I hate cliff hangers. But I can qualify that. I hate them at the end of full length books after you’ve spent days reading a story, getting really involved, then coming to the end only to find that the story either doesn’t end, or it ends, but then starts again but you’re left hanging, wondering whether the hero or heroine will live or die. I see this kind of thing as a cheap way for authors to get readers to buy the next book. I have been known to throw such books across the room in disgust and refuse to buy the next one – or any other from the same author.
However. I do believe that cliffhangers:
- can be done well so that they don’t cause the reader such frustration;
- are appropriate in certain situations.
How not to frustrate the reader:
- Make the next book is available – or not more than a month away from publication;
- Conclude all the main themes and story arc satisfactorily so they feel that the book has been concluded;
- Don’t leave them panicked about the outcome for the protagonist – perhaps it’s a matter of inconvenience rather than death;
- Advertise the books as a serial, and the installments as episodes.
The episodal structure
Think of television series. They have episodes, and like any good episodic format, though each episode is a separate story, they lead into the next with a hook that makes you want to keep reading. We know what to expect when we watch something that is in episodes, but then, these episodes are by nature short; they take no more than a couple of hours of our time.
You could say that the individual books in a series are the same as episodes in a serial and that therefore blatant cliffhangers are perfectly fine in a 90,000 word novel, but I disagree. A series of full-length books is a series of full-length books, not episodes. In full length works, each book must stand as a complete story, whereas one episode in a serial it is only part of a longer story. They can have hooks to make you want to read on, but a hook is not the same as a cliff hanger. A cliff hanger keeps you hanging. A hook gives you a reason to read on. An open end that suggests there is more coming is an option too.
Literature has been published as serials since Dickinson’s time, but then the readers knew they were reading a serial. They also knew they’d get the next installment the next week or month. They didn’t have to wait for years for them. And the hook at the end was expected and even added to the overall excitment of the reading experience.
Length of episodes
One of the thing I love about ebooks is that books can be any length from a short story to a 400 page tome. I particularly like what I call the movie length book, a book you can read in the time it one evening or roughly the time it takes to watch a movie. These kinds of lengths are fine as episodes in a serial and I don’t mind cliffhangers at the end, so long as the above criteria are met as well, particularly the point about that particular episode having a sense of conclusion.
I don’t consider a full length novel of 70,000 words or more suitable for an episodal structure. Cliff hangers on full length books usually annoy me, so much so that I never thought I’d write a clifhanger EVER. I shan’t on a long book, but I just have on a movie length one.
How I found myself writing a cliffhanger
The first part of The Rise of the Aether Mages appears in The Locksmith’s Secret and it ends with the heroine Nell hanging onto a rope trailing beneath an airship that has just taken to the sky. This is clearly a cliffhanger, but it’s only one story thread in a book of many threads and all the others are tied up. It’s not the main story, and I have just finished writing the full story. I could have ended it in a cliffhanger, because there are more books to come and the story seemed to end nicely on a point where, though the main battle is over, they still aren’t safe. This is what set me thinking about when cliffhangers were okay and when they weren’t, but in the end I just couldn’t do it.
I considerd making The Rise of the Aether Mages movie length episodes – 30,000 words – which I would later publish as a box set, but I ended up going for longer books. Part of the reason was because releasing a book is a lot of work and money and I didn’t want to do double the work for what would be less money since I couldn’t charge as much for them. The main reason though was that I didn’t want to piss off my readers, and I didn’t want to be in a situation where I felt pressured to get the next one out.
Do you think cliffhangers are okay? In what circumstances? With what provisos? How close together do you think the episodes need to be published?
Please share your comments. I love to hear what you thnk.