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Cliffhangers: Is the Suspense Worth It?

10 September 2018

From BookRiot:

*Slams down a mug of tea, looks bitterly off into the distance* You want to know what I hate? (You probably don’t, but you’ve gotten this far). Cliffhangers.

To emphasize why I don’t like them, I could just end the article here, or, like, three sentences ago. But I do have a wordcount to fulfill, so by gum, I’m going to talk about cliffhangers.

I think, in most cases, it’s super lazy writing, or rushed series-creating. The author pitched a single story to an agent, who then said, “Let’s make this into three books!” And the author panicked while tripling the size of a single story. “Shoot, in my original draft, this is where I put my climax…um…to be continued. Yeah, that works.”

. . . .

Obviously, that’s not the case for every cliffhanger in existence. There are some good ones out there. I can’t think of any, but I know they’re there. I’d also argue that there are genuinely good ways to use most literary techniques. Unfortunately, some of these techniques, like cliffhangers, are abused and overused.

. . . .

Because cliffhangers occur at the end of a story, I finish the book with a bad taste in my mouth about the whole thing. It ruins the whole reading experience for me. It could have been a fine book up until the final “…”

For me, when a book leaves off like that, even if I really want to see what happens, and even if the Goodreads reviews are decent for the sequel, I refuse to read the next book. Yeah, it’s a little spiteful of me. Maybe even a little harsh. But here’s the thing: when I picked up the book to read it, I wanted to follow the full plot arc. I dove in to get closure on this single book, on these characters, on the problems they’re having.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

Writing Advice

41 Comments to “Cliffhangers: Is the Suspense Worth It?”

  1. For the most part, cliffhangers work as long as you are delivering the resolution in a timely fashion. Don’t make people wait more than a month or maybe two. You also have to make sure that the reader is invested in both the story and your characters.

    The best example of this I can think of is Alias. Its an example of both the rewards and the dangers. For people who saw the Pilot and the first couple of episodes, the cliffhangers every week were exciting and worked. For new viewers, who weren’t invested in the ongoing story or the characters, it was a huge turnoff. It made the show difficult to get in to at any point but the beginning.

    It worked, because the cliffhangers were resolved the next week in the opening act. They functioned more as a chapter break cliffhanger, where you switch to a new POV and make your reader wait to get the resolution to the previous action.

    The other important point is that the resolution itself has to work. Having an anticlimactic cliffhanger in order to build suspense artificially is cheating, and readers and viewers recognize the manipulation easily.

    • > cliffhangers work as long as you are delivering the resolution in a timely fashion

      GRRM, are you listening?

      • You mean the guy who ended every single plotline of his last book on a cliffhanger?
        Including a plotline he dropped before the halfway point of the goatgagger.
        And who shows little promise of ever resolving any of them?

        I hear he’s still alive, but he might be in hiding.

  2. “But I do have a wordcount to fulfill …”

    And there’s the whole reason we are here … 😛

    Like anything cliffhangers can be done well or poorly.

    MYMV
    (May Your Mileage Vary 😉 )

  3. I’ve hated cliffhangers since “The Best of Both Worlds, Part One”. I haven’t grown even slightly more fond of them in the intervening decades. Creators seem to think they work, so they keep forcing them on us, yet do they ever ask themselves if people return *despite* cliffhangers instead of because of them? I know that for me, it’s always *despite*, not *because of*. And creators never seem to learn or accept when readers/audiences never return after a cliffhanger, that it might have been because of the cliffhanger.

    Creators have convinced themselves that cliffhangers are good ways to hang onto audiences, and so long as they believe so, no amount of evidence or testimony will convince them otherwise. Not that I try to. I’ve just gotten to where I no longer come back when something ends on a cliffhanger. With as many entertainment options as there are these days, I ain’t got time to play those games.

    • The Berlanti shows on the CW have perfected the season arc+ cliffhanger format. The season finale provides a full (more or less) final solution to the season problem while at the same time introducing a new issue *derived* from the previous problem or from a previously “minor” plot point.

      You’ve spent the better part of a year dealing with a problem, you expect it to be solved. It is only fair. Introducing a different problem at that point can be tolerated if the previous solution satisfied.

      Risky, but workable.

      One format that worked was the one from THE TIME TUNNEL and a couple other, lesser, Irving Allen shows: each episode was a standalone but after a scene cut you got the first couple of minutes of the next episode.

      Yes, our brave heroes barely escaped the sinking on the Titanic. No, they’re not going back home. Now they’re stowaways on a rocketship in the future…

      QUANTUM LEAP used a similar trick.

      It’s not a real cliffhanger as much as a teaser for things to come. Like adding a “bonus chapter” from the next book in a series.

      What I find truly annoying is books that just…stop.
      No cliffhanger, no immediate problem, nothing special.
      They just reached the contracted(?) page count and the narrative stops mid flow.

      Argggghhh!!!

  4. “The other important point is that the resolution itself has to work. Having an anticlimactic cliffhanger in order to build suspense artificially is cheating, and readers and viewers recognize the manipulation easily.”

    This! If you’re going to make me wait to find out how you’re going to pull the hero off of that cliff he’s hanging onto by his fingernails, the resolution better not be, “Turned out the cliff was only about eight feet off the ground, so he let go, and went on his merry way.”

    This seems to be a particular problem in TV, though I’ve noticed it in some books too. Writing the season finale with a cliffhanger to leave everyone anticipating through the summer is easy; writing the season premier with a resolution that delivers on the promises the cliffhanger made is seems darn near impossible.

  5. I’ve been known to throw books across the room for cliffhanger endings, and I refuse to ever open another book by an author who has left me hanging. Stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending – otherwise they aren’t stories, they’re episodes. My opinion, of course, but one of the things I search reviews for is mention of cliffhangers.

    • Same here. On all counts.

    • So, what if there is an A plot and a B plot. The A plot is self contained in the book itself, and the B plot spans over multiple books?

      • That’s a hard one. I read a couple hundred books a year and so often I don’t go back to a series as I haven’t kept the plot in my head. If the book was really good and the A plot was really satisfying and the B plot was at a decent spot (i.e. unresolved but not horribly cliffy), I would probably keep reading if I saw the next book. But my preference would be to not start the series until it was completely finished – the only way I wouldn’t do that is if I didn’t know. That’s one reason I check reviews for mention of cliffhangers.

  6. Cliffhangers aren’t all actual cliffhangers…but any unresolved element automatically gets called a cliffhanger.

    An unrequired cliffhanger that is obviously designed by the author simply to extract more money from me is an automatic addition to the list of authors I refuse to buy ever, ever again. The thing is, I actually know a couple of those authors and despite being very nice people, a lingering suspicion about them remains with me. It’s even worse when the cliffie is on a 30K “novel” that took no time at all to read. That’s just mercenary.

    A resolved plot, that then opens into another plot, or leaves a longer plot unresolved is not a cliffie. Think Harry Potter. A true trilogy or series is different from that and I love those when done well. Hunger Games comes to mind. I couldn’t buy those things fast enough. Also G.R.R. Martin…click!

    I think the worst part is seeing authors say (write) on message boards that people may say they hate cliffies, but they keep on buying and that’s all that matters. Some authors have made a living out of writing incomplete works like that and parcelling them out while digging into your pocket. Personally, I’m not a fan of that.

  7. Cliffhangers on TV shows are, to me, fundamentally different from those in books. Plus, a cliffhanger between two weekly episodes is far different from one between end-of-season and start-of-season shows. Who remembers the plot for six months? Worse yet if the series is cancelled! Ever since “Who Shot J.R.?,” lazy scriptwriters have tried to boost ratings season-to-season this way and mostly infuriated viewers.

    In books, I’m fine with unresolved subplots. But an out-and-out cliffhanger antagonizes me, probably forever.

    I had one really sticky point when I completed one of my favorites among my books, Out of Her Universe (an unusual s.f.), but couldn’t sell the three-book series. Nor could I afford to spend two years unpaid writing the next two books on spec (this was before digital self-publishing). Later, to self-publish, I wrapped up the first book as best I could, resolving as many elements as possible. Now, some dozen years later, I’ve lost the initial drive and will probably never write books 2 and 3. Sigh.

    I hope those who read Out of Her Universe can enjoy it for what it is. If you really, really love it, I might send you the outline for the other two books so you’ll know the whole story.

    • Jacqueline,

      Look at the next two books a different way. Treat book one as a prequel, standalone. Then take the next two books and write them as a duology, set later in time. In fact, what can be fun, is while you are doing the two books as duology, you can revisit the ending of book one showing that there was more to the first story than you first revealed. That can flip you, and the reader, back into the story, because you realize that you have more to tell. You do not have to change the first book, any new reveal is in the duology.

      – Thus it is not you just trying to finish a trilogy that you didn’t get the chance to finish, it’s about discovering that there really is more to tell.

      Look at The Matrix movie series. It was actually a prologue to set up the world for the actual movie that had to be split into two parts because nobody could sit through a five hour movie.

      The real movie was part 2 and 3, but no one was ready for the concepts, and the technology was not there to shoot it, until they shattered the world with The Matrix. They set that long movie six months after the events in The Matrix, that way you could come into that world clean, i.e., You did not have to watch the first film to understand.

      Play with the idea. I think that a duology opens up what you have in ways that are then fun for you to write and people to read.

      • It’s a good and valid technique.
        Three of the greatest series in SF (and a lot of others) started out as standalone pieces of a much larger canvas. (Lensmen, Foundation, and Dune.)

        All changed dramatically from what the early stories presented, (Galactic Patrol, Foundation “Trilogy”, Dune) to what eventually emerged.

        Revisiting those stories led the authors down newer paths and stories.

      • Allynh, this is a valid suggestion. Unfortunately, because s.f. isn’t what I’m known for, marketing is a nightmare. Readers just don’t seem to go for anything so far from contemporary/medical romance and mysteries, not from me. So it’s like starting all over. It isn’t just the writing, it’s the marketing.

        I’m running into this not only with Out of Her Universe but also with Shadowlight, a fantasy standalone originally published by DAW, and Echoes, a paranormal suspense originally from William Morrow. Sales are, to to put it generously, anemic.

        Plus, writing my current mystery series (Safe Harbor Medical) is all I can manage right now. But this is a cool idea!

        • I know what you mean, so many books, so little time to write. HA!

          I’ve realized that I’ve been kibitzing lately because I don’t want to face my own five year production schedule.

          I posted this somewhere else, trying to kibitz there as well:

          In the Sandman comics, by Neil Gaiman, Dream had a library filled with all the books that authors saw, but never wrote. There are dozens of books that J.K. Rowling never wrote because the success of Harry Potter made it hard to publish anything else. She had to do some of her other books under pen names, the rest sit unread in Dream’s library.

          – Don’t let your books only exist in Dream’s library.

          I’ve put that last quote up where I can see it, just to kibitz myself. HA!

  8. Oh GAWD, I DESPISE cliffhangers.

    It’s a cheap way to charge twice as much money for one story.

    (Note that I am not referring to threads left open to continue as an overall series arc. I mean a book that cannot stand alone.)

    End a story on a cliffhanger, and I not only will not read the remaining books, but you are off my list of authors to read. Period, amen. You’ve lost all credibility with me.

    In TV, BTW, I record shows — I don’t watch them live. If there’s going to be a cliffhanger, I just save the episode and watch it with the finale.

    CLIFFHANGERS SUCK.

    • Yes! So this!

      If a book or movie or TV show season ends on a cliffhanger, chances are VERY HIGH that I won’t bother to read/see the next one, at least not until the ENTIRE series is out and I can binge read/watch (IF I like the characters and writing enough to overlook this horror, that is – RARE). All cliffhangers do is cause frustration and let-down. Any sense of “what a great ending” existing before the final few pages or minutes is destroyed. I know folks who thrive on cliffhanger stories, whether in books or on the TV/movie screen, but I’m definitely not one of them.

  9. I really do not care for books with completely unresolved endings. Why?
    1) The author’s contract was terminated and they never got to finish the story. I want to know the ending!
    2) The author forgot where they were in the story, then threw the kitchen sink at the book, including two endings.

    Those experiences made me wary of any book that doesn’t end with at least the major threads tied off.

    • Same thing applies to TV shows that end seasons with cliffhangers. If I have to wait more than a week or two for the conclusion to that cliffhanger (and the resolution BETTER be worthwhile), I lose interest and don’t return to that series.

      I’ve watched WAY too many in the past that ended a season on a cliffhanger, and then the network decided to let the series drop altogether without ANY resolution for whatever reason. Hubby and I stopped watching entire networks, regardless of how much we MIGHT like a particular show, because of their chronic tendency to pull such nonsense.

  10. I’ve found some readers hate cliffhangers so much that they view any unresolved plot line as a cliffhanger. I’m getting ready to publish book three in a thriller series that has a three-book arc. Each novel has a mystery with a resolution -a beginning, middle, and end- but the ongoing arc has caused consternation to a couple of reviewers who dinged a star off of what they said was an otherwise excellent book.

    On one hand, I understand their frustration. On the other, it’s nothing unusual to have an ongoing story arc in a series, and it’s really not a cliffhanger. Will a couple of four-star reviews kill my sales? I don’t think so. But it does feel a little unfair when you’re on the receiving end. (Not that I’m complaining- I’m grateful for every review, even the bad ones!)

  11. I agree with the author of this article. I dislike cliffhangers intensely. When a story doesn’t end with the last page of the book, I feel tricked, deceived. I never read the next book, because the author offended me by her cliffhanger.
    There are other ways to attract readers to your series, without forcing them to buy your next novel.

  12. So, is the most recent Game of Thrones a cliff hanger? If so, the cliffs keep multiplying.

  13. Five words: The Lord of the Rings.

    • LORD OF THE RINGS was written as a monolithic, single volume, novel. The limits of dead tree pulp led to it being published as a three volume set. Strictly speaking it is no more a Trilogy than the FOUNDATION “TRILOGY” of anthologies.

      Tolkien’s cliffhangers are more in the line of chapter breaks/POV shifts.

      Besides, it’s not as if anybody had to wait for the next volume to be finished. 🙂

      • Well actually you did have to wait for it to be published if you were reading in the mid 1950s (which admittedly I wasn’t – I didn’t lay my hands on it until my brother-in-law forced volume 1 on me in 1963).

        Your basic point holds though, if you’re reading backlist you never have to wait for the next in series (unless the publisher has let it go out of print and is too lazy to have issued e-books, and even then second hand books have never been easier to source).

      • Other concerns than the limits of dead pulp can cause a monolithic story to come out in sections as well–for example, the costs associated with editing or the difficulty of fitting the entire story in one binding. And some people did have to wait for LOTR–the books of the trilogy were issued multiple months apart. Indeed, I first read the trilogy out of order (Two Towers first), and I still loved it. I do not feel the story would have been improved by making each installment a bite-sized self-contained morsel –if anything, I feel that approach would run the risk of destroying much of the nuance and complexity that makes LOTR so special, and would probably detract from impact of the grand finale. Some stories benefit from a long-form approach such as a monolithic trilogy, while some do just fine as a multi-installment series. I suspect generalizing one preference to all works may bespeak a lack of appreciation for the varieties of ways good stories can be told rather than superior insight. Do you also expect all good poetry to be written in iambic pentameter?

        So, you have to buy the next book to see how it resolves? Big deal–books are not expensive (and there are libraries if that’s a concern). Most authors either aren’t making a living writing, or are barely scraping by. If you liked the book enough to get to the end of the first installment, maybe that’s a sign it’s time to pony up in appreciation for what the author provided. If you happen to hate cliffhanger stories, that’s also no big deal. Simply take a moment to do your research before clicking “buy”–almost everything has reviews on Amazon. In the meantime, don’t let your myopic view of what “all books must be” suppress a style of nuanced, detailed, and intricate story that I happen to appreciate.

        • Agreed.

          One common practice I’ve noticed in many Indie series is labeling individual books on the cover as “volume x of y” in the Xxxx Series.

          That should be ample warning to the cliffhanger-phobic to verify how many volumes are out. 🙂

          • One common practice I’ve noticed in many Indie series is labeling individual books on the cover as “volume x of y” in the Xxxx Series.

            I’m not cliffhanger-phobic, but I do expect a book to be labeled in such a way. Especially because of the GRRMs and the tradpub habit of leaving a series dangling, or taking book two out of print while leaving book one and three around. I was trained early on to make sure all of the books in a trilogy are available before diving into it.

            Although, I’d risk waiting for an author I know will deliver (so, a Rowling rather than a GRRM). If an author is a known planner, like Rowling, then as a reader I can have faith that she won’t take a decade to figure out what will happen next.

  14. I wrote off Craig Johnson’s “Walt Longmire” series after his last book. Great, interesting story was coming towards its conclusion, and then suddenly psycho shows up and kidnaps the main character’s daughter. The end. “Please come back next year for the exciting conclusion! Or is it?” FU.

  15. Brutal, hard to please crowd.

  16. One more thought on this: I’m wondering how much of the current hostility towards cliffhangers is the result of A Song of Ice and Fire and in particular all of the writers defending GRRM’s failure to advance the story in the past decade or so. The idea that writers not only don’t believe that they have a moral obligation to their readers to resolve the cliffhanger in a timely fashion but don’t believe they have any moral obligation to resolve it at all causes me to frown on any author who gives me an incomplete story.

    It’s true that “GRRM is not my b*&$!,” but it’s also true that I’m not his. If he doesn’t feel any obligation to give me the rest of the story, I don’t feel any obligation to judge his current books as the beginning of a much longer tale but rather as a flawed, incomplete product with a cop-out of a non-ending.

    • It took four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’d much rather GRRM take all the time he needs to deliver us a masterpiece than him cranking out 10-15 books I’ll never have time to read.

      I’m a huge fan of ASOIAF, but with the HBO series essentially passing up the novel, we’re going to find out how it ends (unless he pulls the rug out from under us–which wouldn’t surprise me–and have a different ending for the book series haha) so the cliffhanger of the main plots will be over, and we can read how he ties up the minor characters. I dunno, I still have Dance of Dragons sitting unopened on my shelf, waiting for the day I’ll get 7+ days of vacation to read it through.

      • That happens in anime/manga all the time. The anime is being made while the manga is written, covers the manga episodes and runs out of plot. Then the anime studio works out what my kid tells me is a ‘gecko ending’ and wraps up their production with that.

        Sometimes, but not always, the gecko ending is worked out with the manga author. Sometimes the manga never does finish and the anime ending is all there is.

        There’s one well known series Fullmetal Alchemist, where the anime studio worked with the manga writer to figure out an ending that was different from the one planned for the manga. Then once the manga was finished, the studio made another anime of the manga-compliant story, adding a third word to the title to differentiate it: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood

        • I have wondered sometimes why the anime studios make the anime while the manga is unfinished. I am eager to see season three of “Log Horizon” — how will the Villain in Glasses get them to the moon — but the manga it’s based on is unfinished. My only consolation is that the author has time to finish it while he sits in prison for tax evasion. Perhaps GRRM fans can arrange for him to have a similar fate 😉

          • And we got Malory’s work because he was stuck in prison. Personally I don’t think GRRM will ever finish, but I never got past book 1 so I don’t care.

            Log Horizon is apparently being continued as light novels. And the first that covers the end of the anime comes out (in English) early next year. Two family members were very pleased to hear this.

            • Cervantes also did time in prison. Around the time he would have been cooking up DON QUIJOTE. A “minor” discrepancy in his records as a tax collector.

              It seems time behind bars does inspire creativity. 🙂
              (Other kinds of bars, too. )

      • That assumes we get a masterpiece, instead of something else.

    • If he doesn’t feel any obligation to give me the rest of the story, I don’t feel any obligation to judge his current books as the beginning of a much longer tale but rather as a flawed, incomplete product with a cop-out of a non-ending.

      Consumers have zero obligation to judge any book.

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