Reading you under the table since 2012

Writing Series: The Cliffhanger Dilemma

by

Erin Bowman

When it comes to series, people seem to either love or hate cliffhangers. I’ve always been in the camp that prefers a cliffhanger-free story. This doesn’t mean I expect all plot threads to be tied up in a neat bow by the final page, but I do expect the story’s main conflict to be resolved.

Let’s quickly look at a graphic you’ve probably seen countless times before:

The character starts out with some level of routine comfort until the inciting incident occurs, or, as Sooz so brilliantly dubbed it, they reach The Point Where Everything Changes. From here, the character faces a series of increasingly challenging obstacles, until they reach the ultimate climax. The character overcomes this huge conflict (be it external or internal) and is left forever changed.

Most standalone novels follow this arc, as do some series. Harry Potter, for example, almost always ends with near-complete resolution. Harry beats Voldemort, has a resolving conversation with Dumbledore, and returns home for the summer with everything at peace. (I think Book 6 is maybe the only one that doesn’t follow this logic.) Series made up of companion novels–where the world is the same but the main characters/conflict unique–often follow this arc as well. A good example is Cashore’s novels set in the Seven Kingdoms.

But most series, especially those following a central character throughout, seem to have one of two endings: cliffhangers, which leave you hanging at the height of the climax, and “soft” cliffhangers*, which in my mind aren’t really cliffhangers so much as they are hooks for the following book.

Let’s take a closer look:

In a true cliffhanger, the character climbs a mountain of obstacles, but before they can triumph over the final conflict, the story simple ends. Right at the height of the conflict. This would be like if Suzanne Collins had ended THE HUNGER GAMES at the moment Katniss and Peeta popped the red berries into their mouths. They were selected as tributes, struggled through interviews, tracker jackers, mutts, and more, but we never learn if they survive the games.

Examples of the classic cliffhanger ending:

  • THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness
  • ASHES by Isla J. Bick
  • THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner

And then there are series that resolve the main conflict and go one step further:

While not every plot thread is resolved, the “soft” cliffhanger allows the characters(s) to triumph over the main conflict before hinting at even bigger conflicts on the horizon. Essentially, the reader glimpses the possibility of a new inciting incident just before the close of the book. THE HUNGER GAMES is a “soft” cliffhanger in my mind. Katniss and Peeta have survived the games but we understand there will be consequences for Katniss’ trick with the berries based on Haymitch’s warning before the closing interviews. We also witness building tension between Katniss and Peeta as they ride the train back to District 12. New conflicts for a new story.

Examples of the “soft” cliffhanger ending:

  • THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
  • UNDER THE NEVER SKY by Veronica Rossi
  • DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth

The line between hard and soft cliffhanger often depends upon a reader’s personal opinion and preference. For me, I typically need the main conflict to be resolved in order to feel satisfied with the 300+ pages I’ve just read. At the same time, a world, its characters, exceptional prose, etc, can all make up for a killer cliffhanger. (For instance, I absolutely adore Patrick Ness’ series, so a cliffhanger ending doesn’t mean I won’t like a book. Just that I might feel momentarily cheated ;) ) Regardless, both cliffhanger approaches have the same goal: entice you back for the next book.

But what do you think? I’d love to know if a cliffhanger ending makes you more or less anxious to read the rest of the series. And if you can think of more examples to fit the cliffhanger vs “soft” cliffhanger categories, leave them in the comments!

* “soft cliffhanger” is not a technical writing term, but it certainly explains a trend I’ve noticed in series endings.

Erin Bowman is a YA writer, letterpress lover, and Harry Potter enthusiast living in New Hampshire. Her debut novel, TAKEN, comes out from HarperTeen in Winter of 2013. You can visit her blog (updated occasionally) or find her on twitter (updated obsessively).

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39 Comments

  1. Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Well, maybe I’m a little biased since my novel ends in a HUGE cliffhanger, but I’ve always been a fan of a good cliffhanger. For me, I need a reason to read the next book, and if everything is resolved, I just can’t get up the enthusiasm (sometimes). Now, that’s not to say that I don’t want part or most of the conflict resolved. Like you said, I like to feel like the book was worth my time, and that something was accomplished. I just like a little (or a lot) of mystery in a book. It makes me run out to the store (or fly onto Amazon) like a mad woman to snatch up the next one. The book I just read, Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver ended in a mega cliffhanger, but the main conflict was resolved. I guess it was kind of a “soft” cliffhanger by your standards, but it felt HUGE. Now I’m dying to read the last book. Wheras with the first one that didn’t end in such a massive cliffhanger, I wasn’t as stoked to read the second book. It’s just my personal taste, but I’m a fan of the cliffhnager!

    • Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      “I like to feel like the book was worth my time, and that something was accomplished.” < – This! I think this is the biggest thing for me, even above cliffhangers. Because there have been novels with GIGANTIC cliffhangers that left me momentarily furious, but still desperate to get my hands on the sequel. (cough, cough–Patrick Ness!)

      I haven’t read PANDEMONIUM yet, but that sounds like a potentially new formula: The soft-cliffhanger-with-huge-twists ;) (I feel like CATCHING FIRE did this too! They survive the games but District 12 is gone! Peeta captured! Aghh!) Definitely a big fan of these types of endings as well.

  2. Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Your insights make a lot of sense! The only true Cliffhanger series I have ever read I think is The Chaos Walking Trilogy. Thankfully they were all out by the time I read them or I might have gone insane ;D

    The book I’m reading right now (FROI OF THE EXILES by Melina Marchetta) I’m told has a pretty substantial cliffhanger ending. Does this make me not want to read it? Absolutely not! However, I think that I am going into it a little more cautiously than usual. I know that I’m not going to be completely satisfied and I can be okay with that. At least until I can get my grubby paws on the third book (which comes out in Australia in September but doesn’t come to the US until March…uh yeah I don’t think so! how much is international shipping???)

    • Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      I’m reading The Chaos Walking trilogy for the first time right now (on Monsters of Men as we speak), and I can only imagine my reaction had I needed to wait a full year for book 2! That cliffhanger! Ouch!

  3. Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Brodi Ashton’s EVERNEATH is an excellent example of a ‘soft’ cliffhanger. The main conflict of the story is resolved, but the ending has something that still leaves the MC in peril. I’d have to say I like this type of ending because I get to see the characters change and grow in each book and I feel more vested in how they will deal with whatever their new conflict is.

    • Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      I haven’t read EVERNEATH yet! *runs off to update TBR list*

      But I’m with you. I really enjoy a new conflict that spurs new changes/growths in the characters.

  4. Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I’m with you–I want resolution to something at the end of a book. A cliffhanger is more likely to frustrate me than to make me want to come back, to be honest! But I love the “soft cliffhanger” you talk about, or instances where the main plotline wraps up but everything isn’t fine in the character’s world–for instance, in CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, the main character moves through the main plotline of each particular story, but the book ends with a war still on, so you know there’s more trouble ahead even if it isn’t set up with a new inciting incident.

    • Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      “A cliffhanger is more likely to frustrate me than to make me want to come back.” <– This is usually the case for me as well! (Of course, if I fall head-over-heels for the characters or world, I’m always convinced otherwise. It also helps if the series in question is already out, vs waiting to be pub’d.)

      Great example with Hornblower! I feel the same way about Harry Potter 1-5. Harry is safe at each book’s end, but we know Voldemort is still out there, so we can foresee new conflicts even without a direct hint at what they might be.

  5. Kirsty in London
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I’m a fan of your “soft cliffhanger”, Erin, and the Hunger Games is a fantastic example. Finding out how the relationships with Peeta and Gale play out would have been enough to get me buying the sequel, even without the threat of Capitol retribution. Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns wrapped the main conflict up well too, but hinted at worse to come.

    True cliffhangers usually frustrate me, but they’re a lot easier to bear when you don’t have to wait a year for the next instalment. Fortunately I got into the Chaos Walking trilogy when all volumes were already published, so I could devour them all back-to-back!

    Most dastardly cliffhanger ever? The final-page-twist-cliffhanger. Robison Wells, I’m looking at you. I’m furious, but it’s impossible not to buy the sequel now. You evil, EVIL man! ;)

    Daughter of Smoke and Bone left me dangling on the edge of my seat too.

    (Straying slightly off-topic… is anyone else who’s following the BBC’s Sherlock just DYING to find out how he faked that fall??? AAARRRGGGHHH! It is keeping me awake at night!)

    • Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      the ending to Series 2 Sherlock was so well done. so good. and SO FRUSTRATING. i hate having to wait that long for resolution! But if I were a true nerd with lots of time, I could watch it all in slow motion and figure out how he survived.

      • Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        I haven’t gotten around to Sherlock s2 yet, but I will say that TV has some of the most killer cliffhangers of all time! LOST made me want to pull my hair out almost each season. Supernatural, which I just cruised through, has a few crazy ones as well! (It definitely seems to be a bigger tactic in television than it does in books. And thank goodness, or I might go a little crazy!) :)

    • Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      “True cliffhangers usually frustrate me, but they’re a lot easier to bear when you don’t have to wait a year for the next instalment.” <– Yes! This, exactly! (I’m reading Ness’ trilogy for the first time right now!)

      Oh, and VARIANT! How did I leave that one off? Talk about a truly evil cliffhanger!

  6. Posted July 6, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I am definitely more of a “soft” cliffhanger girl. I think this is a combination of preference and habit: I want a book to stand on its own for my own satisfaction and because I’ve been trained as a reader to think that books have a beginning, middle, and end. I have been reading Cinda Williams Chima’s Seven Realms series, which have one series-long story arc; and it had been so long since I’d read a book that felt completely continuous with its sequel that I was quite taken aback at the end. But as with the Chaos Walking series (I plan on reading book 3 really soon!), I did not mind much… though perhaps mostly because I had book two at hand! I also wonder how much this is dictated by genre convention, as I know at least for me I am less irked by cliffhangers in epic fantasy and books with quest-based plot structures.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      “I also wonder how much this is dictated by genre convention, as I know at least for me I am less irked by cliffhangers in epic fantasy and books with quest-based plot structures.” <– This is really interesting. I hadn’t thought about how genre often factors into my reactions. (I agree with you on Ness’ books! I think b1’s cliffhanger may have driven me made had I not had the option to run out an immediately buy b2)

  7. Ellen
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I don’t necessarily have a preference. I’ve read a few books with crazy cliffhangers, where I’m sitting there with my jaw on the floor wondering why the next book hasn’t come out yet. (PANDEMONIUM, by Lauren Oliver, as was mentioned above. And yeah, that seems more like a cliffhanger than not to me.)

    But I’ve also read books with a more subtle resolution that still leaves a few fairly important questions unanswered, and I have a soft spot in my heart for those too. (Especially since this is the way my own novel ends.)

    I’m not sure. I can see the merits to both sides, I suppose, though I would say that cliffhangers only work in a series. I read a standalone novel when I was younger that I loved, but that resolved next to nothing in its ending. Needless to say I was super disappointed, and I didn’t read anything else by that author. If it’s a series, especially in book two or three, I’m much more game to endings with less resolution just because I assume there will be more books coming.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      I’m with you, Ellen–there are absolutely merits for both. And I agree. A cliffhanger only works, in my opinion, in series. A standalone with a few loose strings left up to the reader’s imagination is one thing. But a standalone with *no* resolution is not a type of book I’m anxious to read.

  8. Posted July 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I am adamantly not a fan of cliffhangers. They feel like cheap tricks into roping me to buy the next one–and if I truly loved the book and thus wanted to know what would happen in the next one, a cliffhanger isn’t going to incite me to read it, I’ll want to read it regardless. Even chapters that end in cliffhangers are annoying–I’ll often snap the book shut and put it away because I know that I’m being roped into the next chapter that takes off right after the end of the previous one. IMO, cliffhangers are just cheap devices and they’ll make me not want to read the next book/chapter more than they will make me want to read them, because I know/I’m conscious of being cheaply tricked.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      I’ve never minded chapter cliffhangers. I sort of love them, as they keep me tearing through the book, and I do love an un-put-downable book ;)

      But re: cliffhangers feeling like a “trick.” — I think this is why I struggle with them on occasion as well. I prefer some resolution, especially if I was digging the story. You say it better than me: “If I truly loved the book and thus wanted to know what would happen in the next one, a cliffhanger isn’t going to incite me to read it, I’ll want to read it regardless.” Yes. That. :)

  9. Posted July 6, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Erin, I love love LOVE this post!!! I am bookmarking it right now. You clarified so well thoughts about endings that have been milling around in my brain for a while. Plus, your visuals are fantastic! :D Personally, I love the soft cliffhanger. The interaction between Katniss and Peeta on the train really resonated with me when I finished THG, and it fed my curiosity without frustrating me. I am definitley a “soft cliffhanger” gal!
    Thanks for this post!!!

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      Thanks so much, Julie!! (So glad the visuals were extra helpful as well) :)

  10. Posted July 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I usually go for the “soft” cliffhanger. Ending a book in a straight-up cliffhanger just makes it feel incomplete to me, and then I start wondering why I just spent the past 300+ pages reading something that isn’t even done yet.

    On the other hand, I have a love-hate relationship with “soft” cliffhangers. I love them in that they leave me wanting more…but I hate them if I have to wait a year or more to find out what happens next (I’m looking at YOU, A Million Suns, Pandemonium, and Insurgent!)

    And one of my few problems with Harry Potter was how neatly Rowling always tied everything up at the end of each book. After seven books, it just felt a little repetitive to me.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Oooh, your soft cliffhanger example are excellent!! I so agree. I’m dying as I wait to see what happens in Revis and Roth’s final installments. (I haven’t read Oliver’s just yet.) At the same time, I’d rather be anxiously awaiting a book after a soft cliffhanger than had those novels all ended at the HEIGHT of the conflict. That would be torture!

  11. Posted July 6, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Love this post, Erin! You make such a great distinction between the types of cliffhangers!

    While I’m not a huge fan of regular cliffhangers (the one at the end of THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO was brutal!), I definitely love soft cliffhangers. The one at the end of CATCHING FIRE was fantastic.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Jodi! :) (And yes, TKoNLG nearly killed me!! How cruel!)

  12. Posted July 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I’m definitely more a fan of the “soft cliffhanger” ending. I feel like each book, even if it IS in a series, should more or less be able to stand on its own. Otherwise, I sort of feel like – well, why wasn’t this just ONE book? What if there’s a cliffhanger ending, but there is no next book? I’d hate to be left dangling from the edge like that. That said, I’ll still read books with cliffhanger endings, and usually, I’m dying to get to the next one because of those endings. Usually.

    Harry Potter is a great example of each book being more or less standalone (except for maybe the last 2) but with hooks for the next. The Percy Jackson series does this as well.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      “I feel like each book, even if it IS in a series, should more or less be able to stand on its own. Otherwise, I sort of feel like – well, why wasn’t this just ONE book?” <–Yes! This is how I feel about Ness’ trilogy. Even though I love the story, it feels like one, long story, not three individual stories that make up an even bigger tale, if that makes sense.

      HP definitely has that standalone feel in books 1-5. I haven’t read any of the Percy Jackson books. (I know! Shame on me.)

  13. Rissa
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I definitely prefer soft cliffhanger endings. True cliffhangers kill me. If I’m really into the book I get huffy. I would die if Hunger Games ended at the berry scene!

    This is a very helpful post. Those are some really good diagrams :D

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Rissa!! So glad the post (and diagrams) were helpful! :)

  14. Adaeze
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I can’t take cliffhangers, particularly if the book is long, even if I’d enjoyed it up until that point. If it’s part of a series, then I really prefer soft cliffhangers, if any. True cliffhangers really make me want to throw books across the room.

    Thanks for the post, especially the helpful charts! That’s yet another bookmark for my browser. :)

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      A brutal cliffhanger makes me want to toss the book across the room, too. Even if I loved it! And even if I want to keep reading! It’s just in that moment it’s so hard to not go, “WHAT?! Whyyyy?? Author you are so cruel to do this to me!!”

  15. Posted July 7, 2012 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    I don’t ind cliffhangers so much if all the books in the series have been published. Lol.
    Seriously, though, I’m still sitting at the edge of my seat waiting for the next installment of Born Wicked.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Completely agree. If the entire series is already out, a killer cliffhanger is much easier to swallow. (BORN WICKED! Yes! Can’t wait to see where that series goes next!)

  16. Jaime Lester
    Posted July 7, 2012 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    I am not a fan of cliffhangers. Not. At. All. I can’t think of one cliffhanger that I have been okay with. They tick me royally off. If I hear that a first in a series ends in a major cliffhanger, the majority of the time I will leave the book sitting on my shelf until the final book in the series is a month or less out from its release date. I just don’t think they are necessary if you have written a well rounded book with wonderful characters and setting and a plot that completely engrosses its reader. The “softhangers” are different. I like to get a little taste of what MIGHT be to come in the next book. That gets me excited. BUT I don’t leave the book feeling anger when I should leave a book feeling happy and saying “Wow! Best book ever!” Unfortunately I think that cliffhangers are here to stay. So for me, I will just be careful what book I start to read so I can leave it with that feeling of “Wow” instead of “NOOOOOO!” Thanks for the post!

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      That is a smart approach–letting the ones you know have cliffhanger endings sit on your shelf until the sequel is close to pub. (I might have to adopt this technique ;) )

      • Jaime Lester
        Posted July 9, 2012 at 3:20 am | Permalink

        Approach method warily. It is so very hard sometimes for me to wait on a book that I have been crazy over since it first popped up in the internetosphere. I literally have to sit on hands for a while!

  17. Posted July 22, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    Soft ones for me, please. I wouldn’t read a book knowing it ended with a hard cliffhanger. Any book should have a resolved storyline of some kind. If the story is going to continue as a series, I’m perfectly fine with open threads that give a hint of what is upcoming. I like these. They me go, “Oooo, I can’t wait to read what happens next! That’s going to be awesome!” Assuming I loved the first book of course. Or, if it is a series, to have a larger story arc that spans the series and continues to develop in each book, while still having a contained plot within each one. This element can be more cliffhangery if it’s pretty evident that it is a larger story arc that will continue to develop.

  18. Posted July 22, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    You know, I’ve always hated cliffhangers. In fact, some of the book series that I’ve read that have left the main issues of the novel unresolved at the height of action, I’ve never bothered to continue. It’s one thing to break chapters like that and have it flow into the next chapter, but completely different to leave a book unresolved. I want at least some resolution. I tend to not mind a soft cliffhanger, though — the ones that leave you with a little tease for the next book. Cassandra Clare did it with City of Fallen Angels, and the House of Night books do that as well. Although, I find with House of Night, I’m over it. After nine books, that dangling nugget is more frustrating than a driving force for the next book. I think author’s walk a fine line there. However, writing is an art form and subjective. One person’s pet peeve is another person’s treasure. The cliffhanger style just doesn’t work for me.

  19. Posted July 23, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    The best way to encourage a reader to trust you enough to read another book is not to insult them by failing to complete a story’s ending but instead stringing them along with barbs and hooks into the next book. The ending of a book should sing with completed plot and character arcs, not squeal closed like a rusty door not to be opened again for a year until the next installment comes out.

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