Brain Break (English Class)

Cliffhangers: When to Leave Your Readers

Cliffhangers can be useful plot devices - when employed properly
Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Picture this: You’re reading along, engrossed in a chapter (or book), and WHAM! The world screeches to a halt as you tumble over an unexpected cliff. There’s nothing after a pivotal sentence except blank space. You’re compelled to turn the page. Forget what time it is, how much work you must address the next morning, or how often your partner has turned over to avoid the light. You MUST discover the answer. Cliffhangers were DESIGNED to capture a reader’s attention. And they’re usually effective. But they can also backfire on you and send your book hurling through the air to smack the wall. Or even convince a potential reader NEVER to pick up the tome in the first place. So they must be handled carefully – if at all.

The Evolution of Cliffhangers

Most people credit the beginning of the madness with One Thousand and One Nights. Scheherazade never ended her stories because she wanted to prolong her life. The continual suspense allowed her a stay of execution. (Not something plaguing today’s authors)

And from there, series writers like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy left characters’ fates in questionable states to encourage readers to pick up the next installment. (Hardy actually dropped a character off a cliff!)

The term became popular in the 30s when filmmakers chucked people over the edge in serials. The anticipation of danger increased pulses and breathing rates. And with that suspense over people’s heads, they HAD TO KNOW what would happen. It boosted ticket sales, and the whole “to be continued” gimmick was born.

Writers adopted similar ideas, leaving their endings ambiguous in hopes that readers would pick up the next installment in a trilogy, duology, or series. (Though the whole cliff bit fell out of favor) It was almost a requirement. If you planned to continue the story, you needed to leave your protagonists “hanging.”

Otherwise, were you even writing a series?

Enter the Wrinkle

But problems started arising.

For one, readers started seeing the same pattern in cliffhangers:

  • So-and-so is actually a prince/princess
  • The villain is the protagonist’s parent (the Darth Vader conundrum)
  • That useless bauble they dismissed in Chapter One is the key to the universe
  • It’s not a moon, it’s a space station
  • It’s not a cat/dog, it’s a dragon
  • They DID fall off a cliff/plane/planet
  • Turns out so-and-so died before the book started

You get the idea. Instead of being a cliffhanger, it turned into a groan fest. The reader lost interest and didn’t feel like picking up the next book in the series. (Or reading the next chapter, if that was the case) Because the writer broke a sacred promise and went CLICHE.

You can’t do that.

As a writer, you deliver something new and unique into your readers’ hands. You’re promising to keep them interested and riveted from beginning to end. You’re not rehashing something they’ve seen a thousand times before.

Nor are you leaving them dangling for the sake of a gimmick (the other major problem with cliffhangers). Because no hard and fast rule says a book MUST end with a “to be continued” to be successful. And a poor ending does not forgive a brilliant piece of writing. (Trust me on this)

Think of the amount of time between the (average) publications. Most readers will have to wait a year before seeing the next volume. Is your “twist” ending worth that delay? Or will it be so irritating and unnecessary that they won’t bother picking up the next book?

When to Wield Cliffhangers and When to NOT

I have mixed feelings about cliffhangers. I’ve seen them done well, and I’ve wanted to shred books where they felt tacked on for no good reason. I’d also rather see them between chapters than between books. (Because I’m impatient and don’t want to wait months or years to get my answers)

Between chapters, you build suspense. You add revelations and take your reader on the journey. It’s the perfect place to throw in those “but wait!” moments that catch a person’s breath and take them by surprise. I’ve lost MANY hours of sleep due to well-placed questions, one chapter after the next.

At the end of a book, I find them tedious and irritating. It’s a gimmick for gimmick’s sake at this point. Because if you’ve written your book well, readers will buy the next one in the series to find out what happens next – whether you leave your poor protagonist hanging from the side of a cliff or ensconced within the safety of a home. All you need is a plot with unresolved issues – not a death ray poised at the planet. Solid writing and storytelling are what make readers fan of your work.

Not shoddy plot devices.

I have a friend who refuses to read books with cliffhangers for this very reason. And I don’t blame her. It’s lousy and lazy writing.

There’s no reason you can’t tie up the major plot points while still leaving a broader story arc unresolved. (Think of it like those extra clips at the end of a Marvel movie. They’re unrelated to the main plot but essential in terms of the universe) You’re leaving yourself open without ticking off your readers – who’ve invested in you up to that point.

Don’t penalize them for the work.

Using Cliffhangers Responsibly

I currently have two serial works on my plate: a five-book series and a trilogy. Each time, I’ve wrapped up the primary plot by the end of the book. (I promise plenty of cliffhangers within the chapters, though – that’s what moves everything along)

But there’s ONE unresolved issue left dangling by the time I reach that ending. One question left burning in the reader’s mind to encourage them to hang around. (Okay, so it’s actually more than one, but you get the point)

It’s a responsible use of my writing.

And it’s what I like to see when I’m reading. I’m more likely to pick up the next volume when that happens. Because I feel like the writer has honored me as a reader. They understand the commitment I make when I sit down.

Instead of laughing in my face and mocking me with some lousy plot device and a cliche.

I’m not saying you CAN’T use your cliffhangers but think them through. Leave them out if you’re not contributing something WORTHWHILE to the ENTIRE story. Respect your readers enough to recognize where they’re needed. And where they should be dropped. (Yes, of course, pun intended)

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