Endings: Cliff Hangers

 CliffHangers Writing Endings Developmental Editor

Endings are one of those things that every book has to have. Your book will end at some point; it’s part of how stories work. Endings are, however, important. There’s a saying that does the rounds which states that your opening will get you readers, but the ending makes fans. That means that the ending needs to be memorable, in a positive way, so that readers feel the need to come back for more.

As with most things in life, there are many different ways to end it. Of course, your ending needs to work for that particular book. This series looks into the various types of ending, which stories they work for, and how to pull them off.

This particular post is dealing with cliffhangers.

Endings are important, and they’re not as easy to pull off as it may first appear. The first ending that we’ll be looking at in this series is the cliffhanger. This is a popular ending for those who’re writing a series, the idea being that it’ll leave the reader needing to buy the next book.

First of all, what exactly is a cliffhanger? A cliffhanger is a plot device used to try to make the reader read the next installation in the series. They do that by having the main character either face what appears to be a big revelation, or put into a precarious position in the final scene.

For example, you could have a literal cliffhanger. Bob, the knight in slightly dull-grey armour, could be left literally hanging off a cliff in the final scene. That would then encourage readers to grab the next book because they want to know what happens to poor Bob.

The broad idea is all fine and great; you leave the reader desperate to read the next one. Now, there’s a potential problem or two with that. First of all, they only work if your character development and plot are absolutely sparkling so that the reader cares enough that they do go out and buy the next book. If they’re not invested in the story and they just shrug at the idea of poor Bob plunging to his death, then your cliffhanger isn’t going to work. Don’t forget to build the tension before the cliffhanger, too. You can’t just tack it on the end, the anticipation has to grow and the tension needs to be there so you don’t confuse the reader.

Secondly, a lot of people don’t like cliffhangers. They’re not satisfying. You leave your readers in a state of limbo. Not everyone likes limbo. Leaving your story on a cliffhanger is a risk that could lose you readers.

Thirdly, they have to come at the right point. Cliffhangers in and of themselves are not satisfying. That means that the plot arc before the cliffhanger has to have some vague sense of completion about it. There has to have been some form of resolution and progress. There can’t be complete resolution, otherwise Bob wouldn’t be hanging off that cliff, but there has to be something. Perhaps dear Bob actually grew up as a gardener and he worked every night in the armour-shining quarter in the hopes of becoming a knight. He was finally chosen and became a knight, yay for Bob! Unfortunately, Bob’s first knightly task didn’t go so well and now he’s hanging off the cliff.

See, the reader gets the satisfaction of seeing Bob have his hard work pay off and become a knight. There’s some satisfaction there.

So how do you know if a cliffhanger ending is right for you?

  1. Your book needs to be in a series. A cliffhanging ending on a standalone novel will drive people mad. The entire point is to encourage them to buy the next book.
  2. Your readers have to love your characters and absolutely need to know what happens next. If they’re not completely invested, then they’re more likely to walk away frustrated than buy that next book. Don’t forget to build the tension before the cliffhanger as well. No tension means that it pops up out of the blue and confuses the readers.
  3. It has to come at a point in the plot that can still offer some satisfaction to the reader. An unsatisfied reader, much like an unsatisfied lover, will be unlikely to return any time soon.

Cliffhangers are something of a risk, but they can be pulled off and they can be useful when you’re writing a series. I’m not a fan of them, myself, but there are plenty more readers out there than just me.

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3 thoughts on “Endings: Cliff Hangers

  1. My debut novel ends on a cliffhanger. Not only was it the natural ending for the first book, but it also opened the door for the second book in the series. I know a lot of readers don’t like being left wondering what’s going to happen in a story, but as I found out, cliffhangers can gain an author fans just as you said. Would I change the ending to my book just to satisfy readers who hate cliffhangers? Nope! If I could change anything, I would have released the second book sooner. That’s my one piece of advice about cliffhangers. Get the next book out ASAP!

    Thanks for taking time to talk about cliffhangers. You made some great points. I just wish I could convince you to occasionally enjoy a good cliffhanger. I absolutely agree that readers have to care about the characters in order to care about the what happens in a cliffhanger. However, I truly believe when done right, a cliffhanger is a powerful device. After all, the only thing I remember about the television show Dallas is that JR got shot and viewers had to wait until the next season to find out who shot him. People may have grumbled, but they tuned in months later to find out. 😉

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    1. I absolutely agree that cliff hangers can be a great tool, it’s not that they can’t be done, it’s that I haven’t read one I liked yet. 🙂 I think you’re right about getting the next book out quickly though, you want to make the most of that need and momentum.

      Thanks for stopping by and I wish you the best of luck with your books. 🙂

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  2. Cliffhangers can be a great way to end a book, but, like the article says, make them stick out in the reader’s mind. On more than one occasion, I’ve read a book with a cliffhanger in an unfinished series. Eventually, I would get tired of waiting for the next book with so little to go on with and lose interest in the series entirely.

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