If I’m planning an Action section, there’s a line that says: “Cliffhanger from character’s last section” and another that merely says “Cliffhanger.” The former helps me take up from where the character left off and the latter helps me paint a thumbnail sketch of the latest mess the character’s wound up in.
My goal is to have a cliffhanger at the end of every action section in which a good guy is the viewpoint character. There’s not much point in having a cliffhanger for an opposition character’s action section, since the opposition gets its way until the very end (although I don’t suppose you have to rule it out altogether). If I’m working on a Reaction section, in which the viewpoint character takes a breather to reflect on what’s happened, draw some new conclusions and set some new goals, a cliffhanger isn’t needed either, since the character hasn’t done anything to get him- or herself into trouble.
I enjoy planning these moments because they exercise my imagination. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “why on earth would this scene lead to a cliffhanger?” This question often leads me to re-evaluate the scene at hand, always leading to improvements. At other times, the cliffhanger itself comes easily, but I find myself pulling my hair out coming up with a resolution to it. That effort can lead me to re-work the current scene, come up with a sharper subsequent scene, or both.
The classic example of cliffhangers, at least the one that leaps to mind first, is the old movie serials. Back in the days of yore, my high school had a film festival and every week’s presentation started with a Buck Rodgers serial. There’s one where you see the spaceship falling through the sky, and then a title card rolls: “See TRAGEDY ON SATURN, Chapter Two!” The spaceship doesn’t actually crash, it just falls through the sky. Maybe at the beginning of the next installment (which you have to wait a week for), Buck wrestles the ship out of its downfall and comes in for a safe landing.
Or maybe he doesn’t. Who knows? That’s the beauty of it. You’ve got to come back the next week to see whether or not the spaceman and his pals escape doom. The same principle applies to chapters, or sections, or maybe even pages if the writer is skilled enough. The uncertainty at the end of a part makes the reader want to find out what happens next. That’s the hope, at least, right?
Cliffhangers keep you, the writer (me, the writer, anyway) going, too. Looking forward to the next crisis and the next, and the next, pulls you through your plotting. They help you build the bridge while you’re walking across it, all the way to the end of your tale.