To Hang a Cliff or to Not Hang a Cliff

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I don’t really like cliffhanger endings. I don’t care if it’s movies, TV or books. Don’t like them. I mean, I don’t want to have to wait for the next installment–usually a good few months if not longer. So given how little I like them, I don’t write them. That is, I didn’t. Now I’m reconsidering.

First, obviously cliffhanger endings take a risk of pissing off your readers. They might get angry and throw your book across the room and vow never to read your work again. On the other hand, as much as I hate cliffhangers, they inevitably make me pick up the next book. It’s the same with TV shows and movies. I have to know what happens next and how the story works out. I may hate the method of getting me to do it, but I will do it all the same.

So that brings me to writing a cliffhanger. Do I write what I despise? Some ethical part of me wants to yell, hell no! But the more devious and creative part of me says why not? Why not if it brings readers back? Is that enough reason to use that ending? Is that manipulative?

To be honest, I usually write the ending that makes best sense to me and usually that is not a cliffhanger. Mostly because I don’t like them. But this time . . . It was the only possible ending for the book I’m working on. The only one. It’s the only one that makes sense. And it’s good. Really. I love the ending. But even so, I keep wondering about it. Am I committing some sort of authorial sin? Will the villagers come and burn down my house? I don’t know. All I know is that this is the right ending for this book and no other will do. So that’s what’s going to happen.

But I wonder, what do you think of cliffhangers? Are you willing to keep reading the next book? Are there books where it worked well? Or made you never want to read again?


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21 comments to To Hang a Cliff or to Not Hang a Cliff

  • I can remember one time I bought a sequel to a book that ended without completing the plot. It was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. After that I vowed not to read any more of her books so I’m not sure it was a win for her overall.

    I like series. I read a lot of urban fantasy. What draws me back is the chance to get into the same world again, and seeing what happens to the characters next. I’m happy for there to be a few loose ends left ready to pick up next time but if the main plot isn’t sorted out at the end of the book I feel cheated.

    I doubt if this is the answer you wanted! What do your beta readers think of the cliff-hanger ending, or haven’t you got that far yet?

  • mkirksey

    A cliffhanger ending might make it harder to wait, but it won’t sell me on the series by itself. In order for a cliffhanger to work, I have to be invested in the character, situation, etc. because I have to care what will happen. That necessary level of investment is probably enough to sell me on the next book regardless of the ending. On the flip side, if I hated the book, no cliffhanger ending is going to save it.

    “Will the character I don’t care about manage to climb up the side of the cliff? Or will he fall to his death?”

    “I’ll just say he falls and spare myself another terrible book. The end.”

    Just my opinion though, for what it’s worth.

  • I’m all for cliff hangers if they aren’t contrived. Last year’s season finale of Private Practice made me crazy. Violet was bleeding all over her floor because a psycho patient had come, drugged her, and stolen her baby (that is, cut it out of her). She’s fine (give or take) now. But the ending annoyed me because it was just too much–if the show had ended with her in ICU, I’d have been happier. Then, she may not have lived, but she wasn’t just lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

    I’m trying to think of cliffhanger endings I do like, and I can’t think of any, not because I avoid them, but because I just can’t remember any off hand. Most of what I read is urban fantasy and it has the “nope, not all done” ending, but does resolve the fundamental plot issues of the book. On the other hand, Private Practice is the only cliffhanger I can think of that made me absolutely crazy. I still watched this season, though. (Hey, I like heavy handed hysterical drama sometimes!) And this season was a bit better. The ending wrapped up some stuff, but left questions, too.

    I guess I think that they work when they are great, totally appropriate, etc., and when they don’t work, they really bomb. Annie in Misery got so mad because a show had a cliff hanger and showed the hero in some impossible situation, and in the next episode, changed the situation. She found that dishonest, and it made her mad. She then took that out on the poor writer she had trapped in the novel, but I couldn’t help but agree with her a little bit. :)

    The long and short is: if it works and it’s great, go for it. Rules are meant for breaking, right?

  • I have a bit of a strange relationship with cliffhangers, because they don’t particularly make me want to pick up the next book. I tend to look for variety in my reading and don’t usually read more than one or two books in a series, so I’ve somehow got used to not knowing what happens at the end and it doesn’t bother me any more! I suppose it’s not cliffhangers or even endings in general that make me pick up more books by an author, but rather the book as a whole, particularly the characters. The series that I do read right through to the end all have characters I love, regardless of the style of the endings.

  • Sorry to say it, Di, but I really hate cliffhangers, to the point that I have given up on a series because of them. Several series, actually. I’m not saying that every book in a story arc has tok be Complete with No Loose Ends. That’s too much to ask of any writer. But as you say, a true cliffhanger just ticks me off.

  • I’m afraid I’m with David. I don’t mind a few details being left for the next book, even a plot point or two, but real cliff hangers drive me nuts. Apart from not giving me the closure I want at the end of the book, they feel like a cheat: I paid for one book but now I’m being forced to buy another if I want the story to end? The sense of being conned drives me out of the fiction and into righteous indignation. If the sequel is already available and I REALLY liked the book up to the ending, maybe I’ll read the next one, but wait six months or more for teh next instllament? No way. Just my opinion, but I’d say don’t do it!

  • Beatriz

    What a thought provoking post. Thanks, Diana!

    As a reader I have to say AJ hit it spot on for me. I feel conned and I lose trust with the author. I rarely buy the next book because I don’t want to invest my time caring about characters when I believe I won’t get the payoff at the end. In fact, I will be less likely to try anything else by that author without making certain that the cliffhanger trick isn’t lurking out there for me.

    Just my opinion, I could be wrong.

  • Diana, (are you also Di?)
    I usually *hate* cliffhangers, but CE Murphy writes great ones and her readers, including me, come back for more. The last Jim Butcher novel ended with a true cliffhanger, though I *know* it will ressolve in the next book because the hero is involved. (No spoilers!) And I’ll buy the next book because I am invested in the series.

    I really resonated with your post, however, because, though I hate cliffhangers, I wrote one for my next book. Not a true cliffhanger like Pea mentioned (baby cut out, icky oowie) but one major unresolved thread. Actually I introduce a new thread in the last page and then dangle it. And it worked. It is the only ending that works for me. So I say, go with the gut.

    And I cannot wait to read the new onw!!!! (fangirl squeal)

  • I think it matters if it is a hard cliffhanger or a soft cliffhanger. “He pulled the trigger.” THE END is a hard cliffhanger. “Now that is done, let’s go storm the castle.” is a soft cliffhanger. I much rather see the soft cliffhanger since you are at a comfortable stoppping place. The abrupt ones are the ones I hate.

    GRRM has a cliffhanger in A Feast for Crows that has is an abrupt cliffhanger and has been sitting unresolved for what…. FIVE YEARS now?!?!?!

    Don’t do hard cliffhangers because you don’t have a guarantee that you will be able to resolve them.

  • I actually love a good cliffhanger. The anticipation can be delicious when I know the resolution will be equally tasty.

    Occasionally, though, a particularly skillful author can pull off a cliffhanger with no resolution. Roger Zelazny did it with “Jack of Shadows”. And he stuck to his guns – when people pressured him to write another story and finish what he started, he wouldn’t. As far as he was concerned, it ended the way it ought to.

    Then again, he was Roger Zelazny. He could get away with more than the rest of us. 😀

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I think that in a series of books sometimes a cliff-hanger ending IS the right choice. Sometimes. What bothers me most is the perpetual use of cliff-hangers, and so I am most bothered by cliff-hangers at the end of chapters. Some authors just use them too much when the scenes clearly aren’t finished, they just want to use some hook to get the reader to turn the page. This can be fine if I’m enjoying the story and have time to keep going, but it’s nice to finish reading at the end of a chapter, and cliff-hanger chapters often, to me, feel manipulative and inconsiderate. If I’m enjoying the story I WILL pick the book up again. Done right, though, a cliff-hanger book ending can suggest “well, there’s just so much more story left to tell that you’re gonna have to hang on for a minute there while the next book gets written” – then it doesn’t feel manipulative.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I would like to add that I feel like the best cliff-hanger endings point to a major transformation or transition of some sort, so the question isn’t so much “will he live or die?” (will things stay the same or become suddenly bad?), but more a sense that things WILL change and just what is that going to mean for everyone. Then its exciting. (But I’m always most excited when it feels like things have a lot of potential. Ex: The endings of the second season of “Chuck” and of the third season of Battlestar Galactica.)

  • I think if it’s what’s best for the book, then it’s what’s best for the book. ‘Nuff said.

    That being said, I was spoiled as a child with my dad’s many already-complete series collection (Zelazny, Eddings, etc), so I now have a complex about not reading a series until it’s complete. This is because I can’t stand cliffhanger endings either.

    But I also think there are different sorts of cliffhanger endings. The kind I don’t mind as much is the kind where the main story of that one book is mostly resolved, and the parts left hanging are pertinent to the larger story arc. (The TV series Chuck comes to mind; he brought down the bad guys from this season, while finally discovering a small clue about one of the story’s rarely-addressed-but-rather-vital mysteries: his mother.) That kind of cliffhanger is very appropriate to a series. The kind that bother me a little bit more are the ones where it really feels like a serialized episode, where I get a little bit of satisfaction, but the story won’t be finished and I won’t feel completely satisfied until the end of the series.

  • I will accept anything as long as it is well written and artfully done – and it hardly need be said that if a story must rely on a cliffhanger, it probably isn’t effective even without it.

    An example from television of a cliffhanger properly handled was the third-season finale of Star Trek: the Next Generation, “The Best of Both Worlds”. In part 1, Captain Picard has been captured by the Borg, forcing second-in-command Wil Riker into the reluctant role of ship commander.

    Despite much of the action centering around Picard’s abduction and transformation, the character arc for part 1 focuses on Riker and the question of whether he is ready to make difficult decisions. The episode ends with the Enterprise weapons having been modified to potentially destroy the Borg vessel–along with Captain Picard, who is still on board. Riker completes his character arc by giving the order to fire, literally the last line of that episode.

    This technique gave an emotional tie-up to the storyline while of course leaving much hanging in the balance to bring viewers back. This two-parter has universally been voted as one of the show’s best episodes, and deservedly so, largely in part because of the manner in which the cliffhanger was handled. In addition to dangling the overall resolution out of reach, it gave us something as well.

  • In addition to everything else, I think effective cliffhangers are a matter of timing. In film and TV, a cliffhanger only leaves you hanging for a week or, if it’s the season finale, a few months. Faith mentioned Jim Butcher’s work. Well, he can get away with a cliffhanger because the next Dresden novel is only, at most, a year away — not long in publishing terms. But, as Mark pointed out, GRRM has left us hanging for so many years, I barely care anymore about the characters, and I do feel a bit cheated at the moment. The longer I have to wait the more I expect in payoff for having to wait so long. So, as long as you know the follow-up will come out shortly thereafter (relatively), then I don’t see a problem.

  • I like Mark’s idea of “hard” vs. “soft” cliffhanger. If I know it is a series, then I know stuff won’t get done, but what does or doesn’t get done is the heart of the matter. I also disagree that if the story must have a cliffhanger it isn’t a good story. Some stories are best that way. The cliffhanger is the point. I think of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost–where it has a kind of cliffhanger ending. The heroine’s father dies and the happy ending doesn’t happen. They agree to all wait a year for her to mourn and deal with stuff she has to deal with. There is, as far as I know, no sequel. The ending works because it is complicated. Now, if Hamlet had ended with Hamlet stabbed, the queen dying, and that’s it, that would have a been a problem. I am sure there are better examples of cliffhangers that are central to the story that what I can come up with at the moment.

  • Susan

    I’m of mixed mind about cliffhangers. If the story is good, I can deal with it though I’m not fond of them. HOWEVER, if I find out a story has a cliffhanger ending before I buy/read it, I will often put off acquiring the book until the next book (or even books) has been released.

  • So basically, what it comes down to, is that there is not consensus. Well that makes me feel better. Not. Seriously, though. Clearly what matters to a reader is that the end, and especially cliffhangers, fit the story. It may make readers itchy, but it likely won’t piss them off. I have been in this book trying to signal the ending for a long way out, so it shouldn’t be a shocker. I hope not anyhow. I’ll see how successful I’ve been when the book comes out, I suppose. My beta readers and editor all love the ending, so at least I have that.

  • Tom G

    The way I look at it, a cliffhanger is like…

  • Really obvious cliff-hangers are annoying, like at the end of every horror movie where the monster is still alive or their spawn are being birthed or some garbage like that.

    On the other end of the spectrum is the Chekhov-esque non-sequitor endings. They make no logical sense yet they really work on an aesthetic level.

    It’s really up to you. If you like what you are writing and have had success in the past then trust yourself!

    http://twitter.com/TheTeainChina

  • Barb C-M

    Deja Vu… we had this conversation I think. And I am still thinking I ought to smack you 😉