Random Thoughts: The Cliffhanger Ending

One of the things I love about reading books in a series, aside from the fact that there are many books in which to get to know and love the characters, is the cliffhanger ending.

Yes, I complain about the suffering I will have to endure for the three months to a year until the next book’s release, but there’s something just so appealing about knowing you’re hanging off a cliff and that eventually your mind will be put at ease when the next book comes out. (Okay, sometimes that hanging feeling continues for the entire series, but that’s a whole different topic.)

Fortunately for me, and for those other fans of the cliffhanger, there seem to be quite a few books that are part of a series, versus the standalone novel, and therefore many opportunities to be left hanging.

Sometimes the cliffhanger will simply be a shocking bit of information given to readers at the last moment, which leaves them speechless with this jaw-dropping piece of news.

Other times it might just be a small teaser of things to come – the author will hint at a new potential threat, a new love interest or a change of venue. Just enough information to make readers salivate for what is coming up, to know that another book is planned, but not enough to leave them completely tormented until the next book’s release.

Some simply weave in a number of questions throughout the course of the book that are unanswered at the end. Technically not a cliffhanger, but it serves the same purpose – readers are left hanging. They’re left wanting more. Wanting answers. And wanting to know now.

But every once in awhile, and thankfully it’s not too often, the author leaves the characters in a perilous situation. Where their lives are hanging in the balance off the edge of that cliff right along with the reader. And both the characters and readers must wait until the next book comes out to find out their fate. These, of course, are the most torturous.

To know that a favorite character might meet their end at the beginning of the next installment is absolutely devastating. Especially when there is that long period between books in which to re-read, ponder, analyze and discuss every possible outcome.

Then again, this is really true about any cliffhanger. When the author poses questions that are left unanswered, readers like myself can be almost frantic in our attempts to find out the meaning behind the author’s intent or to see if we can find out any other information about the direction of the next book. (This is where the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse.)

And when the author shocks us at the very end with a piece of unexpected news, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for the story in the next installment. Because this information is dropped in at the last minute, there are no real guides to tell us where this may lead. This is almost kinder, in a way, as there are just too many directions the story can go to even try to predict the outcome.

With so many choices, readers can simply accept the fact that they haven’t a clue as to what’s next, and so they won’t be tormenting themselves looking for answers. They’ll be satisfied with that stunner of an ending, anxiously awaiting the next book, but won’t be wracking their brains to try and guess the author’s next steps.

Most of the books I’ve read in the past year have been part of a series and almost all of them have one form of cliffhanger or another to keep readers coming back for more. The cliffhanger itself is an important tool for authors to use. When used right it can almost guarantee a reader who has some interest in the first book will come back for the next book in the series. Even if the reader is slightly unsure if this is a series they want to follow to its very end, they will generally give the second book a shot, especially when there are unanswered questions.

For readers who are already fans of the series, cliffhangers in future books can help to keep them interested in a series that might span many years. Long series that span five books or more may follow the reader through different time periods and age ranges – this is especially true for young adult books. A series that might have been enjoyed when the reader was in high school may still be read by them in college or beyond if the series spans five or more years.

Of course, the most important things that will keep readers coming back are quality writing and love for the story and characters, but that cliffhanger ending will add an extra incentive for readers to return time and time again.

The cliffhanger may also keep readers returning in situations where they may already have grown tired of the series but just refuse to give up until it’s ended, because they don’t like to be left hanging off that precipice.

This is where that fine line comes in about putting in a cliffhanger. If it is because readers want it, expect it, for continuity, or it’s a natural stopping point and just happens to be cliff-side then the cliffhanger both serves its purpose and fills a need for the reader. If it is added in a situation where one is not necessary, and it feels forced, but is put there regardless in order to sell more books, then readers will know it. It won’t feel natural to the story and it will make readers question the reason for it being added.

Readers don’t want to be hung off a cliff when it feels like a sales gimmick. They don’t want to feel like they’re being strung along just to squeeze in a few more dollars in a series that should already have met its end. There are only so many cliffs that readers want to be shoved off. It gets too painful after awhile. This is more common for books nearing the ten book mark, but it can happen sooner if the story has already run out of steam.

If readers feel for the characters or are completely vested in the story, then a cliffhanger can actually increase interest in the story. But if the shine has already begun to wear off a series, adding in a cliffhanger ending may only upset previously devoted fans.

These days, when I read books in a series I almost always expect the ending to be a cliffhanger. It’s rare to see one without some form of lure to keep you coming back for more. I’ve even gotten to the point where I am fearful when the book ends without a cliffhanger.

When things wrap up so nicely, I wonder whether there will be another book in the series. Could there be a chance that a new book won’t be forthcoming if I’m not left hanging? What does it mean when there isn’t that cliff from which I expect to be dangled? If there are only the vaguest of questions left unanswered does that mean that the author has tired of the characters and the world and is ready to set them aside?

I’m starting to feel more anguish when I read a book without one as it can raise more questions for me than books with one added. At least for those cliffhanger books I know that answers will be forthcoming, even if it is one, two, three or more books down the line.

The last time I read a standalone novel was back in April, and it was the only one I read during that month, so I am now hanging off more cliffs than should be humanly possible.

Some of my favorite recent cliffhangers are: Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins, Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick Wildefire by Karsten Knight, Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini, Torment by Lauren Kate, A Touch Mortal by Leah Clifford and Cascade by Lisa T. Bergren.

My most tormenting cliffhangers have been: Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris – you do not want to know what lengths I went to in order to try and determine what the author meant at the end of that book – Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins – yes, it’s my favorite but it had one of the most torturous endings – and Delirium by Lauren Oliver. I still can’t talk about that one. I knew it. I knew it would happen. I knew what the author was capable of, but that was just mean.

Do you like a cliffhanger ending?

What books have your favorite cliffhangers?

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