In fact, we’ve actually delivered new causes as our effect: Indy underwater somewhere and the alligators entering the river.

We could say a story in itself is nothing but a string of cause and effect events… and you can introduce and resolve such events however you see fit. BUT, when you’re dealing with hooks, leading the reader between pages and scenes, resolution and consequences are the payoff. If you’re gonna keep stringing the reader along, trying to build tension, pacing or for some other reason, be sure its deliberate.

And the longer you string the reader along, the more potent the payoff has to be.

Delivering hooks without a payoff, or a resolution and consequences that are trivial, is a surefire way to disengage the reader.

Panel 4. Indy climbs out of the river sopping wet. Panel 5. Indy runs away into the forest.
Wait what! The fall into the river “did” nothing, what about those alligators? …See, it doesn’t work.

Alternatively, if Indy had to fight one of the bad guys underwater, that could build to a captivating resolution. And throw a giant alligator into the fight, now that’s a damn exciting scene I want to see play out.

Last thing to mention on Hooks, is the psychology of the page flip.

Assuming ads or extra front matter aren’t messing with your page order, when you’re on a left-hand even page, the reader needs a little less encouragement to roll his eyes up to the right to continue reading.

The page flip on the other hand, takes herculean physical and mental effort! This makes last panel right-hand pages a wee bit more important to pay attention to.

A strong hook on pages 5, 11 and 17 will make a comic hard to put down.

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.








One thought on “Hooks and Cliffhangers

  1. So many people don’t pay attention to the page flip. I started doing it myself halfway through my first book. Say on page 2 I wont “need” the resolution of the cause and effect because the reader has the book opened to pages 2 and 3 at this time. I can wait to the last panel of page 3 to finalize the cause and effect, OR, save that page flip for a dramatic splash or double page spread that not only adds a special amount of emphasis for whatever story element I’m going for or give a tantalizing piece of art. I think because I’m the artist on my book that I have to place these types of shots in a book, it’s something writers forget I think. It is a COMIC book after all.

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