Is the Cliffhanger Ending Overrated?

This week’s video explores the pros and cons of using a cliffhanger ending within a series.

Video Transcript:

Writers are told all the time they need to end their scenes, chapters, and even books—if they’re part of a series—with cliffhangers that will force readers to choose between either reading on to find out what happens, or, alternatively, dying slowly and painfully of curiosity. But is this really good storytelling? When it comes to scenes and chapters, we can say that, generally speaking, cliffhangers are not a bad idea. In fact, they’re a very good idea when they keep readers racing through our pages. Really, the only the problem we need to be aware of here is making sure the cliffhangers don’t become monotonous.

On the other hand, a cliffhanger at the end of a book itself is an entirely different matter. The truth is most readers don’t really like cliffhangers at the end of a book. After investing hours in a book, with the goal of discovering whether or not the heroine survives her horrific kidnapping, only to find out they have to wait a whole year until the next book comes out, you really can’t blame readers for their frustration.

And yet authors keep slapping cliffhangers on the ends of books within a series. Why? Why do we do this? The answer, of course, is obvious. We want (scratch that, we desperately need) readers to buy the next book in the series. But the irony here is that ticking them off with a cliffhanger that leaves all the story questions unanswered is not the best way to endear them to us or our stories.

There are better ways to get readers to read on to the next book—not least among them strong plots, concepts, characters, and themes. If readers love what you’re doing, they’ll read on just to spend more time in your story world. When you’re writing a series, you’ll certainly have loose ends that will carry over from book to book. But there’s no reason each book can’t have a solid beginning, middle, and ending of its own.

Tell me your opinion: Do you like cliffhangers at the ends of books?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. The best example I can think of is Elizabeth Moon’s “Deed of Paksenarrion” trilogy. If I had been reading those books as they were being written, and had gotten to the end of book two, I’m not sure what I would have done. It’s not a cliffhanger ending per se, but the way Paks ends up was — for readers who fell in love with her as I did — devastating. I would say she (Moon) ended it properly: it was the kind of ending to make you desperately wait to buy the next book, not throw away the series in disgust. But it was still an incomplete ending, leading obviously to a final installment.

  2. I wouldn’t mind waiting a year – I do mind waiting two, three and four years or more (I’m still waiting for book three from Melanie Rawn’s Exiles. I actually think JK Rowling did a great job of ending each HP book but leaving you wanting (ok drooling for)the next. Robin Hobb also did this with her Farseer Trilogy (a fantasy I highly recommend) as have other authors. I’m a fan of this because on the off chance that the next book never gets written (think Robert Jordan) you aren’t left hanging.

  3. At the end of a book in a series, there should always be more questions; if all the questions have been answered, why would anyone want to read the next book?

    Further, the end of any book should evoke a strong emotional response from the reader.

    The cheapest way to do both of these is with a cliffhanger. But, is that really the emotional response you want to leave with your readers? Anxiety over whether a character will survive? Similarly, the deepest question presented to a reader is, “Will this character survive?” If that’s all a reader has as incentive to get to the next novel, it’s probably not enough.

    Brandon Sanderson, in one of the Writing Excuses podcasts, talked about how he liked to leave readers with a sense of satisfaction, or triumph, most of the time. This way, people will keep reading not out of fear, but to continue to feel triumphant, and positive emotions are always more powerful incentives than negative emotions.

    Then, there’s the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Thirteen books, one cliffhanger (at the end of the 12th book). *spoilers for the end of Changes and Ghost Story* One of the great things about the Dresden Files is that each book stands alone, yet fits neatly into an epic story arc. At the end of each book, the main plot is resolved. More questions exist, “Who’s behind the people behind the people behind the infiltration?” or “How will the war between the two groups go, and how will that affect the humans?” and other such things, but at the end of each book everyone’s saved, the immediately apparent villains are dead or captured, and Dresden’s probably recovering in a hospital. At the end of Changes, Dresden is shot and falls into Lake Michigan. And dies. Suddenly, the announced next book’s title “Ghost Story” takes on a whole new meaning.

    And that is how you do a cliffhanger ending. By not having a cliffhanger in the first eleven books, it’s obvious this isn’t just a cheap ploy where in the first pages of the next book Dresden will wash up on shore and be fine. This is real.

    But, on the other hand Jim Butcher has repeatedly said that the Dresden Files will be about 20 books long then capped off by an apocalyptic trilogy, so obviously Dresden somehow survives. Further, we know that the books are, ostensibly, Dresden writing a journal of sorts, so he has to survive, somehow, to keep writing the journals, or he wouldn’t have been able to write about how he died.

    So we have much more important questions to ponder than, “Will our hero survive?” which is stupid question anyway because the answer is always “yes” (unless the author has R. R. in the middle of their name). Instead, the questions are, “How does he survive? Who shot him and why? Will the next 13 books feature Harry Dresden: Ghost? Is he out of that deal he made?” In this way, interest and curiosity–not anxiety–keep people coming back for more.

  4. @Daniel: I’ve gone crazy sometimes even when the book *was* published. Just the trip back to the library can be excruciating with some cliffhangers.

    @mshatch: On the same note, I feel I was lucky to come to the Patrick Rothfuss party late, since he takes years in between his books. I’ve just finished up his second book and have only a few months to wait for the finale, rather than years. Little blessings! (Although, to be clear, Rothfuss’s books do a good job tying up loose ends.)

    @Sam: Excellent thoughts. Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors, in no small part due to his mastery in ending his books within a series. Leaving readers with a sense of triumph is a masterstroke. The emotion you leave them with is the one they’ll remember. If all they remember is frustration, confusion, or perhaps fear, then the only incentive you’re giving them to keep reading is their sense of curiosity – which is likely to be dulled with time.

  5. I think it’s really important to answer some questions and leave others to be pondered. My favorite kind of cliffhanger is not the one where we wonder if the character will live/survive but the kind that reveals a new chapter of a mystery. You’ve followed the main character through trials and tribulations and can count on them, but their circumstances leave you wanting to read more. I think Hunger Games did this well. We followed Katniss through everything but at the end of each book we knew there was more story to be told.

  6. Hunger Games is a great example. It totally tied off the plot, but ended with a killer hook for the next book. Had it ended, say, just before the end of the games, with readers wondering whether or not Katniss and Peeta survived, that would have been an entirely different matter – and readers probably wouldn’t have bought Catching Fire in nearly as great numbers.

  7. I don’t mind cliffhangers at the end of books, as long as they’re soft cliffhangers.

    What I mean by this is:
    I want all of the loose ends tied up with the main story line. I’ve hung on this long, darn well finish the dang book! However, in a series, I’m okay if there’s a relationship cliffhanger. I can think of two instances off the top of my head, both within Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. At the end of either 3 or 4, Stephanie puts to names in a hat–both the men she’s interested in. She pulls a name out and calls one of them, but you don’t know who until the opening of the next book. Something similar happens at the end of 17, although the circumstances are a bit different.

    While they made me want to read the next book, neither was a situation where I was going nuts for another year (or, in 17’s case, four months!)

    So, personally, I think it depends on what type of cliffhanger it is. I’m actually a little irritated with the ending of the latest Diane Mott Davidson. It’s not a cliffhanger, but the way it’s tied up, I want to read the next book, and it’s not going to be published until spring, a full 2 years after the last edition!

  8. Subplot cliffhangers are usually the best way to go. That way you leave readers curious – but not unfulfilled.

  9. I hate cliffhangers at the end of books. Beyond frustrating, especially when the next book won’t be out for a year or more. Not only the frustration of the long wait to find out what happens next, but I have to try to remember details so I won’t be lost when the next book is finally in print. And like you said, even when it is already published, the wait just to get that copy in my hands is awful.

    Lisa Wingate is one author who writes in a series, but each book is a stand-alone. That makes for a much happier reader. 🙂

  10. I agree with the examples of Harry Potter and Hunger Games above. Both J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins were masters at leaving just enough resolved to give us a sense of closure, but just enough unresolved to get us to want more. I’m planning to follow this approach with my series. Book 1 is part of a larger story and that needs to come across, but I also don’t want the ending to feel as though it’s incomplete, either.

  11. Trilogies are probably my favorite type of series. They’re limited, they fit beautifully into the story arc structure, and, because they’re all pieces of a whole, the details are easier to remember from book to book.

  12. @Jen: Can’t do better than to learn from the masters!

  13. I absolutely hate cliffhangers. If I read all the way to the end, I expect an ending. I don’t mind if there’s a series arc that is still hanging out there, but each book needs to wrap up its main conflict/plot. If it doesn’t and it just ends with “to be continued” I’m going to get ticked off. I feel cheated. I’ve even started making a list of authors I’ve read that do this and I absolutely refuse to buy anything else from them because of fear of being left hanging again. If someone writes a good book, I’ll buy the next because I want to. I will not buy one because the author thinks they have to “force” me to buy the next. If an author feels they need to do it this way, then I would definitely recommend adding that it’s not a complete book somewhere in the description so unsuspecting buyers don’t buy it if they have a real aversion to cliffhangers. I normally only post reviews for things I think are 4 or 5 stars, but I will give a 1 or a 2 for this type of book as a warning to other readers when the author hasn’t been forthcoming.

  14. The Hunger Games did cliffhangers well. I don’t know of any other cliffhangers at the ends of novels.

  15. @Rhonda: I would venture that most authors don’t finish with cliffhangers out of a deliberate attempt to manipulate readers. Most do it either because “everyone does it,” or because they think it’s a smart technique. As always, the best storytelling tool we have is our own gut instinct. If *we* wouldn’t like something in a story, we should always leave it out.

    @Aimee: I’m glad so many people are bringing up Hunger Games, because it’s a great example of how to do cliffhangers well.

  16. I enjoy ending my chapters with a cliffhanger style hook to the next chapter, and then beginning the next chapter with a great first line.

    As for cliffhangers at the end of books, the books in my series each consists of a complete story arc, one phase of the epic tale, with the high-level story continuing in the following books toward its ultimate conflict and resolution. Now you have me thinking about how I am achieving this and if I am doing it in the best way.

    The first book is a good example. For the entire story in that book, the protagonist has one goal: reach civilization. He achieves his goal, sort of. As he tops the last hill, he sees the city he has been struggling to reach. The city was laid waste by an apocalypse decades ago. “What do I do now?”

    The story of his journey to the city is completed, but the reader is left wondering what is next for our hero. The next book explores what he learns in the city about its former residents, their civilization, what befell them, and ultimately what he must do to survive without the help of civilization. Then we move on to the third book, then the fourth, then the fifth.

    I am excited and eager to get back to that part of the story in the next draft. I want to make it even better. Your post has me thinking about just how to do that.

  17. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, your most important consideration is figuring out what emotional keynote you want to leave readers with. What emotional keynote is most likely to have them coming back for more? If you can hit that one just right, the rest will fall into place.

  18. If I know a book has a cliffhanger ending (like, where the story just ends), I’m likely to wait until the whole series is published before I even start.

    I got burnt once on a cliffhanger ending, where the hero and heroine were trapped in East Berlin as the Wall went up, and the publisher decided not to publish the final book. Once bitten, twice shy.

    But the Harry Potter-type cliffhangers are great: where the major plot points have been addressed within the book, but you know there’s got to be something else to tie up the loose ends.

  19. I like to wait until the entire series is published as well. But, of course, it doesn’t always work out that way.

  20. A few loose ends are okay, but the main story problem should be resolved. I read a YA last week that ended abruptly on a cliffhanger. I wanted to toss it across the room but resisted for the good health of my reader.

  21. I think each book in a series can have, as you say, a good beginning, middle and end – but still leave readers with a sense of a major plot arc that has just begun to peak. Brandon Sanderson (who has just earned my respect even further with that snippet of advice I saw somebody else post above) does this with his Mistborn trilogy – at the end of book one you feel like you’ve been through a major conflict with the main characters. The plot and character arcs of book one are tied up very effectively, but there are enough hints of something bigger, darker and stronger at work to make you desperate to pick up book two.

    The other thing I think works really well is when a writer creates characters so lifelike and fascinating that you finish each book delighted with the way their arc got tied up, but also bereft at the thought of leaving these characters behind. You fall in love with them and so the delight of learning that there’s *another* book (or two) on its way is real and passionate.

    This happened, for me, with Kristin Cashore’s Seven Kingdoms trilogy – Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. Each book is set years apart from the other and has its own complete story told within. But by the time I finished Graceling I’d fallen in love with Cashore’s writing, characters and storytelling and I couldn’t get my hands on Fire fast enough. And what did I find in Fire? A continuation of Graceling’s story … but not what I was expecting, either. A story that was familiar but also fresh. I was left with two great, very different books by the same author, both of which had their hooks firmly in me. I didn’t need to be convinced to buy Bitterblue when it came out – I had it on preorder AND I bought the American edition (at extra cost as I live in the UK) because I wanted the beautiful cover.

    The three books are, in themselves, perfect and whole, with no untied ends and very satisfying character arcs. But Cashore left me with enough questions and fascination about the world she’d created to make me want to read every other book she wrote.

    Cliffhangers – the frustrating ones that don’t resolve anything – are not necessary. I’d rather read a book that ended the way it NEEDED to end, as its own story.

    I mean, I’m sure cliffhangers sell books quickly and ensure that readers will come back for the author’s next book. But so does good writing, and good storytelling.

  22. I love cliff hangers provided the series will be finished, what I don’t like is when a book series turns into a milking cow for authors or when the authors just can’t stop (in Russia we called it graphomania, a very common malady where I come from), I gave up on Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan (who was my favourite) and George Martin a long time ago, maybe I just grew up and serialised fantasy doesn’t appeal much to me anymore

  23. Totally depends on how the cliffhanger is done. I don’t mind when a new question is introduced but I don’t think the author should end the book in the middle of the climax. I just finished a book that did that and I won’t leave a review or read the next one. But, obviously people don’t mind too much because the book is in the top 300 paid at Amazon.

  24. It IS very frustrating to read a book and be left hanging in the balance for the next, sometimes even then, there’s another book beyond that that may answer the questions. I don’t mind loose ends that lead to a series, but to have a major character(for instance, in one book I read)who’s dying in book one and doesn’t end up curing the illness in book two, I get a little upset at. It makes me stop reading and question the story altogether as not worth my time.

  25. If an author writes a well-written book that engages me, I will read the next one. I don’t need any other enticements.

  26. I hate when a book ends in a cliffhanger setting things up for the next book. Unless it’s deliberately meant as an interlocking series where each book leads right into the other (like the early Babysitters’ Club books did), each volume should have its own self-sustained storyline. If it’s intended as part of a series, family saga, or trilogy, all the existing plot threads should at least be tied up by the end. Maybe leave some lesser things up in the air to suggest that there may be another book in the future, but don’t end on a cliffhanger.

    The Flappers series by Jillian Larkin does this, and it was so infuriating when the first book ended on a cliffhanger. I couldn’t finish the second book, but I’m told it too ends on a cliffhanger setting things up for the recently-released third book. Of course, I was even more bothered by how these books come across as Gossip Girl in period clothes and contain some anachronistic behavior and speech.

  27. @Shelley: That’s one of the downsides of e-readers: you can’t chuck frustrated books across the room. Punching delete just isn’t quite as satisfying.

    @Rosanna: I couldn’t agree more about using the power of good characters to carry readers from book to book. Sometimes I will read on, even in series that isn’t so great otherwise, if I love the characters.

    @Grigory: I agree. That’s actually one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of TV shows. The story and the characters can be great, but the manner in which certain story elements have to be stretched beyond believability to prolong the series drives me nuts.

    @Laura: We keep seeing cliffhangers for that reason: readers keep reading in spite of their dislike for the technique. The very fact that readers enjoy a story despite an annoying ending is a signal to authors that they probably don’t *need* to cliffhang to quite the extreme they may believe they do.

    @Traci: If you’re going to string readers along for months (or years) with a cliffhanger question, you need to at least have the grace to answer that question when the next book comes out!

    @Joan: Authors are insecure folk. We forget that, if we craft our story well, readers will love it just as much as we do and want to return to it perhaps even more.

    @Carrie-Anne: We seem to be seeing this a lot in the Hollywood blockbusters of late. They’re all set up to have sequels, but if they bomb at the box office, viewers are out of luck.

  28. “If readers love what you’re doing, they’ll read on just to spend more time in your story world.” –

    i found this repeatedly encouraging, thank you 😉

  29. You and me, both. 😉

  30. I remember a weekly cartoon strip called Tintin. Every darn strip ended with “To Be Continued.” Then one day I saw a hardback book of Tintin cartoons. Finally! I will find an ending! So I bought the book and over a period of weeks I read it and finally I got to the end and it said “To Be Continued…”

  31. Abbie Wilkes says:

    As far as Cliff hangers go at the end of the first in a series, I’m a bit stumped. I’ve outlined a trilogy and am now at the end of book 1. The climax is over- having involved defeating a devil beast which ended in the death of the protagonists brother. She is livid and goes to kill the woman responsible. By the woman reveals there is a place where the brother may be able to return from death. So protagonist determines to go. The end of book 1. Is this too much of a cliffhanger? Good or bad?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It sounds as you’ve neatly ended *this* book’s conflict (with the devil beast). As long as you’ve done that, it’s fine, even preferable, to create gripping loose ends for the next book, as the protagonist continues to fight the overarching antagonist.

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