Cliffhangers or Hang by the Neck until…

Written By: Lorrie Farrelly - Sep• 16•14



 Lorrie Farrelly  Serials Author

Lorrie Farrelly
Serials Author

I’ll say it right off: in general, I don’t like cliffhangers.  That said, I agree that some of the most enjoyable and successful series ever written have had cliffhanger elements. Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy, Lewis’ Narnia series, and of course, Rowling’s Harry Potter series, all have some long story arcs that were not resolved until the last book. Why were these authors so successful at luring readers to each next book without leaving them frustrated or disappointed with the ones they just finished?  In a word: closure. Whether in one of the books mentioned above, or in other popular series such as Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels,  each book has both an individual plot arc that is wrapped up and resolved, as well as a continuing arc or arcs that thread through all the books.

Series allow authors to develop, complicate  and expand the lives of characters over the course several books. Still, each novel needs to feel finished and complete to the reader.  Each episode requires a denouement- a satisfactory conclusion for the reader.

Last Book in Farrelly’s Series

Now, lets bring into the series fray Kindle Unlimited, a new subscription service sold by Amazon. For $9.99 a month a reader may download ten books  in one fell swoop and as books are read and returned, download another. However, authors do not get paid the for downloaded title unless the subscriber reads beyond 10% of the book before returning it. Here is what author Matthew Kadish suggests among others: Keep books short – 10-20 pages, or roughly 4k-8k words. This is to make certain if the subscriber only reads the first or second page, the 10% threshold is reached. The author gets paid. Break books up into serialized content if they are in KU-heavy niches. Kadish says KU heavy niches are Erotica, Romance, Mystery/Thriller, Short Stories, & Children’s Books. I am curious where Kadish is getting his information. We haven’t even had a royalty check on KU books yet. What authors in those niches he describes are giving him sales figures?  Nor has Amazon announced how many customers have subscribed to KU which has only been on offer for six weeks or so.

Do you think it is good for your writing career or building a platform of readers to chop your books  into shorts so that after every one and a half chapters you write The End?  Do you believe a reader will buy the next one and a half chapters without a satisfactory solution to a story, a love match or a mystery?

Here are a few comments from readers and reviewers: Do you agree or disagree?

“If the book is good, we will read the next one. Don’t stoop to tricking readers.” ~ Michele Biring-Pani, Raven Reviews.

“Even if another story… is to follow, that doesn’t exempt the story from needing its own ending. I expect that to be fulfilled each time I open a book, and I get frustrated when it’s not.”  ~ Victoria Grefer, Creative Writing with the Crimson League.

“Ticking readers off with a cliffhanger  is not the best way to endear them to our stories.” ~ K. M. Weiland, Helping Writers Become Authors.

“Endings… can make or break a book. A reader may forgive a weak beginning, but never a weak ending.” ~ Shiloh Walker, Heroes and Heartbreakers.

“I will never buy or read another series book until the  entire series is published.” ~ anon. Amazon Discussion Forum.

“I hate cliffhangers. I feel cheated.” ~ Reader. Same Discussion Forum.

It takes not only powerfully engaging characters and plot to survive an abruptly truncated story, but also the forgiveness and empathy of the audience. The Empire Strikes Back comes to mind; we all groaned when it simply stopped, but its engaging multiple plots – full of danger, adventure, and humor – and its beloved characters saved the day. I can’t think of many other instances, either in books or in film, where an abruptly cut-off story fared as well. Engaging characters and a strong over-arc will draw readers to a series. But! To keep coming back for more, readers need and prefer a well-told story with a satisfying conclusion to the episode portrayed in each book in the series. Authors who slam the door on a key scene and leave the reader dissatisfied may soon discover readers posting dozens of scathing reviews. It happens.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever read a book with a cliffhanger?

Did you buy the second or third in the series? Were you annoyed or complacent?


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  1. Jackie Weger says:

    Have Mercy! I despise Cliffhangers. Never have. Which is why I never watched soap operas. I lived an entire LIFE between episodes. My worst experience with a cliffhanger was when I bought a mystery novel. Crime not solved. I bought book two. Crime not solved. I happened into a discussion room and there was the author–saying she was having problems with the third book–and she did NOT know who to make as the murderer/villain! HUH? I didn’t have my snake gun on my hip. Get this–she didn’t plan to solve the murder until book five. Then she had a meltdown in her private life…no more books. I will buy and read books with series characters, such as Jack Reacher, but I am not buying serial books with no conclusions to the mystery/affair of the heart/crime.
    Jackie Weger

    • I’m with you, Jackie. The reader deserves a conclusion to the central conflict, mystery, or situation in a novel, whether the book is one of a series or not. Some issues, such as characters’ longterm relationships, may be carried from book to book in a longer arc, but the central problem must be resolved. It’s awful to invest hours in reading a book – especially one that grabs your interest and makes you care about the outcome – only to find it simply stops in midstream. Aaaarrrgggghhh!

  2. Thanks for mentioning my blog post in your article Mercy! The data I based my article on came from my own KDP sales figures as well as figures from other authors that belong to groups/message boards I frequent. Though we only really have 1 month of complete data, the trend is pretty obvious in terms of what genres seem to be attracting the Kindle Unlimited crowd. That said, there’s nothing scientific about it at all, just my own observations.

    I think it’s important to make the distinction that my predictions are more about what I see authors doing as opposed to what I think authors should do. We’ve already seen people begin to migrate to short, more serialized work, and KU actually gives authors a way to monetize their short stories and series better. Ultimately, I think the market will determine how authors use KU. The “shorter novel” tactic makes the binge-reading element of Kindle Unlimited users more acceptable, since readers can tear through more novels in shorter periods of time. That being said, it will always be dependent on the quality of the work. If authors just crank out bad material to game the KU system, readers will respond.

    I actually think cliffhangers are wonderful. I love that feeling I get when I finish a book and am so blown away I feel like “I MUST HAVE MORE!” Though readers by-and-large claim to hate cliffhangers, they actually serve an important purpose, especially when it comes to larger series. Cliffhangers can give a book a life outside of a reader’s attention span, because it will drive them to interact with other readers and theorize about what might happen. This is how loyal legions of fans are created. Though I do agree with you that books that have “closure” are necessary to a satisfactory feeling when you finish the book, cliffhangers will serve to keep that book in the reader’s consciousness long after they’ve finished reading it. Thus is the power of “open loops.”

    I also think it’s a fine-line between having an actual “cliffhanger,” and simply having a crappy ending. But hey, that’s what God made beta readers for! lol.

    • That should say Lorrie. Why I wrote Mercy, I have no clue. lol.

    • Readers certainly do have their own responses, Matthew, and not everyone reacts to a cliffhanger the same way. I suppose there must be a lot of people who love them, but for me, unless the book is one of those “choose your own adventure ending” stories, I like the author to actually write the whole book. I have to make up enough endings as it is for my own books. I don’t particularly want to supply an ending for someone else’s, even temporarily. 🙂

  3. Mike Markel says:

    I assumed Matthew Kadish’s suggestion to write books that are 10-20 pages long was a satirical comment on the frantic need we all sometimes feel to figure out an Amazon angle. (Did he say whether we should price these books at 12 cents? Can we do that?) I think we all need to take a deep breath, try to write the best stories we can–stories that conclude, not merely end–and trust that some readers will come our way. And if they don’t, we’ve still got good stories.

  4. Laurie Boris says:

    It depends. One reader’s “Ooh, intrigued, want to see what comes next!” is another’s “NOOOO! Too abrupt; I feel cheated!” Interesting food for thought. Thank you, Lorrie.

    • Thank you, Laurie. I appreciate your comment, and you’re right. You never know what floats someone else’s boat. But me, I just hate getting all involved in a story and then, Bam! It stops dead. I’m definitely the “NOOOOO!” type! 🙂

  5. It’s clear the whole tradition of book making and reading is changing, but I suspect this idea will have few takers longterm.

    I’ve read the first book of several series – some with cliffhangers and some with satisfying conclusions. The ones I’ve chosen to follow have all been those that were rounded off, so it was my choice to read the next. The couple with cliff-hangers, I chose not to continue with.

    Why? Partly because I felt a little miffed and didn’t want to be coerced; but mainly because the writing in those was not so good. That’s my main criterion for reading more of an Author – the quality of the writing.

    • I agree completely, Bronwyn. It does feel like coercion, doesn’t it: “If you don’t buy the next book(s), you’ll never know whodunit!” I can’t imagine wading through dozens of books over years and years to find out if Spenser ever solved a case. And you are absolutely right that the quality of writing is what keeps us coming back for more.

  6. Mary Smith says:

    I have enjoyed several series/family saga type books where the reader follows several generations of a family – but each one could be read as a stand alone. Enough back story was given to inform a new reader without irritating the reader who already had books one and two. Each book finished with a satifying ending.
    I would hate to download something which turned out only to be 20 pages. Even before the arrival of Kindle Unlimited I was fed up when I bought something by a favourite author only to discovere is was shorter than a novella (probbaly would have known if I’d read the blurb properly?)bt at least it was a complete stand-alone work but I certainly wouldn’t download something which was really only a teaser.
    Am feeling quite grumpy now!

    • I’m with you, Mary. And to add insult to injury, there’s always the writer who stops Book 1 with Detective Daring chained to a cement block, sinking into the dark river waters, then starts Book II with the Detective crawling up onto the river bank, gasping, “Who knew it would be so hard to get out of a few chains?!” 😛

  7. Mary Smith says:

    Really sorry about the typos in my post above.

  8. I despise cliffhangers. It is a cheap and trite trick used in episodic television, and in my opinion has no place in novels. I read novel series for the characters I’ve come to enjoy and want to follow. I can’t wait for their next adventure. When a writer employs a cliffhanger, whether on television or God forbid in a novel, to me it indicates a lack of confidence in the story or characters having sufficient juice to keep the viewer or reader engaged until the next installment.
    As for Matthew Kadish’s suggestion of shorter books, it’s an intriguing idea reminiscent of the serialized anthologies of an earlier era. Nothing wrong with that. Just resist the urge for cliffhangers please.

    • Michael, I think you hit the nail smack on the head when you said “their next adventure.” That’s it in a nutshell. Each adventure should have its own conclusion, even if the characters have other ongoing issues.

  9. Julie Frayn says:

    At the end of a tv season, sure, give me a cliffhanger (though it totally annoys me when the show isn’t picked up again and I have NO idea what was supposed to happen – damn you “The Glades”). In a book? Hate it. Wrap up the story, but sure, leave some entrails to clean up later. Not the whole answer, not the immediate issue. I too hope the suggestion to cut a perfectly good book into 20 page pieces just for the sake of maybe getting some KULL royalties was satirical. No thanks….

    • You said it, Julie. I still grumble over a TV show I saw when I must have been about 10. It was called “Coronet Blue” (which sounded cool but apparently meant nothing), and the hero was an amnesiac. Of course, it was cancelled before he – or we – ever found out who he was. If we love the characters in a book, we’ll want to see what they do next. But leave a poor amnesiac wandering around asking, “Anybody know what ‘Coronet Blue’ means?” and we’re likely to chuck that book across the room!

  10. Amy Vansant says:

    Yep – I think you always need to have SOMETHING resolved and then a continuing arc. (If you’re doing a series, of course.) Just jerking people around on the same point over and over book after book without resolution won’t do anything but frustrate readers!

  11. Mimi Barbour says:

    I just can’t leave a cliff-hanger so I know what you mean. As an author, I need to know that it all works out in the end – one way or another :-)))

  12. Jerri HInes says:

    This is an interesting debate to me. I have my stand alone series and I have the series of books that really doesn’t end until the last book. At the moment, I’m working on a serial historical series…Yes, there will be cliffhangers.

    • In your cliffhanger series, Jerri, is a plot line resolved in each book, even though other issues continue, or not? I’d love to know what you feel the pros and cons are to cliffhangers. How do your readers react? This is such an interesting topic! 🙂

  13. Jenny Harper says:

    I hate cliffhangers! I read a book by a fellow author in Scotland recently and was appalled to discover it was left on a cliffhanger. Won’t be buying the second, her characters can stew in prison for all I care now! As for chopping books into little pieces – that’s cheating. Though renowned author Ian McEwan has recently said we should all be writing shorter books – but he’s talking 80K. His comments are aimed at literary authors who write massive tomes.

    I’d like to write a few novella (is that the plural?) – but each would be complete in itself.

    • I think novellas would be a great idea – a lot of readers like them because they are inexpensive and don’t require a huge time commitment, but still deliver a satisying story. (Well, they should, anyway.) I’ve been writing short stories lately; with an almost-2 year old grand-toddler at home, it’s tough to find enough time to concentrate on a novel. The stories are around 15K words, so after their anthologies have been out for a while, the stories can be released individually as little novellas. I’m quite happy with that, at least for the time being. BTW, I’ve just started “Face the Wind and Fly.” Really enjoying it so far, and will do a review when I’ve finished. 🙂

  14. As a writer of a series, I find it funny how much I truly despise cliffhangers – especially when the rest of the series hasn’t been released as it could take a significant amount of time to release the next book in said series. I try to be very careful with my endings because I absolutely agree that an ending can make it or break it.

    This was a fabulous post!

    • Thank you, Christine! It’s fun reading everyone’s opinion, since most readers have pretty definite feelings one way or the other. I wrote a series of Western romances because I wanted to know what characters I love did next, and how their lives changed over time. But I would never leave a book’s individual plot hanging. I can’t think of any reason to do that, other than to try to make readers buy the next book. It has the opposite effect on me. It’s one thing if someone is writing a magazine-type, “tune in next week” serial, and tells readers up front that’s what it is. (For example, author Kirsten Lynn does a fabulous job of this in her “Wild West campfire” blog.) But when I buy a novel, I expect it to have a complete plot, even if the characters continue.

  15. Pete Barber says:

    Oh, boy, Lorrie. I’m sitting at around 64K words of what I hope will be the first book of my first series, and then I get this post slapping me around and telling me to make sure I don’t short-change the reader. You’re timing is perfect. Your advice is sound. Now I have to rewrite the last chapter (again)! Thanks, I think?

  16. I enjoyed this timely post.
    I agree that the reader is willing to follow an unresolved story into the next book if each individual novel has its own story arc and resolution. You have given me a lot to think about as I plan to release the next installment in the vamp series. Thanks.

    • Looks like this is something we’re all thinking a lot about, Lois. I think you’re right about each book needing a story arc and resolution, even as a larger arc continues. I like to feel the author actually had a plan for the whole series, and didn’t just leave me – the reader – hanging because a) s/he didn’t know what happened next either; b) she wanted to push me to buy the next book; or c) both.

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