February 15, 2012 | By: Tracy

Cliffhangers - Yay or Nay?


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 (Note: these are my thoughts based on my opinion as a READER)

Cliffhangers, by definition, are when a story comes to an end where the main character(s) are, more often than not, figuratively hanging over the edge of a cliff. They (and WE) are left in a stressful situation where something is about to go down.

I think with all the competition out there to snag readers' attention and bring them back for more, some writers are turning to the Cliffhanger ending for help . . . and I think that could be a huge mistake.

What works in television doesn't always work in written fiction. TV is relatively mindless, whereas reading requires a certain level of imagination and time commitment. And, in general, readers need SOME closure at the end of a book as a payoff for that committment.

Now, I think the vast majority of readers are comfortable with what I call the Unfinished Business ending. Where you get to the end and realize that while some big questions/issues the MC faced have been answered/resolved, the result has brought forth more questions that need to be dealt with.  BUT, in the Unfinished Business ending, most (if not all) of the initial story arc has been dealt with or resolved...and while the characters still have more business they need to take care of, they (and more importantly the reader) are at a comfortable stopping point.

To use an example most have read: The Hunger Games --  When the book comes to an end, Katniss has survived the Hunger Games and gets to go home a victor. But, to those who've read the book you know there are a ton of things still left unresolved. Her relationship with Peeta being a big one...and what, if any, effects will her "breaking of the rules" bring down on them all.  But, for the time being, everyone is safe and on their way home to deal with the aftermath in their own private way.

The Unfinished Business ending gives readers something to think on. Gives them something to ponder while they wait for the next book to come out. And if you've given them characters they can fall in love with, they're going to want to come back for them alone.

But if you end the book on an actual Cliffhanger (I won't name any specific examples, but feel free to in the comments, if you'd life), where you leave the characters in some sort of imminent danger and/or throw a brand new danger that you don't plan to explain until the next book...you run the serious risk of making your readers feel like they're being jerked around, and having them avoid the very thing you want them to come back for. The sequel.

What do you all think: Do the obvious cliffhangers bother you? Do you actually like them? If you hear that a book has a cliffhanger ending are you less likely to buy it until you know the sequel is about to be released?  Tracy wants to know these things.

14 witty remarks:

Dan said...

Cliffhangers suck, especially when you have a wait a year for an unsatisfying conclusion. I'm looking at you, Jim Butcher!

I wouldn't say a cliffhanger ending is enough to make me quit on a series unless I'm already on the outs with the series anyway.

Meredith said...

I totally agree. I like unfinished business endings, but cliffhangers usually feel too contrived to me.

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't really care much for cliffhangers.

Patti said...

I just read two books that had cliffhanger endings and both times I kind of threw the book down in frustration.

I don't mind the unfinished business, but to leave characters in the middle of the action is unfair to readers.

And unlike TV shows where the viewer only waits a week, readers typically have to wait a year.

Not a big fan.

The Happy Whisk said...

Cliffhangers don't bother me. It all just depends on the story and the characters. Next time I read one though, I'll pay extra mind to how I feel at the moment.

Good post. Thanks.

Shelley Sly said...

I'm glad you differentiated between the cliffhanger and the unfinished business endings. Cliffhangers drive me nuts, but I'm a fan of unfinished business, because like real life, not everything ends up neatly wrapped. I prefer the UB ending to books where every single thing turns out perfectly.

Michael Horvath said...

I prefer an ending to have "unfinished business". Even better is an ending where the characters don't really have unfinished business yet still have adventures left in them if the author so chooses.

Stephen Tremp said...

I don't like cliffhangers. I don't want to wait a year to pick up where a book left off. There can still be unsettled conflict, but still I do not care for cliffhangers.

lbdiamond said...

I like cliffhangers at the end of chapters, but not at the end of books. Even if it's a series, I need to have at least some closure.

LTM said...

I agree w/LBD--cliffhangers at the ends of chapters are a GREAT way to keep the pages turning, but at the end of the book, man! I want at least mostly resolution. I've been seriously ticked lately at the endings of certain books...

THG is a great example of how to do it right. :o) <3

Movies on my Mind said...

My life is a cliffhanger. I also like the movie Cliffhanger.

Rusty Webb said...

Literary cliffhangers are evil. I hate them and feel like I've wasted my time when I've had to deal with them unexpectedly. There have been some that worked, well, that's not the right word, tolerated I suppose. But not many.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I think you know how I feel on this topic, especially on a certain book than ended with a cliffhanger but there will be no sequel. So pissed at that. It makes me leery about the author's next book.

I prefer books that have unresolved business verses those that end with a cliff hanger (like in Catching Fire).

SA Larsenッ said...

There's definitely a difference between unfinished business at the end of novel and a cliffhanger with no closure. Life doesn't come complete with smooth edges, and the events which form us as people (and our characters as realistic and relatable) don't have neat endings. But there's always a silver lining in each event in our lives, which brings us some closure and fills a void. That's what we as writers need to do.

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