Putting Cliffhangers in a Series

This came up in conversation and I thought about while coming to the end of War of Nytefall: Eradication.  When writing a series, you tend to have 3 types of books:

  1. The opener, which introduces at least some characters, begins world building, and may hint at the main plot.
  2. The finale, which closes up all or most of the plot lines.
  3. Everything in the middle, which I tend to call ‘Bridge Books’.  They have their own internal adventure while carrying what was established in the previous books into the next one.  You don’t always bring all of the subplots and characters through a bridge book, but you do enough that the main plot can continue.

What does this have to do with the topic at hand?  Well, that 3rd category (and the 1st as well) needs an ending that brings some closure, but also has the audience ready for the next volume.  One of the best ways to do this is by creating a cliffhanger.  Compare it to TV series that do a mid-season finale or have a multi-episode story arc.  Enough is made clear to leave the audience with a good idea of the events, but you end it in a way where they won’t know what is happening next.  That’s basically what a cliffhanger is because it’s intended to carry on to more story.

Of course, people have become very twitchy about cliffhangers and you can’t really blame them for wanting to avoid such things.  How many times have we been given a suspenseful season finale or bridge book only for the series to die?  That’s not the fault of the author since they never intended for it to end that way.  At least, one would hope not.  Still, there is a fear that a finale with no closure is doomed to leave things open forever because the next volume will be blocked.  This is why cliffhangers require two important things for them to be truly effective:

  • The audience must trust the author that they will continue the story.  Faith can make or break a cliffhanger.
  • The author must be dedicated to the story or at least have some way to transmit the closure in a worst case scenario.  Maybe it isn’t an episode or a book, but at least be able to tell the audience what would have happened.

That last part isn’t really pretty and it’s a nightmarish backup plan because we always want to see our projects to the end.  If not then that’s fairly sadistic because you’re gathering a following and then crushing their spirits.  Doesn’t really make for a follow up series if you plan to keep going.

Anyway, cliffhangers should be utilized very carefully and with a sense of foreshadowing.  You don’t have to know exactly what is going to happen next, but the threads you weave have to go somewhere.  It would cause a lot of damage to the overall series if you create a ‘bridge book’ that destroys or ignores all of the previous stuff.  It would be like rebooting the series and creating no true closure.  Then, you have a problem with the next volume because you either have to start fresh, work with the new, or try to phase out the ‘bridge book’ to continue the original plan.  Honestly, all of these have problems because people will notice the choppiness of the story.  Safest bet is to work with the new and try to gradually show how the original stuff continues or factors in.  This may extend your series longer than intended, but it saves you from destroying everything with a terrible or ignored cliffhanger.

So, what do you think about using cliffhangers?  Are they overdone, a high risk, or a necessary part of writing a series/episodic story?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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21 Responses to Putting Cliffhangers in a Series

  1. Pingback: Putting Cliffhangers in a Series | Rantings Of A Third Kind

  2. L. Marie says:

    Great tips! I’ve been leery of cliffhangers lately, because some publishers have canceled subsequent books in a series due to sales. And TV shows have been canceled. Very frustrating for readers/viewers and series creators! I wish there were more of a guarantee that if a book or a show has a cliffhanger, the next book or episode will definitely debut. I’m still waiting on a follow-up book to a book that ended on a cliffhanger. Read book 1 years ago. No sign of another book!

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    • Sadly, you can’t guarantee anything. Things can easily go wrong without warning, which is what I’ve been learning firsthand. An author/creator rarely intends for things to go off the rails too. So, it’s difficult to swear off cliffhangers when you know it can be a good hook and don’t know the future. Really tough situation.

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      • L. Marie says:

        I love a good cliffhanger. I can’t help thinking of the old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode when Captain Picard was assimilated into the Borg. Wow! Couldn’t wait for the next season! So well done. How awful it would have been for those of us watching if the network had canceled the show at the point. But the writers probably felt safe enough in the ratings to go for a cliffhanger.

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      • Yet, we might have been better with such a cancellation than now. You made me think of something. Could people be more against cliffhangers these days because we live in a world of instant gratification? We’ve become accustomed to getting so much quickly that the idea of waiting is frustrating at times. I wonder if that’s created a backlash against something that wasn’t as big a deal in the past.

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  3. I think they’re high risk, but needed at times. I feel fairly safe with my trilogy, because I don’t intend to stretch it out. The second book will end with a moderate cliff-hanger. I’ve been told this is why some people wait for a series to conclude before even starting it.

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  4. I think at times cliffhangers tend to tick off sophisticated readers. The reason being a well-written book tends to draw fans to the next book without resorting to some kind of hostage situation. If the characters are likable and the writing good there really is no need. Also, cliff hangers work in a situation where the timeline for the launch of the next story is not elongated. This includes television shows and maybe comics. Books are not that situation.

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    • Interesting. I think I’m seeing something about how people imagine cliffhangers. We assume they’re all dramatic and suspenseful to a visceral degree. Yet, they can also be mellow and simply an opening left for future stories. Fantasy series have a lot of cliffhangers even with the lengthy release times, but they aren’t always severe. I remember one series always had the characters either moving on or settling with a talk that something else might be coming. This can still work and allow people to wait for a while.

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  5. As a reader I don’t mind cliffhangers as long as some other part of the plot gets resolved.

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  6. If you (as a writer) had a cliff hanger with a series that couldn’t be continued for whatever reason, but still had a fan base who were disappointed, with modern technology there would be other means to continue it or at least tie off the main ends. You could continue it as a Patreon, for instance, or in a newsletter or blog.

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  7. Jaq says:

    With my reader hat on, I abhor cliffhangers at the end of a book. Usually I won’t continue the series if I feel I’m being effectively blackmailed into buying the next book.

    As a writer, I make sure every book in a series has closure. The reader is given the choice whether to continue in my imaginary world. This is based on my early SFF reading where a good Fantasy book left me begging for more. Even some of my favourite series, like Amber by Roger Zelazny, had each book finish neatly. These are the writers I take my models from.

    It has become often advised for writers to put out a first novel that leaves a cliffhanger to continue a series. My personal opinion is that it has made incomplete stories all too common.

    Now something subtle is another matter. A teaser if you will. At the end of the second book in my Goblin Trilogy, a main character with some foresight makes a prediction for her own future that is developed in the third book. It doesn’t take away from ending the story at hand, and that’s where I see the difference.

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    • You know, I have a feeling I’ve done another cliffhanger post recently because this sounds familiar. I know the topic comes up a lot. Personally, I think cliffhangers can work to some extent. As I said in another comment, a series where every book is neatly finished or given a minor teaser can lose steam fairly quickly. It comes off as the author dragging something out when they’ve effectively finished it, which is equally as bad as the big suspense to pull people into the next one. Cliffhangers can help with shorter release times in my opinion and they work better with second readings, but you need them around at the start for that.

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  8. Pingback: Putting Cliffhangers in a Series – Written By Charles Yallowitz – Writer's Treasure Chest

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