Don’t leave readers hanging off a cliff

Writers of series books have gotten into an ugly habit lately. They leave readers hanging, either by giving them a cliffhanger or just arbitrarily picking a stopping point for one book. You can tell by some of the one- and two-star reviews on Amazon that readers are sick of this game of “you have to buy the next book to see what happens! Bwa ha ha!” A novel is not an old-timey cinema serial, even if it is part of a series. A novel should have a satisfying ending. Not simply a stopping place.

Loose threads are tied up before the climax.

Once you’ve written your dramatic climax, you don’t want to then spend another three chapters wrapping up all your loose ends. The denouement—the final part of the story, in which the loose ends are tied up and we see the ramifications of the climax—should be relatively brief. If your denouement goes on for more than a chapter or so, you’d better have a good reason.

In Jill Williamson’s From Darkness Won, the final book of her Blood of Kings trilogy, the denouement is much longer than usual. The rightful king, having defeated his enemies, must recover from the final battle and settle into his new life. The denouement goes on for 66 pages, which would usually be too much for a single novel. But since the entire series is an epic fantasy consisting of three hefty books totaling 1831 pages, Williamson can be allowed some extra time to wrap things up. In a 250-page romance novel, you couldn’t get away with that.

When you’re writing a series, and doubly so if you’re writing a stand-alone novel, don’t leave a subplot hanging at the end of the book. It’s OK to have some ambiguity, but major issues should be resolved. I have frequently been asked by readers—not writers, mind you, readers—why so many writers these days don’t resolve their stories. They seem to just stop writing, as if they got bored and stopped.

Do not do this.

Photo by Maira Kouvara

You can lay groundwork for a sequel, but don’t put the inciting incident of book two at the end of book one. It’s OK if an event in book one will lead to the events of book two, but book two should have its own inciting incident.

Let’s look at Star Wars again. In Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo is frozen in carbonite for delivery to Jabba the Hut. That’s an important subplot, and does leave us in suspense. But the major plot is Luke training as a Jedi and rescuing Leia and the rest of the crew. That Han is still in captivity would seem to be a cliffhanger.

But it’s not, really.

Imagine if Return of the Jedi had never been made. The principal story would still have been resolved. It’s kind of a downer of an ending, because Han could remain that way forever, but Luke and Leia have escaped to fight another day. The End.

Only it’s not the end.

You could argue that Han’s capture is the inciting incident for Return of the Jedi, but I think not. The bit at the beginning of Episode VI when Leia and the team infiltrate Jabba’s lair to rescue Han is a prologue, much in the style of the prologue at the beginning of many James Bond films, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is the scene where we meet the heroes in action and learn about their storyworld.

I would say the inciting incident in Return of the Jedi is when the Alliance learns about Death Star 2 and makes plans to destroy it. If that briefing scene had been the end of Episode V, we’d have been outraged. But because the story broke where it did, Empire Strikes Back has a complete ending, if a bit dismal.

An unsettling ending can work. J.K. Rowling does this in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, though the ending there is much more final than Han’s capture. In fact, throughout the Potter series, Rowling does an excellent job of wrapping up the ending of each story while laying the groundwork for the next. If you’re writing a series, her books and Williamson’s are great examples of how to do it right.

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  1. YES! One of my pet peeves these days–and it is massively prevalent in YA–is when a first book is nothing more than a set-up for the series. There is no resolution; it just feels like 400 pages of first chapters.

    The sad part is, I think people are coming to expect it. Even though you’ve heard complaints from readers, something must be working with that tactic, because it’s selling books. I’ve actually even wondered if I hurt my own sales by having an actual resolution at the end of my first book–like maybe it didn’t leave people hanging so they automatically want to read the next one right away. But I just can’t do that, because it is something I hate.

  2. Great points, Kristen. I especially found your comments about the falling action of a novel helpful. This is one area I had to work on when writing the first installment of my fantasy series. I’m still not certain I shortened my ending enough. 🙂

    1. Well, you don’t want it to be too short, either. This is where good beta readers can help. It really is too hard for us to judge our own work.

      And I’m sorry it took so long to reply; your comment got spam filtered for no good reason. 🙁

  3. My feeling is that people buy the series books in spite of those cliffhangers, and not because of them. But it could be that there are just two factions—people like you and me who hate that practice, and another group of people who love it. But I’ve never met any of the latter.

    And may I say, Finding Angel is another book that does a good job of hinting at its sequel without contriving a cliffhanger.

  4. […] we noted last week, this is possibly the most overlooked element. Too many authors and editors these days are just […]

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