Dictionary.com defines “cliffhanger” as:
1. A melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.
As well as:
|1. A situation of imminent disaster usually occurring at the end of each episode of a serialized film|
|2. A situation that is dramatic or uncertain|
We are all familiar with cliffhangers in TV shows and books; they sometimes excite us or enrage us…or both.
As a writer, there is an allure of ending a novel with a cliffhanger (especially ones that have plans to be a series or continue). However, ending on a cliffhanger is not always a good thing.
Tread carefully with these tips:
Try not to intentionally end your novel with a cliffhanger – Cliffhangers, though they may encourage a reader to continue on to the next novel or chapter, can also be deterrence. Have you ever finished watching a TV series or read a book and been mad about the way things were left off?
If you (the writer) choose to intentionally end the book with a cliffhanger the readers will know and they will (likely) not enjoy it. It often times may feel like the writer is trying too hard to hook us, and ultimately, it doesn’t serve the goal of enticing a reader and keeping the suspense alive.
Bring resolution while also showing there is life beyond – The well-done cliffhangers are the subtle ones. If you end your book, resolve everything, and then suddenly say, “Oh wait, now THIS thing is suddenly happening, but you won’t get to find out anything until the next book,” it’s kind of throwing the book in a reader’s face. Or, if you just don’t resolve anything at all—that’s kind of a major no, no too. The key is to resolve the important stuff, but show that there is life beyond these chapters.
Think about Harry Potter as for example: There are seven novels and each book ends with a resolution to the main situation in that book, however you know there is still this impending “doom”— everyone is still in danger, it’s not gone forever—but the immediate situation is resolved. That is a cliffhanger that a reader can hold on to. They feel the resolution, but also continued suspense. You may choose to argue me on the Harry Potter reference, that’s fine – it’s just an example, but you get the idea, right?
Have the readers come back on their own agenda, don’t try to force them – If you force a cliffhanger at a reader with the intention of it being impossible for them to “not” come back for more, it may have the opposite effect.
There are numerous books or TV shows I’ve watched that have ended on such a blatant cliffhanger that I’ve given up right then and there because I am so frustrated, and now I believe that the writer will continue to put me this situation in over and over, book after book. No thanks. Never give readers a reason not to trust you.
Let the story be the guide– I’ve written about this before in a previous post: Writing Fiction That Is Believable . Let the story and characters lead the next steps, not the writing. If the story is not ready to go in a certain direction, then don’t take it there yet.
Have you ever been deterred by a cliffhanger? When do you think cliffhangers work, and when do they not?
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I always like the writing advice you give. You are wise beyond your years!
Thank you so much, Francisco! I hope it’s useful 🙂
Your blog is interesting and useful. Thank you. The discussion about ending a book with a cliffhanger resonates.
I was urged by my writer’s critique group not to wrap the story up with too neat a bow, so I changed the ending and left one plot line unresolved. My publisher’s acquisitions editor loved the new ending, so I went with it, all the while worrying that it might anger some readers.
The book was published three months ago, and I’ve received only positive comments so far, but I’m fiercely trying to finish the sequel so readers won’t be left hanging too long!
Hi Gay, thank you for sharing your experience! I think the key there is that you listened to your readers and editor so you gave them just what they wanted, but clearly it wasn’t overdoing anything. I think that’s great! Please share a link to your book so we can check it out 🙂
Thanks so much for requesting a link to The Body Business. Here it is:
I welcome your comments. Especially about the cliffhanger!
THE PASSAGE, left me wanting to know more. And I gseesud there would be a sequel. THE TWELVE, will be eagerly anticipated. My bet being, even if it does not follow through from the first part of the sequel, it will still hook me in.
Very interesting thoughts, Alexis! Thanks for sharing!
Great post here Katie! Very poignant and succinct. A lot of this resonated with me. I remember reading the Hunger Games series and thinking, “hmm, some of these are great chapter cliffhangers, while others are more blatant.” But even still most of them were effective and had me wanting to turn the pages. As far as entire book cliffhangers go I feel that Collins did a great job by tying up plots in books 1 and 2, while still leaving the reader wanting more. Thanks for sharing this 🙂
Thanks for sharing, Job! I agree the Hunger Games cliffhangers were well done. It’s definitely a fine line for an author to walk and I think it’s important they keep in mind what is best for the story, and in this case, the reader.
Thanks for sharing, and WOW thank you for the nomination, that is so wonderful 🙂 I appreciate you stopping by and your participation!
Nominated you for Very Inspiring Blog Award, Katie! Check it out here >>>
Hi Katie! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post on http://www.ryanlanz.com on Feb 23th. As usual, it has your credit/bio/link. Thanks!
Ryan, I made updates to this post just now. Some edits and such. Can you use this new version? Thanks!