Cliffhangers — A Love Hate Relationship

By Sherry enjoying unusually nice summer days for August in Northern Virginia

Almost everyone my age will remember the summer of “Who Shot JR” from the TV show Dallas. JR (a nasty, manipulative man) is shot, but the audience doesn’t see the killer and had to wait until the fall to find the answer. I don’t even remember who the killer was, but I do remember all the speculation.

The first cliffhanger I remember in fiction was in a Janet Evanovich novel High Five. At the end of the book Stephanie Plum calls a man and asks him to come over. He shows up, but we don’t know if it’s Joe or Ranger. I remember getting to the end and having mixed emotions about having to wait a year to find out. You can bet I bought the next book in the series as soon as it was published.

Shows from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead to Friends to Downton Abbey have ended seasons with cliffhangers. And authors such as Susan Collins (Hunger Games series), Stephan King (Dark Tower series — readers had to wait six years for the next book), and J.K. Rowling have all ended books at a suspenseful moment.

There is some disagreement about what a cliffhanger is. Some people think it’s any ending that leaves an unanswered question which means books like Gone with the Wind, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Gone Girl are books with cliffhanger endings. To me those endings seemed more ambiguous than cliffhanger. While researching cliffhangers I came across a Pub Crawl blog by Erin Bowman. You can read the full blog here. She makes a distinction between hooks and cliffhangers. It resonated with me.

One of the reasons cliffhangers are on my mind is because of how my fourth book, A Good Day to Buy, ends. The reaction to the ending has been interesting. People either enjoyed it or hated it – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. I wrapped up the crime, but I didn’t wrap up Sarah’s relationship woes. When I started writing the book it wasn’t with the idea of ending it with a hook big or small. It just came about naturally as I wrote the book. Sarah has a big life decision to make. I didn’t have room for another 20,000 words to resolve it. And I’m not sure seeing every little details of her though process/angst would make for interesting reading.

People are passionate about the topic. If you search “cliffhangers” you find lists of books and TV shows. One list on Goodreads is: Ending That Make You Want To Scream.

Novelist Charles Reade said, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

Readers: How do you feel about cliffhangers or hooks at the end of a book? Have you ever used one in your writing? How did readers react?







39 Thoughts

  1. Sorry, Sherry, but I hate them, in some cases enough to stop reading the series. At the least, I peek at the end of the next one before starting it to be sure it isn’t going to happen again (are you listening, Dana Stabenow? Don’t leave readers in limbo about the damn dog!) Your ending didn’t make me angry, nor did the Joe or Ranger cliffhanger, but others have, especially if they are obviously just setting up the next book and could have been left off entirely without damaging the current plot. I’m thinking of Susan Elia MacNeal here with last year’s book. If the new one pulls that trick again, I’m done. That said, if a series is clearly billed as a trilogy (or quartet or whatever) especially in sf/fantasy or steampunk, then cliffhangers are not unexpected. I just wait until all the books are published and read them in one gulp.

    1. No need too apologize! I’ve been fascinated about how people feel on this topic. When I started researching it made me realize how passionate people are. I think it’s more expected and tolerated with TV programs than in books. None of us like to be manipulated and I think cliffhangers can make us feel that way.

      1. Isn’t it a pleasant surprise, how involved our readers become with our (fictional) characters? I’ll admit I fall into that trap too–I find myself saying, “But she wouldn’t do that!” and I’m the one who created the character.

      2. Reply to Sheila: or at least you are the channel through which the character is speaking…

  2. Interesting distinction, Sherry, between cliffhanger and hook. We do have to be fair to our readers, but it’s always good to keep them coming back for more!

  3. IMHO, a cliffhanger has to be earned and not manipulative. I haven’t read your new book yet, but it sounds like yours is. A character facing a monumental life choice can’t make a snap decision. If she did, readers would be complaining about that! But to leave a mystery unsolved is another story, unless that’s the point of the book. In that case, all I’ll accept is dramatic irony – the characters don’t know, but the readers do. There are movies like that. Woody Allen’s rare drama MATCH POINT comes to mind. A character literally gets away with murder. Except the audience knows he did.

  4. The bottom line is, a cliffhanger is supposed to make you come back for the next episode/season/book in the series, even if you can’t admit to your friends that you’ve been following the whole thing from Day One. But if handled badly, that cliffhanger can make you reach for the remote or throw the book across the room, because you feel you’ve been manipulated by the author. Ellen said it well.

    But it can backfire. I stopped reading Janet Evanovich years ago because she/Stephanie couldn’t seem to make up her mind between two men. A couple of books of indecision, okay–but an entire series? She lost me. I’ve tried to avoid that “will they, won’t they” trap in my own books, and I’ve managed to draw things out from five to ten books, but by then even I’m tired of it. (Although it’s kind of fun to have readers come up to me at signings and say, “she’s gonna go with Hunk #1, right?”

    1. The love triangle is another topic that people love or hate! I still read Janet’s books. I would miss the love triangle aspect — probably because I love Ranger and would miss him. I read that Janet Evanovich said someplace that while the series has been written for years in Stephanie’s life it is something like three years. I thought that was interesting.

  5. I HATE them, because I have to wait for the next book, and, by the time it comes out, I have to reread the prior book(s) to get myself back into place to follow the sequel. This makes life extremely difficult as I DO have a real life beyond the many book series I am attempting to follow.

  6. Book series need a hook or at least a major interest in the characters and premise to keep readers coming back. Cliffhangers are for the money. Good for television(except when there is a writers’ strike) and good for chapters. Not for a book. If I buy a book and it costs me $7-20, then I am not getting my money’s worth if there is a cliff hanger. If it is a serial in a magazine, then say so. Finish the story or there was no point. A book is pulled together with a theme or point or a good reason to put the story into words. If the reader has to be sucked into it with a cliff hanger, the readers are cheated. I usually don’t go back to be cheated again. I don’t consider the Evanovich books cliff hangers but they are repetitive. Stephanie Plum is basically interested in sex and it is just part of who she is.

    1. I agree completely, Doris. One book our cozy book club read ended with a major issue unresolved and we were all really peeved. We all felt it was really unfair and we would not read the follow up book because we felt we were being manipulated.

  7. Interesting topic. I love reading series, so if I like a book, I’m probably coming back for the next one. I think in our genre, and in traditional mysteries generally, you have to resolve the mystery within the book (with rare, rare exceptions), but you can leave open questions about the characters personal lives. I do that in the second Maine Clambake Mystery and I will say if you look at Goodreads and Amazon reviews, some people like it and some people do not.

    1. I’d loved the end of Boiled Over. And I have to say the same about my reviews for A Good Day To Buy. Some people are like oh, can’t wait for the next one and others are like really? I’ve gotten more personal notes about this book than any of the others.

  8. Sheila and Ellen are both right. A character facing a major relationship or life decision that goes from book to book is fine. But the “will they-won’t they” is a delicate balance. I’m with Sheila – after a while I get irritated by the indecision. Just make up your mind!

    I think the story question – who shot JR? – needs to be resolved. And I’m not a really big fan of “I called this guy. I’m not going to give you his name. Open the door. He’s here.”

    1. It seems like a cliffhanger at the end of a season on TV is almost expected now. I’m still not sure how I feel about them. And I agree the story has to finish, the relationship status doesn’t.

  9. As a TV watcher and book reader, I’m very hypocritical on cliffhangers. I don’t mind them on TV. At the end of a regular episode? I love them. At the end of a season? How many days until the next season starts? (Two months until we find out what happened when the island blew up on Arrow or how they are going to get The Flash back, but I’m not counting.)

    In books, however, I am less enthused. It’s the time factor. I know it will be a year until I find out what happens next. Four or five months is about my limit. In that year, I will have read probably another 100 books, so by the time I get back to the next in the series, I won’t remember the details of the cliffhanger or the characters. Heck, I can’t always remember who everyone is in a novel. That’s why I need to be reintroduced to the characters, especially for the second book in a series. By book 5 or 6, I’m probably okay, but I’m getting off topic now.

    I am finding myself more tolerant of cliffhangers in books in the last couple of years, however. Maybe my patience is growing. Maybe I’m just getting used to the idea. I will agree that it needs to be something that feels earned and definitely not related to the main story line of the book but something that is either setting up the next book or an on going part of the character’s lives.

    Currently, I’m dying to know what happens next in a couple of middle grade series I read. But the next books in both series will be out before the end of the year, so I won’t have to wait too much longer.

    1. It’s interesting that your thoughts on cliffhangers have evolved. I know as an author I would never pull a “Who Shot JR” trick. And I knew when I ended A Good Day To Buy I was taking a risk, one which I likely won’t repeat. Don’t hold me to that though…

      1. You said, “One which I … won’t repeat. …hold me to that….”

        Have I ever mentioned my gift for selective reading? (And hearing.)

  10. BTW: I love this blog. You introduce me to your books and the books of other writers. I also can look through your index and read and reread guests and topics. Nicely done!

  11. I love to wonder about the personal lives of hee main characters and to not have all the answers on that front from book to book. If I like the characters enough to be curious about them it is sort of an exquisite torture. If I didn’t connect with the characters enough to enjoy the suspense I probably won’t read the next book in the series anyway.

  12. No matter how much I love a cozy mystery, if I see a cliffhanger in one novel it irritates me. If I see it in the next novel, I might not pick up another. It is the assumption that a reader will spend limited funds to pre-order the next in series, especially if it is a year away., that bugs me. I don’t mean a relationship or job challenge. I mean an accident, awaiting potentially harsh medical diagnosis, break-in, stalker and the like, At least on soap operas, one only waits overnight, or the following Monday. Sorry. I know you all spend much hard work, and a real piece of yourself, in your wonderful mysteries! It isn’t a criticism of each of you as people, but of the practice in this changing market.

    1. I think you make a great point. It reminds me of the car accident in Downton Abbey and waiting to find out what happened. It would have been entirely different if it had just been an argument. No need to apologize. And I think that is what we are doing leaving relationships dangling, not the main plot line!

  13. Hooks are fine. I love spending time with characters in my favorite series and they are all dynamic and those natural life changes makes hooks reasonable. The okay series have flat characters whose lives never change but your characters alone would keep me coming back to see what is happening, even without that BIG hook that is driving me crazy! lol I forgive you because I know that decision would be the focus of the blurb for the next book anyway. Still love you and your people.
    I hate real cliffhangers. Authors need to put those events early in the book and write a good enough story with great characters to make me come back. Too many cliffhangers fizzle out when we get to them and I feel like I have been cheated a bit. If someone can write well enough to make me anxious about an event, they should be able to make me want to read the next book without the oversized teaser.

  14. As long as the mystery is resolved, a relationship cliffhanger can be a wonderful thing. It captures my interest as a reader and I’ll definitely buy the next book. As a writer, it’s a good technique and alows for flow into the next book. Either way it is a win in my opinion!

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