Cliffhangers - A Good Idea or Not?

I have recently received some feedback from a few readers that they can’t wait for the third book in my Derivatives of Displacement series--which is great. But part of the reason they can’t wait is that I left some things dangling at the end of book two. And a few of my readers were a little frustrated. This made me start thinking a bit more about cliffhangers--are they a good idea, or not?

We all know those books, movies, and TV show seasons that end with a cliffhanger that enrage some fans. Do a search on cliffhangers that people hate and you will come up with a wide range of “cliffhangers” that caused a furor, such as: The Lord of the Rings, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Tower by Stephen King (and a lot of other books by Stephen King), Dallas (the Who shot JR? episode), several of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, Gone with the Wind, Gone Girl, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inception, The Hunger Games, and Catching Fire.

“Cliffhanger” endings can cause varying degrees of rage among fans depending on how the person felt the writer handled them.

I call them “cliffhangers” in quotation marks because they are not all strictly cliffhangers and there are variations in the definition of cliffhanger. In reality, there are various types of endings to books, shows and movies, that are on a continuum from an “every single thing is completely resolved ending” to a true cliffhanger. There are no commonly accepted names for the types of endings that occupy the middle of the continuum, and there is a lot of confusion with regard to which is which, with some people calling anything in which everything is not totally resolved a cliffhanger.

Four Types of Unresolved Endings

For the sake of clarity, I have come up with the following four types of unresolved endings:

1) A True Cliffhanger Ending

The protagonist, or group of protagonists, or key characters are in immediate peril (someone has just been shot but you do not know who, they are teetering on the edge of a cliff), and the book, show, movie just ends. There is a sequel or next season coming. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a perfect example of this.

2) An Ambiguous or Open Ending

The book, show, movie leaves the final outcome a bit unclear and allows the reader or viewer to decide what happened. No follow-up or sequel is planned. This is done for artistic purposes, where the writer has generally decided that the most satisfying ending is one that leaves some questions unanswered or that the reader/viewer knows that the adventure continues. Gone Girl and Gone with the Wind are examples of this type of ending. Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, notes that her ending was deliberate and that there really was no other option for her ending:

“First of all, I didn’t write it as an open ending to set up a sequel at all. It was the only thing that made sense to me, that made sense to what was true to the book and true to the characters. Amy’s not going to end up in jail. She’s Amazing Amy! You’re never going to find the aha! clue because she thinks she’s already thought of everything and that’s who she is. People think they would find that satisfying, if she were caught and punished. You know, when I’m at a reading or something, people will come up to me and are very honest about saying, “I hated the ending!” I always say, “Well, what did you want to have happen?” And it’s like, “I wanted justice!” I promise you, I just don’t think you’d find it satisfying for Amy to end up in a prison cell just sitting in a little box.”

3) A Dangling Plot Lines Ending

A dangling plot lines ending is one that ties up the majority of the story or the main conflict of the book or movie, but there are some (or many) things left unresolved, or there is some sort of tease as to what is to come, and the reader/viewer knows that the story will be continued. The protagonist (or protagonists) is not in immediate peril though—generally the protagonist has reached some generally “safe” location and is taking a breather. It is the writer’s intent to produce a sequel or new season. The Hunger Games has been described as this sort of ending. As one reader noted, this type of ending:

“[only ties] up some bits, but left me wondering what’s going to happen to so-and-so and what’s-his-name, how things will play out for the hero and heroine and why that-guy did what he did.” ~ Gina Bernal

Another reader observed,

“I don’t mind if they still have to finish the quest, save the world, get home or otherwise tidy up a few loose ends.” ~ Mara Ismine

4) A Closed Continuing Story Ending

This is basically a story in which the main story is ended and wrapped up, there are few dangling plot threads, but the reader/viewer knows that “the adventure continues”. So Indiana Jones movies or Law and Order episodes might qualify as this type of ending. There may, or may not, be a sequel coming, and it is not necessary to read or watch it to feel that a complete story was told. This is more like the ending where story is completely wrapped up, and then the phone rings and someone wants the main character to fly to Timbuktu immediately to start the next adventure.

Issues with Unresolved Endings

Even though I think it's pretty clear, not everyone agrees on what constitutes a cliffhanger. For example, some people describe the endings of The Hunger Games and Gone Girl as cliffhangers. In addition, there are some books, shows, and movies that straddle more than one category. The Empire Strikes Back is an example of an ending that could be considered a cross between a cliffhanger and a dangling plot line ending.

Many viewers and readers hate cliffhangers because they have built up their anticipation throughout the story that all will be explained and made clear, and then when they do not get their emotional hit and resolution at the end, they feel ripped off. Many readers also feel any sort of cliffhanger ending is deliberately manipulative and a cop out—that the writer just did not know how to end the book/show/movie, or that they were making sure the reader or viewer has to purchase or watch the next episode.

I do not think many writers are trying to be manipulative (really readers, we love you). Most writers want to give their fans what they want, and there are artistic and legitimate reasons for endings that do not resolve everything. Moreover, as a writer, especially one who is producing a series, in which really there has to be some dangling plot lines from one book to another in order to develop an overall three to five book arc, there is a really difficult line to walk in order to conclude every single book appropriately, build the overall arc, and prevent readers from getting impatient and feeling manipulated. Readers also get angry with stand-alone books because they want more.

Readers often want complex plots and books in a series, and depending on the overall length and complexity of the arc that the writer is trying to deliver, it is necessary to find appropriate break points between books and leave some things unanswered. However even if the reader intellectually understands this, emotionally they sometimes feel that the break point was chosen just to hook them into the next book, just like Scheherazade did in One Thousand and One Nights.

There are no easy answers. The bottom line is that readers want a satisfying ending. But what is satisfying and seems right to one reader may not be right to another. While many readers hate true cliffhangers, some people actually hate ambiguous or open endings more than cliffhangers because with cliffhangers they at least know a resolution is coming in the form of a sequel.

And yet in some ways an open ending (at least to some extent) is life. Unless all the characters die, life goes on and new and different things will happen to them. Sometimes a happy ever after ending is equally disingenuous. Nobody lives happily ever after no matter what the writer says. That happy couple will argue over diapers, who cleans the toilets, and where the new sofa should go.

So there is a balance between providing enough closure and leaving some things hanging in both stand alone books and books in a series. In a series, more things can be dangling, and in a stand alone book, fewer things should be dangling. However some readers will likely be upset no matter what the writer does.

Some people claim J.K. Rowling got it right. She left Voldemort alive, but tied up the immediate threat in each book. But don’t forget she had many plot lines and many questions that spanned the entire series.

Some readers say dangling plot lines or cliffhangers are okay as long as the next book is available immediately, or within three months. Other readers say dangling plot lines or cliffhangers are okay, but they are too impatient to wait, so will only start the series once all of the books are available. Yet others hate cliffhangers and dangling plot lines so much that they simply will not read books in a series. Other readers say that cliffhangers are sometimes okay if they trust the writer.

 How to Handle an Unresolved Ending Well

The degree of success of a “less than completely resolved” ending also depends on how the writer handles it. Some key approaches to handling it well include:

1) Avoid true cliffhangers if you can

Most readers agree that they prefer a story in which the main conflict is resolved, with some dangling plot lines over true cliffhangers. Readers will be far more patient with dangling plot lines as long as you complete the main emotional arc or a major subplot of the story or episode. As one reader observed:

“I want some resolution. I want a warm fuzzy moment. I want to know that the main characters are alive and as safe as they can be. I don’t want something really bad happening to one of the main characters on the last page.” ~ Mara Ismine

2) Consider your genre before you write a dangling plot lines or cliffhanger ending

Cliffhangers are more acceptable in fantasy and science fiction novels, but not in romances or mysteries where readers expect more resolution. Not revealing who the murderer is would be a poor choice in a murder mystery novel.

3) Make sure you have a plan for the larger plot arc and you know how the cliffhanger or dangling plot line is going to be resolved

Readers want to make sure that the writer knows what they are doing and have an actual plan with regard to the larger story arc. They point to movies such as The Amazing Spider Man in which the bit about Peter’s parents was a “placeholder” for the writers to figure things out later. As much as I loved shows like Lost, Fringe and The X Files, I sometimes felt like the writers were making it up as they went along and had no real plan. If you are going to introduce a bunch of questions and plot threads, you do have to resolve all or most of them by the end of the series.

4) If you are going to write cliffhangers or leave dangling plot lines, you had better produce your books quickly… or quicker than George R.R. Martin

Readers talk a lot of about the need for instant gratification and being impatient and that waiting a year for a next installment is too long. So producing the books quickly, or releasing them all at once may be desirable. This does make life difficult for writers as depending on how complex their book is (and for most of us, how much other non-writing work we have to do on the side). There is a time/quality inflection point, and rushing to get a sequel out to satisfy readers can in fact do the opposite if it is not of sufficient quality, so there is an important balance point here too.

5) If you are going to write a true cliffhanger, you had better ensure the sequel delivers

Cop outs such as killing only minor characters, as the writers did after the wedding cliffhanger in Dynasty, or never explaining what happened, irritate readers. If you are going to leave them hanging, it is your job to reward readers for their patience and do an amazing job with the next installment.

6) Ensure that the cliffhangers and dangling plot lines are not gratuitous

The series should end when the overall series plot arc comes to a logical end, and that ending should be satisfying. Tacking extra sequels on just to continue the party does not seem to appeal to readers.

7) It’s also important to ensure that you don’t end things too neatly if there are intended sequels

Diana Gabaldon did this in later Outlander books, making people think that the series was over when in fact it was not, and some people like me, stopped reading. Ahhh... can the writer ever win :-).

Other things that may help to deliver that emotional punch and leave readers satisfied if you plan to leave some things unresolved include: drawing attention to the bits that have been resolved, showing that your hero has a plan, and providing the first chapter of the next book as a teaser after the ending.

But there is no satisfying everyone. Some readers don’t even like cliffhangers within the book from chapter to chapter that keep them reading all night… And I thought writing a page turner was supposed to be every writer’s goal :-).

And cliffhangers or other unresolved endings can work. George R. R. Martin is the king of cliffhangers, and although readers often express frustration with him, he has no shortage of fans. Lost also did not lack for viewers, and Gone Girl does not seem to be suffering for sales.

None of my books have a true cliffhanger ending, and my readers seem keen for the sequels and excited about the unanswered questions, which is great. However at times I have also noted a tone of impatience or frustration in their comments, which was part of the impetus for this post. People often ask me when the next book is coming. I wanted to check in and see what the general sentiments were around unresolved endings and how long people are willing to wait for sequels. I learned a lot from researching this post. I am not sure if I can produce Book three any faster (it is coming in the fall of 2015) due to my other writing commitments and the fact that I want to make sure it is great. Moreover, I do have a plan for the overall arc of the Derivatives of Displacement series. However this post was food for thought in terms of trying to provide that truly satisfying ending while still leaving those dangling threads that pull your readers to the next book.

How do you feel about cliffhangers? Do you write them yourself?

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