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Leave 'em Hanging: Should you write a cliffhanger?

Many writers begin a novel with the intent to write a series. The desire is understandable. If you can hook readers with your first book and make them want to know what happens next, you’ve got a built-in readership for your second book. And your third. But how do you ensure that your readers want to come back for more? One obvious answer is that you write a great book. If you have compelling characters, an interesting plot, and a winning writing style, you will build a fan base of people who want to see what you do next. In addition to writing a great book, some writers consider ending the first book with a cliffhanger. What better way to entice readers to read book two than to leave them hanging at the end of book one, right? It seems like a no-brainer, but there are things to consider before you hang your protagonist out to dry.

First, let’s consider the typical story arc of a stand-alone book. When we first meet our intrepid protagonist, he is usually facing a problem. It may be an external problem (a UFO has just landed in his backyard and there are some strange-looking green men walking towards his front porch, and they don’t look friendly) or it could be an internal problem (he’s just lost his job and his wife has left him, poor guy, and he’s about to either buy a red Maserati or run off to a monastery). Either way, there’s a conflict, something he has to overcome. The rest of the book is a series of ever-escalating obstacles that our character has to surmount until we reach the final climax, the big doozy, the one thing he has to get through in order to come out of this thing okay. He either does come out of it okay or the Earth is destroyed in an epic battle with the aliens, but either way, there is resolution. We know how things end, we know where our protagonist stands. The tension has been relieved.

In a cliffhanger, the book ends at that moment of high tension. We get to the climax, we’re biting our fingernails, we flip the page, and . . . nothing. The end. Even among the group of readers who like cliffhangers, this is usually followed by a scream of frustration and then, hopefully, a mad dash to the computer to buy book two if it’s available or to sign up for the author’s blog if it is not, so they know the minute it is available. In our example above, the book ends just as a phalanx of alien ships shows up above our hero’s home, ready to blast Earth into oblivion. Does our hero survive? Does he save Earth? There’s no way to know except to buy the second book.

So, is this a good thing or a bad thing? There’s no cut-and-dried answer. Some people like cliffhangers, some people don’t. I fall solidly into the latter camp. When I finish a book, I want to feel like I’ve gotten a complete package. When I read a book that doesn’t wrap anything up, I feel like I’ve been tricked into committing to two or three books when what I wanted was to read one book and then come to the end of the story. Or at least to the end of part of the story, and this distinction may be where you can find some middle ground that will allow you to keep your cliffhanger-loving fans on the edge of their seats without annoying the people who feel cheated by a true cliffhanger ending.

The first type of cliffhanger I described is what is sometimes referred to as a “hard” cliffhanger. The main conflict has not been resolved and there is no relief of tension. But you also have the option of writing a “soft” cliffhanger. In a soft cliffhanger, the main conflict of this story is resolved, but there are still conflicts left to take us into the next book. This can either be a new conflict that is introduced at the end of book one in a “Whew, thank goodness we solved that problem! But, oh my, what’s this?” sort of way, or it can be an overarching problem that carries over from book to book. A good example of this is the Harry Potter series. In every book, Harry somehow conquers Voldemort and keeps evil at bay, but he never gets rid of him completely. We are left wondering what is going to happen next, what evil deed Voldemort will try in the next book and what Harry will do to stop it. We get the satisfaction of knowing that all is well for now, but the excitement of knowing there is more to come. The best of both worlds!

This isn’t to say that you can’t write a hard cliffhanger. But it is worth considering whether a soft cliffhanger would still serve your story, thereby allowing you to please a wider group of readers.

What about you? Do you like cliffhangers or find them annoying? Let me know in the comments!

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