Page hangers are a relic of the Victorian three-deck novel that was delivered in monthly installments. Each installment ended with a little advertisement for the next one. How ever would our hero escape from that flooded cellar and those hungry red-eyed rats? Yet even today they are a fixture in best-selling suspense novels.
Mistresses of melodrama Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell use so many page hangers - around three per scene - that they must pluck them out of a database.
Not every novel calls for hangers, of course, but the ploy is useful when the scene shifts into a different point of view or sub plot. It buys the author time. We’ll put up with a lot of digression if we're sure that the mystery posed by the page hanger will soon be resolved.
1. The seamless transition
This is not so much a hanger as a link between sub-plots. One character sets the scene, suspensefully, for another character to appear. S/he then introduces a further plot thread.
‘“Uh, huh, look who’s coming.”
“I thought Bill was on holiday.”
“Never trust good news.”
The man who entered looked like a bank vault, but was not as pretty.’
At once, Bill is on the set and characterized as a Bad Guy. The transition is seamless. We can look forward to a new episode, filled with conflict.
2. The blatant hanger
‘If only I had known!’ Today this long-whiskered hanger is best reserved for children’s stories where its young audience might still find it thrilling. It’s also risky. It throws the reader out of the time line.
‘I kissed her hand. I waved her goodbye. I could not have known that it was the last time I would ever see her.’
Indeed, how does the narrator know it, unless the entire story is related from some perspective in the future? The reader will be confused if we haven’t made that perspective clear at the start.
3. The helpful environment
Any element in a scene set can be given a symbolic meaning to hint, in the last paragraph, at interesting things to come. Typically, this foreshadowing is ominous:
‘The clock began its relentless tick to midnight.’
But it doesn’t have to be:
‘The sun emerged at last. It was going to be a perfect day.’
4. The rhetorical question
Highlight any intriguing question - it need not be integral to the plot - and let the narrator ask that question of themselves or others.
‘What could be so odd about a luxury villa on sale at a distress price that nobody would even inspect it, let alone buy it?’
What, indeed? The reader lusts to know.
5. Foreghosting by dialogue
‘Foreghosting’ is a subtle form of foreshadowing. In this case, a character might sound a warning or make a cryptic prophecy.
‘“I'll tell you one thing. You’re not going to like what you find in that room.”
What’s in that room? We’ll have to wait a few pages to find out.
6. The reader knows more than the character does
In any story, the reader usually knows more than the characters do. We have a wider perspective. So we shiver if a scene ends:
‘“Don’t go on Morder Fell at night, master Brown. It changes in odd ways after dark.”
Changes? I laughed. I was a seasoned fell walker and I had no patience with the superstitions of the village.’
We enjoy the bumptious ignorance of master Brown. We know, simply from the context of the story, that he will soon meet a dreadful fate on Morder Fell...
7. The 'Perils of Pauline' page hanger
When tension mounts, you can introduce a temporary pause just before the climax by dropping in variations of these all-purpose hangers - then inserting a double carriage return:
‘I thought the day could get no worse. I was wrong.’
‘I looked where he pointed and my world fell apart.’
'His next words sent ice up my spine.'
'Suddenly, she felt very afraid/lost her appetite/the day seemed very cold...'
Of course, if you overdo such hangers your character is going to appear permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Ration them to one per 20 pages!
Should we use page hangers?
The trick is to vary our page hangers so creatively that the reader doesn’t notice them. Otherwise, they’re counterproductive. ‘Here comes another hanger,’ our reader will sigh. And they’ll put our story down.
What page hangers do you enjoy reading - or writing? Which do you think are the most effective? Add a comment and share your thoughts.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro