I consider an episode of The Lede wildly successful when we create a new word. In this episode of The Lede about using internal cliffhangers, Demian Farnworth does just that.
Here it is:
- a slow, patient process for creating a emotional tie in an audience member to a piece of media
- The “dribbling of bread crumbs so the bunny rabbit follows you back to your house.”
synonym: internal cliffhanger
But how do you use that word in a sentence? And how will it help you write copy that your audience finds irresistible?
Listen and find out.
In this episode, we answer a number of questions about internal cliffhangers, such as:
- What are internal cliffhangers and how do they work?
- Do internal cliffhangers have to be sensationalized to be effective?
- Do they need to be witty or clever?
- Can internal cliffhangers begin as early as the introduction?
- What, specifically, should writers be doing to get better at incorporating internal cliffhangers?
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The Show Notes
- How to Keep Your Audience Reading — by Demian Farnworth
- Hangout Hot Seat with Brian Clark — last week’s episode of The Lede
- You Won’t Finish This Article — by Farhad Manjoo
- Why Does The World Exist — by Jay Holt
- Emotional Structure — by Peter Dunne
Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
The Lede Podcast: How to Use Internal Cliffhangers
Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. I’m your host, Jerod Morris. If you want to get a content marketing education on the drive to or from work, this podcast is the way to do it.
Last week we brought you a special edition episode: The Hangout Hot Seat, with Copyblogger CEO Brian Clark. If you missed that episode, be sure to go to http://copyblogger.com/hot-seat to get caught up.
Today, Demian Farnworth and I resume our series on the essential ingredients of a blog post with another ingredient designed to keep readers attached to your words and desperate to find out what you’re about to say next. What’s the ingredient? Keep listening, and we’ll tell you.
Okay, Demian. So we’re continuing here on our journey along this path of the 11 essential ingredients of a blog post. And we started out with magnetic headlines and openings, how to grab attention. And now as we’re here in this middle part we’re talking more about how to keep attention. How to keep people going down the page, keep them engaged with exquisite subheads and telling a seductive story, which we’ve addressed in these last two episodes. Now we’re talking about how to keep attention with internal cliffhangers.
So tell us, Demian, what is an internal cliffhanger? How does it work?
What are internal cliffhangers and how do they work?
Demian Farnworth: Okay. So let me just go back to an article that I mentioned a couple of podcasts ago. It’s “You Won’t Finish This Article,” by Farhad Manjoo in Slate, and basically Farhad was making a point in his article saying that most people don’t finish an article. Only about 50% of the people get 50% of the way through it. So this is a little bit relevant to our discussion about the internal cliffhanger because really, now that you’ve got their attention with the headline, you’ve pulled them in with the seductive image, you got them to read your first sentence, and so on, now to keep them coming down that page you use such tricks like the internal cliffhanger.
Internal cliffhangers are statements or devices that stitch your story, article, or podcast together using emotions and shock. And it’s inside a piece of content that entices a reader to keep going.
So, for example, we’re all familiar with cliffhangers in culture, right? Soap operas. At the end of the episode the patriarch discovers that his wife is also his daughter, right? So that’s a cliffhanger, and you’ve got to see the answer in the next show. There are episodic TV shows like Lost. I’ve never seen that. I know that you have, Jerod.
Demian: But I’ve heard that they were very, very good about keeping you glued until the end of the show, and then just sort of doing something that startled you, kept you wanting to see the next one.
And of course you see this also in newscasts, where the anchor will say, “After the break we’ll learn which city politician confessed to smoking crack with a 10-year-old kid,” something like that, where you’re like, “Oh! Okay!” So I’m…
Jerod: I’ve got to hear that, yeah.
Demian: Right. Exactly. And so that’s the same point inside of your article, your post that you’re creating, and of course this same technique works inside any kind of content that you’re creating, any kind of media that you’re creating, whether it’s this podcast, for example. You can do it inside there. You can do it inside of your blog articles. You can do it inside of videos where you’re using suspense, humor, challenges, dramatic surprises, positioning something is at stake so people want to find out what happens to the main hero, or whatever. And something is withheld, too.
Jerod: So if I were going to use an internal cliffhanger in this podcast, I could say something like, “Make sure you listen all the way to the end, when Demian provides some essential tools for adding internal cliffhangers to your post.”
Jerod: That’d be an example of an internal cliffhanger?
Demian: Yeah. Absolutely. And of course, you’ve done that early on, so people are then sort of invested. At least they can make that evaluation. They can make that evaluation, whether they’re going to stay through whatever. So it’s going to be a good one, right.
Jerod: Right. Okay. And to everybody listening, make sure you listen ’till the end when Demian does provide some tools that you can use to add internal cliffhangers to your posts. But before we get there …
Do internal cliffhangers have to be sensationalized to work?
Jerod: So we hear about cliffhangers, and especially like you mentioned on episodic TV. A lot of times cliffhangers are kind of sensationalized, right? You know, hyperbole, kind of crazy. Can you do them without being sensational?
Demian: Yeah. That’s a great question. So there’s this great example of that, and this is kind of what got me started on this thread of thinking about internal cliffhangers.
I was reading a book a couple of years ago by Jim Holt called “Why Does The World Exist,” and it’s basically a journalist who explores all the philosophical ideas behind the existence of the universe. So he’s interviewing scientists, philosophers, theologians, and getting their take on it.
For most people it’s probably a dry read. I like the topic to begin with, but even then there had to be reasons to keep reading, and he did that with internal cliffhangers. He would string together statements throughout the chapter, like even within the chapters, statements like, “Of course orthodox believers can always respond to a scenario like Lynn’s by saying, “Okay, but who created the physicist hacker? Let’s hope it’s not hackers all the way up,” where it’s a turn of phrase or a way he positions something. He makes some sort of challenge that’s believable, and it’s credible, and it’s not full of hyperbole or sensational, emotional, heartstring tugging.
One of my favorite quotes that he did throughout that book, he said, “One can only hope it doesn’t turn out to be a bridge of asses,” and of course, all of this really makes sense only if you’re reading the book. But that, in a sense, shows Holt’s wit and humor as he is writing this book, which kept me wanting to keep on reading. So that’s the internal cliffhanger.
Do internal cliffhangers need to be witty or clever?
Jerod: And everybody has a different skill level as a writer, so not everybody may be able to use wit and humor, effectively anyway, to string a post or a story along. Are there some more, say, pedestrian ways to create suspense, perhaps in ways that aren’t quite as taxing on the brain or require so much skill?
Demian: Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head by saying that. This is a skill that you develop, and I think a great place to start is to simply just think about phrases like, “for example,” or “let me explain,” or “here’s what I mean, here’s why.” Those are probably the most well-known, overused ways of thinking about internal cliffhangers.
But if you think about it in that way, you can use those almost sort of like a template or formula where you make a statement, and then you say, “and let me explain.” That’s just encouraging people to keep on reading. And so what I found, too, in just looking back over the history of learning how to write, that’s one of the very first things that I learned, and they call them transition statements, where they make the transition from one idea to another one easy.
If you think about it in that way, that helps train you to think about as you’re writing that every time I make a statement, I need to think about how I’m going to turn the corner with that statement. Whether it’s going to be something sensational, or it’s going to be a challenge, or if it’s going to be my wit, or something. But you can start by doing that. Just training yourself to recognize those times by using these sort of pedestrian ways of “like for example,” “let me explain.”
And of course, I think a really great sort of internal cliffhanger is dialogue. I don’t think a lot of people probably think about that. But dialogue in articles stops people. We know that there are studies that have been done that people will stop and read dialogue, because they sense there are two humans connecting here. There is a human interest sort of bonding going on, so they’re interested in reading that.
Jerod: So as we talk about this, it sounds to me like there is some overlap between our last episode. We talked about seduction, right?
Jerod: And we talked about kind of pulling the reader along, and even giving them a little bit, but not everything. It sounds like internal cliffhangers, in a way, are a lot like that. To where you’re kind of seducing the reader. You’re giving them a little bit, not everything, to keep them engaged, keep them wondering what’s next. What’s around the corner? Would that be a fair assessment and accurate assessment?
Demian: Absolutely. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the show, internal cliffhangers are just one trick, you know, one trick out of the tool box as far as keeping that reader reading throughout there, inside the actual text. So yeah. It’s a great way to position it.
Can internal cliffhangers begin as early as the introduction?
Jerod: Would one way to include internal cliffhangers be — because I’ve seen this a lot. You use them in your introduction, right? And almost kind of hint at what the conclusion might be. Obviously, you don’t give it away, but you kind of hint at it.
Jerod: And then save it all the way for the conclusion. Do you want internal cliffhangers that have that big of a gap between the payoff, or is that not an advisable way to do it?
Demian: No, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to do it. You have to keep in mind, though, don’t let that be your only internal cliffhanger.
Make a great promise, great tease at the front, but then throughout make what I call microseductions. The sort of dribbling the bread crumbs so the bunny rabbit follows you back to your house, right? It’s really just a slow, kind of patient process.
Certainly, making a huge promise and some kind of payoff at the end is acceptable. But don’t forget to do that throughout to keep people reading.
What should writers be doing to get better at incorporating internal cliffhangers?
Jerod: Okay. So any final tools or tips that you can share with the listeners about how to involve internal cliffhangers in their posts? Any additional ones, I suppose?
Demian: Yeah. So I think this one is really just about being observant, right? And I think that’s a lot about what — as a writer yourself you can probably relate to that, this idea that you’re really just paying attention to what other people are doing, how other people do it.
So keep your eyes open. Watch reality TV. Watch the news. Watch shows like Lost. Watch movies that do this really well. Read or watch plays.
And there’s one book that I read that was called “Emotional Structure,” and it’s by Peter Dunne, who’s an MENP body award-winning producer. But he wrote a book called “Emotional Structure,” and in that he just spoke about this idea of creating a sort of emotional tie. Because really, I think a lot of times we writers underestimate the power of internal cliffhangers, the power of a seduction, the power of an emotional plea. We think we have to sort of pour on the emotion, pour on the sensation, in order to keep the reader. But we vastly underestimate their ability to hang on to something that may not be as substantial as we think that it should.
So in other words, all basically that I’m saying is sort of respect your readers’ intelligence, and realize — pay attention to the books that you read, and realize that yeah, there is an emotional pull going on there. There is something about that article. Figure out what that is, but also realize it’s not really heavy-duty kind of, industrial-level sort of work. It’s really just sort of simple — creating somewhat of an emotional tie. And that keeps people reading.
Because when we can relate to a character, when we can relate to a problem, you know, we keep reading. Because as long as we’re interested it doesn’t matter how long the copy is. It doesn’t matter how long your article is, as long as you’re interested, that’ll keep you reading.
So that’s your job, is to pay attention to the things that are going on out there. Sort of study and deconstruct the way other people creating persuasive and compelling content, and try to adopt and adapt that into your own work.
Jerod: Good advice as always, Demian. All right, everybody. We will be back soon with another one. Only three more of these ingredients to go.
Demian: Thank you, everybody. Appreciate it.
Jerod: Thank you for listening to The Lede. If you’re enjoying these episodes, please consider giving us a rating or a review on iTunes. You can also tweet about the show or share it with a friend. We appreciate any and all love you can send our way.
Tune in next week when Demian and I are joined by Sonia Simone to discuss the controversial decision to remove blog comments on Copyblogger. Talk to you soon, everybody.
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