We’re lazy, guys. It’s kind of a law of nature to look for the easiest way of doing something, and then to do it that way, if at all. So it’s understandable if you’re constantly overcome with the urge to cut corners, or to take the low road. As writers, of course, we’ll hope for tricks that will allow us to write scenes of interesting drama without requiring any deep thought or focus on our part. So when we’re examining our writing, we should be aware of our deeply seated instinct to avoid difficulty, and seek out and remedy all instances of laziness. And cliffhangers are often lazy.
A cliffhanger is an ending that deliberately leaves the audience in suspense, usually with the conscious aim of building expectation for another book, or episode, or movie.
Is he dead or alive?
Will Sarah tell Harley the truth?
Can Harley ever forgive?
How will the Duke boys get out of the mess they’ve made for themselves?
It’s a “literary tool” you’re all very familiar with, especially if you’ve ever been guilty of binge-watching Netflix Originals. No other storytelling device I can think of lends itself so neatly to marketing, and merchandizing.
Which is why your instinct to write cliffhanger endings is often (almost always) wrong.
Three reasons you should never use cliffhangers:
1. It’s not fair to your readers.
Your readers are looking for a good story, something worthy of focusing on for a while, and blocking out the boring stuff in their life. The act of reading is intimate. It requires a serious suspension of disbelief, which relies on a certain type of trust. When a reader gets to the very end of a book only to find that the answers they want aren’t there, it’s natural that they feel their time is wasted. And because the cliffhanger is such an obvious gimmick, the reader’s frustrations are much more likely to be aimed directly at the author—directly at you.
2. It really is a gimmick, no matter what, even when done well.
There’s no denying a cliffhanger can be fun to talk about. It allows us to theorize, and enjoy all the possibilities at once, before finding out what really happened. And when we find out what really happened, we’re usually disappointed. This should surprise no one, because the cliffhanger is almost inherently a calling card of bad writing.
3. It immediately displaces the importance of the book in favor of the next one.
We shouldn’t be perpetuating the superhero-series trope where we go see these films that are all basically identical to each other, and then everyone sits through the credits to see the stupid extra scene that sets up the next movie. This reduces the value of the work at hand by shifting the focus to the next installment in the series.
Three reasons why you actually should use cliffhangers:
1. Basically no one can pull off cliffhangers, but you can because you’re an all-time great.
I’m totally jealous of you. I hope I didn’t discourage you earlier. Keep up the good work. (Seriously, it’s good to push yourself to break the rules when you’re ready, when it feels right.)
2. If you’re writing a serialized work…
…as in, publishing just a chapter at time like, a la Dickens. When creating episodic material, you’re working with different narrative goals anyway. You’ve got to do what you can to maintain a following when your story unfolds just a little bit at a time. People get busy, and if they’re going to pick up your next release, they’ll need to remember you. A clever cliffhanger can be very useful in those cases.
3. If you’re writing a series.
Very similarly to the last one, I know, but cliffhangers also work in book series. Usually the early books in a series introduce the heroes, the villains, and the central problems, and the later books in a series go about unraveling those problems and dealing with the villains (and, in the good ones, introducing problems within the heroes). The cliffhanger can be a good way of wrapping up a book in a series, and reminding readers which of those problems still remain to be solved in the remainder of the series. Take Phillip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, which ends with Will discovering Lyra has been kidnapped. (If that’s a spoiler, you need to up your reading game.) Will has been advised to carry on without her but realizes he has a deeper connection to Lyra than he thought, and so sets off to find her. This cliffhanger succeeds not because of the tension and suspense of the kidnapping, but because it deepens the relationship between the characters, and reminds the readers that this relationship really is just as important as the other major aspects of the story.
We’d love to hear your thoughts, arguments, and favorite/least favorite cliffhangers. Just click below to comment.