We all know the purpose of cliffhangers. Television shows run for a season, and producers want to ensure that their viewers return in the Fall. The best way to do that, since they obviously don’t have much faith in fans’ loyalty if the show itself is great, is a cliffhanger, usually centered on the likely death of a beloved character. “Oh no! They can’t kill him off!”
It’s bad enough waiting around for three months to see what happens. (Don’t get me started on the idiots who plan cliffhangers for premiere seasons and then cancel the show.) I’m starting to see more and more cliffhangers in book series! How cruel must authors/publishers be? Books in the same series are lucky to come out twice a year. Once a year is more likely, and what about those series that authors are in the process of writing? Come on guys, you can’t foresee the future; what if you never write the ending?
Here’s my other thing: television shows are more easily remembered. They run for 12-24 episodes over several months. I read a book in 2-3 days. I’m sorry, it doesn’t matter how amazing the story is; I have a gazillion other books to read, and by the time the sequel comes out, I’ve forgotten not only to look for it, but what happened in book 1! Seriously, I started making a list of authors to periodically Google in case they come out with another book when I’m not looking. Because let’s face it, television previews are all over–well television–the web, Facebook, YouTube, etc. Book release announcements? Not as easy to hear about unless you Follow every author you like.
Ranting aside, I’m all for serial books. However, I think that each book should have a self-contained plot. Even if there is an overarching megaplot with the big baddie that the protag won’t all-out battle until the end (hm, much like the levels in a video game?), there should still be some episodic structure to the book. There are a handful of Young Adult series out that have become so popular (either the authors have gotten lazy or they feel they don’t have to work as hard to keep their readers) that by book 3-4, they become a series of events, a to-do list in this epic journey the characters are on. There’s blood, sweat, and tears, but no triumph, no growth.
There are some great series out there that follow a character or group of characters through various life changes, but each book is complete in its conflict and resolution. Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series is excellent. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series is good (consequences from one book may spill over into another, but the plots are still contained and resolved). I’d like to add Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, but alas, Book 11 (she made it so far) ended with a cliffhanger–granted, a character cliffhanger, not plot, but still, me annoyed.
I believe I’ve said my piece. What about you guys? Do you feel as strongly about cliffhangers as I do? Do you love them? Do you think they have a valid purpose in books? Do they alienate or ensnare readers?
“However, I think that each book should have a self-contained plot.”
This hits the point on the nose. I absolutely agree, though it’s possible to have a self contained story and a cliff hanger, or at least a hint of things to come.
My example is Warehouse 13, which at the end of each season has shown the loss of a character. Both different, and both had a very strong reasoning within the plot of the season. So they can be done right!
I’d prefer self-contained plots with interconnections in other ways. Specifically, I like when some of the subtext in one book is tied into the next so that the appreciation of both as a unit is different than either on their own merit.
I haven’t seen Warehouse 13, but it sounds as though each season ends with a sense of finality, the loss of a character (?). It’s those, “someone just got blown up; we don’t know who and we don’t know if they’ll survive” endings that bug me. I read the first book of a series not too long ago that ended with the protag chained up and left in a dark room to die.
I love interconnections too. It gives me a sense of progress, that I’m truly following a character through life struggles. The consequences or implications from one story carry through to the next. Characters come out scarred and changed. But I don’t like a conflict without resolution. I’m on the fence about those deep dark secrets the character tries to discover over the course of several episodes/books. I guess it depends on how crucial such information is to the plot.
Warehouse 13 is good about it, you know exactly which character is on the line and how. (To the point of the one actually dying at the end of the first season, for all the audience to see.)
Character arcs really should always be relevant to the plot, especially in serials. My opinion, anyway.
Oh, I’m not disagreeing with you, Patrick. Character arcs should definitely be relevant. I guess what I meant was that the unresolved aspects of those arcs don’t prevent the conflict of the plot from being resolved. I can’t think of an example, though, so my point, well, has no point.
Oh, cliffhangers can annoy me. The latest book in Chicagoland Vampires ended on a huge one. Six months till the next book comes out, ugh. Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series ended on a cliffhanger for the first book. Luckily I didn’t discover her series until after the fourth book came out and the others end just fine. Well, unless you are an idiot like me and read the sample chapter that starts the next book. Now I’m waiting for book six with barely concealed insanity.
The second to last book for Karen Marie Moning’s Fever Series was probably one of the toughest. Only reason I survived that is I didn’t start reading her series until a month before the final book was released. I know her other fans were going crazy waiting. Definitely not cool to do that to people.
Susan, I’m glad you love the Night Huntress series and that I’m in the process of reading it, cus I don’t get to talk books much with people. I’m not sure I would say book 1 ended on a cliffhanger. Yeah, it totally sucked her ditching the love of her life, so there was no resolve for the romantic aspect, but I did feel a sense of finality to the story. Even her leaving him had a very final feel to it (even though readers hope for that to change).
Btw, book 2 takes place 4 years later, is that because there was a 4-year interval between publications, or the author just wanted 4 years in her timeline? Do you know?
To be honest Angela, the night huntress series is my absolute favorite. I have read the first four books three times in the last year. The fifth one just released a few months ago, but I will re-read it soon. You are right that there is resolution in book one, but if I had stopped there and had to wait, it would have been tough. The author actually had the first three books written (though some parts were changed later) before she ever even got an agent. Originally, she wrote the separation of Cat and Bones to be even longer, but they forced her to shorten it to four years. That is not the amount of time between release dates, though. I think she released the next one between six months to a year later. I know she releases them every six months now, so that is what I’m guessing.
As you can figure out, I have combed Jeaniene Frost’s website a time or two so I pretty much know all the trivia, lol. I have actually forced Kerra to start reading that series as well (the girl with the radio show on my blog). She is just finishing book two so you would be close to the same spot as her. Make sure after book four you switch to the world series, you could do without it, but there are some elements that help you understand book five. Let me you how you like it. I could talk about that series all day if you let me, lol.
A book which immediately came to mind while I read this post was one of Janet Evanovich’s. That said, the plot of the book was resolved and then it was which man she’d invited round for a kind of post-stress party. That kind of cliffhanger I can live with. Anything else, count me out. If the point of the book is to defeat the bad guy, then that bad guy better be dead and gone, or at least on the floor begging by the time THE END rolls around.
I have to admit, I walked a fine line in my just finished novel on this. She defeated the bad guy, but he’s a god, so he can’t exactly die. That said, she defeated him good and proper, insofar as it’s possible to do so to a god, so I’m hoping it’s ok.
But yes, the end of the book should equal the bringing down of whoever they’ve been trying to bring down. Otherwise, you just wasted your time learning about all the ways that didn’t work. You might as well skip straight to the next book, except why would you want to when the issue might not get resolved there either…
“If the point of the book is to defeat the bad guy, then that bad guy better be dead and gone, or at least on the floor begging by the time THE END rolls around.” <–Lol, totally agree!
Your description of how you end your book sounds find. If the bad guy isn't killed, that leaves it open for sequels: "The Revenge of ____." I think it matters who gets the last word. If your bad god was defeated, but at the end stood up, cackled, and announced his revenge, then I would feel like it bordered on cliffhanger, and it really detracts from the protagonist's victory. I want to bask in his/her glory!
You’ve already covered my only gripe about cliffhangers, which is I forget what I was supposed to be excited about. Case in point: I have Pale Rider by Kim Harrison in my TBR pile. I haven’t read it because I don’t remember what happened in White Witch, Black Curse.
The upside: You’ve made me feel better about my crappy memory. Thanks for the interesting blog post.
I’m reading White Witch, Black Curse right now! And I hate to point out your crappy memory, but Black Magic Sanction comes between those two. So does that mean Kim Harrison started writing cliffhangers too?
I am sorry to say I don’t remember. I have no clue how Black Magic Sanction ended. I’m just lost. I bet I’m going to have to go back and re-read. This is also why I haven’t tackled the new Mercy Thompson book.
Don’t get me wrong, I love both authors enough to buy their work in hardcover.
This is funny, because I was talking about this on Twitter last night. I abhor cliffhangers. Actually, that’s not completely true. I don’t mind setups as long as the book’s plots were resolved. I think the worst culprits of this are trilogies because inevitably, the second book ends like you just took an axe to the story and chopped it off to make the third book.
I actually bought Chloe Neill’s latest Chicagoland novel but I haven’t read it yet because I found out it ends on a huge cliffhanger, and I’m not willing to put myself through that. I don’t deal with cliffhangers well.
I even asked around about the latest Chuck season finale episode to make sure it wasn’t a cliffhanger before I watched it. I’m way too paranoid about being left in the lurch.
I agree, trilogies definitely don’t seem to break up the story well (if at all) between the 2nd and 3rd books. Christopher Paolini made me so mad when I read Brisingr, expecting the end of the story because it was labeled a “trilogy.” Come to find that the story did not end, and there’s a little note from him at the end saying, “sorry, I couldn’t finish it after all. There will be a fourth book”–3 years later!
I can’t help but bring up Robin Hobb again and her awesomeness…I’ve found the Farseer Trilogy does an excellent job of keeping to each self-contained (and impressive) plot, yet every action is still motivated by the underlying story over the entire trilogy. Another series I do love, but fear is guilty of awful endings/cliffhangers is The Obernewtyn Chronicles. As I start getting closer to the end of each book I get cranky because I know it can’t possibly tie up all the loose ends in so few pages and then I realise I’m going to have to wait for the next book to be released! And if it does tie up all the loose endings in so few pages, then I feel it has been rushed…grrr!
To be honest though, I don’t mind a good cliffhanger, as long as the entire book has had something else to wrap up along the way…so that I don’t feel I’ve wasted my time trying to get somewhere with it that never comes. TV shows are the worst, but it does get me excited about the next episode and makes me want to watch more…which I guess is the point. But some of my favourite TV shows (cough-Buffy-cough) just have such great characters, script and relationships that I keep watching because I want to find out more about them, not so that I can find out the outcome of the previous episode’s cliffhanger. I guess I like that in a book too.
Great post Angela.
I’ve put Robin Hobb on my reading list. 🙂
I’d be okay if TV shows would *start* their seasons with cliffhangers. Then you only have to wait a week, and it still has the kick-off with major action and suspense tone. But yes, I’d rather be loyal to a show because of its script and characters, not because of any sensational surprises. I’ll admit, cliffhangers get me too: I will watch them and the second part in the next season for shows I don’t normally watch–but that’s as far as the interest goes for me. If the show doesn’t impress me to begin with, I’ve only been hooked for that one episode.
I guess I can admit that cliffhangers in books can be useful that way. But you’re right that something else should definitely be wrapped up. I read a lot of YA, and series like Blue Bloods and House of Night–(I wasn’t going to name them at first, but omg) the books are now a series of “the characters go to this place, then they go to this place,” “the characters wallow in their misfortune,” “if they happen to meet their nemesis, they exchange mean words and then escape.” “Where shall we hide next while we try to figure out how to get our lives back?” It makes me want to bang my head against the wall.
And yes, Buffy was an awesome show. I haven’t been impressed by a supernatural show since that and Charmed.
I was up til 4am this morning finishing the Farseer Trilogy…I cannot rate this author highly enough. True Blood is quite addictive as far as TV shows go. It’s so true that you can start watching only intending to watch a couple of episodes and several hours later find you’re half way through the season. For a supernatural/fantasy show, despite it’s cliffhangers, it is pretty high quality viewing. The episodes are quite long and the seasons quite short, but they have obviously put a lot of money behind it because the effects are pretty amazing for a TV series…I think so anyway!
True Blood, now that is a tv show with major cliffhangers every single episode and finale. I just got season three and planned to watch just one or two episodes today. Started it this morning. Now I’m about to watch episode six, argh!
Haha. At least you’ve got the whole season. That does not sound like something I would enjoy, though. I’ve also never been one for those continuous storyline shows like 24. No thanks, catch the bad guy in 45 minutes and I’m good.