A few months ago I did a big no-no.
I published a piece here on the Content Standard that casually mentioned my brush with death and the subsequent frostbite I had to show for it. Turns out, people weren’t satisfied with my cliffhanger. Right away, a few readers hit me up on my freelance writing Facebook page, and a couple contacts emailed me. My phone blew up with concerned friends who honestly wanted the scoop.
The original story showed how powerful a protagonist’s struggle can be for digital storytelling. And I wasn’t even the protagonist. I used my friend Matt’s story to depict how heart-wrenching real-life drama can be. The hint of my own frostbite was just meant to hook readers. I didn’t mean to cause a storm. And I certainly didn’t plan on dishing my own story.
Turns out though, the mention of a permanent cold-weather injury gets folks’ attention.
Needless to say, it would make sense for me to finish the story. So here goes.
In 2006, I was addicted to speed. No, not drugs, speed. I needed to go fast. In fact, I was snowboarding professionally, and had made it to the USASA National Championships. For perspective, that could be called the X-Games/Olympics pregame. I had qualified in snowboard cross—a contact sport that looks more like roller derby than snowboarding.
I was fast.
But I wasn’t there for a medal. I was there to feel the danger. I was sick with lust for speed.
All the women in my event had studied the weather report, and knew it would be extraordinarily cold at the start gate. Our coaches and closest friends were there with us, smearing Rain-XTM or dish soap on the bottoms of our snowboards to increase speed. Some coaches were rubbing racers’ muscles, others advising against it. The pressure was palpable. These were the toughest women on earth. Still, I marveled that no one mentioned the cold.
When it was my turn, I noticed my strapped-in toes had gone from cold to painful. Not good. I needed every nerve ending to feel the grooves and viscosity in the snow. And most importantly, I didn’t want anything to distract me from the delicious insanity of the snowboard cross race . . . and all its dangers.
The gun fired, and we were off, racing around banked turns and absorbing jumps, six abreast. Someone’s fist hit my hip. I wasn’t sure if it was an intentional jab or a racer losing control, but I didn’t dare turn my head to look.
The thing about cliffhangers is that a story needs more than just one big one to keep readers hungry. Already here I’ve employed four smaller ones:
First, the mention of a “big no-no.”
Second, the declaration that you’re about to hear how I earned a permanent cold-weather injury.
Third, the fact that I was an addict in need of a hit—forget health, would I get my fix of adrenaline?
And fourth, what about the race? Who wins the National Championships of the snowboard cross race?
The discussion of storified cliffhangers may seem like a mid-story change of topic, but it’s not. Strategically, it makes more sense to leave the reader on the race course while you detour to impart a lesson. In this case, the art of the cliffhanger.
When I apply cliffhangers in digital storytelling, I’m taking advantage of an animalistic bent in the human brain that rewards readers (you) with a small dose of dopamine even more powerful than a story’s resolution. “Having your curiosity piqued is visceral, and it leads to something even more potent: the anticipation of knowledge we’re now hungry for, a sensation caused by that pleasurable rush of dopamine,” writes Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence. “Because being curious is necessary for survival (What’s that rustling in the bushes?), nature encourages it. And what better way to encourage curiosity than to make it feel good? This is why, once your curiosity is roused as a reader, you have an emotional, vested interest in finding out what happens next.”
Employ a little creative thinking, and you’ll find many ways to include cliffhangers into digital storytelling. Whether you’re a brand message consultant, a beat journalist, a novelist, a communications strategist, or just a guy trying to write a compelling About Me page, it can be done.
Before examining examples, though, how about I finish my story of speed and frostbite?
My competitors and I swished through the well-worn course, and I checked my speed. One of the more unstable snowboarders ahead was flailing, and I knew she’d be out of control in a split second. The goal was to slow just enough to steer clear of the inevitable carnage, but I was too late. She caught an edge and hit the snow a few yards in front of me. I had no choice but to jump over her whirly-birding snowboard, although I knew the air would slow me down. I heard other snowboards, bindings, and helmets colliding behind me as I willed my momentum away, forward, faster. Faster.
I crossed the finish line third, but instead of celebrating my bronze medal win, I knew immediately that something was wrong. My right foot was numb. Alarmingly so. It should have been throbbing, but I felt no pain. I wanted it to hurt, but it didn’t. It sent no distress signal to my brain, and I knew right away why.
An hour later, by the fire, every nerve ending was back on duty, overperforming that basic signaling task. I held back tears as my skin cells thawed, an excruciating process. Never again, I told myself, I’m done chasing speed at the expense of my health and safety.
And while it’s true that I never raced again, that wasn’t my last experience with speed . . . or frostbite.
You see? There are so many ways to leave readers hungry for more. Pop culture is full of bewildering cliffhangers, served up in delightfully different ways.
Kids of the 90’s, recall the final Friends episode of season four. Ross, in his nuptuals, was promising to marry Emily, his bride, but slipped up and said, “I take thee, Rachel,” by mistake. Viewers had to wait until the following season to see what it meant, and what would become of our hapless protagonist. What a cliffhanger of a finale.
More recently, Walter White’s Breaking Bad writers messed with our heads at the end of season three. If you saw it, you know that at Walt’s tearful request, Jesse fires a shot at an obscured meth-making chemist. But was it Gale? Or someone else?
On the big screen, there was the spinning—but wobbling?—top in the final cut of the film Inception.
And how about the ending of 2006’s X-Men (The Last Stand), which was followed by a confusing, cliffhanging moment just after the credits roll?
As for mini cliffhangers sprinkled throughout a longer story, consider the creative thinking inside the best-selling fiction stories of all time. Neither the Harry Potter series nor the Hunger Games books would have made nearly such a stir if it weren’t for those appetizing humdingers dangled just at the end of every chapter.
And in brand journalism, I’ve seen small, tantalizing cliffhangers appear in occasional teasers:
To craft a cliffhanger, to really keep someone’s attention, you cannot give them simply a tragedy or a victory. You have to deliver a mix of both: a situation where either one could happen. And to find out which outcome materializes, the reader must wait and see. This delicious combination, a braid of possibilities, one of either terrible losses or huge wins, is the only thing that will keep someone’s attention. Not ugly suffering by itself, and not unbridled positivity without serious risk. It’s the sick dance of the one and the other. Together.
As for my story, well, the race was the climax of my professional snowboarding career—and yes, I scored both a medal and permanent frostbite.
But as you know, I didn’t go to the National Championships for either of those. I was there for the demented adrenaline rush of facing my own mortality. Did I clench my real object of desire? The answer is yes, but it wasn’t that day. It was actually about a month later, when my extremities froze for the second (and last) time of my life, and I faced something far more dangerous than speed.
Maybe sometime I’ll tell you about it.
Attribution for all images: Bethany Johnson