I’m not going to lie to you book bees, I am an absolute hypocrite. As you may have noticed in my review of Clarissa’s Warning and A Prison in the Sun before that, I really don’t like when authors leave you on a ridiculous cliffhanger with no resolution. It’s part of the reason I’ve gotten so into binge reading series lately: I don’t like being left in the lurch and having to wait to find out more. But as a writer…. Nothing is more delicious than seeing a reader shriek after finishing a cliffhanger and demanding to know what happens next.
For me the key to a good cliffhanger–one that as a reader I can actually appreciate–is that it promises resolution. A cliffhanger in the midst of an ongoing series where the end is in sight is a clever way to keep readers hooked, and it ensures that there’s a starting point for the next story. It’s hard for me as a reader to start on the next book in a series if the previous one ended on a “happily ever after” sort of note and doesn’t have anything to be resolved next time. Of course, this doesn’t mean all books in series need to have cliffhangers to have unresolved plots that compel the reader to follow the rest of the series.
I can appreciate an open ended ending as well. One that leaves the world available to develop over time, or that leaves future adventures open to the characters. Ending on a “and they got married and had children!” note really doesn’t work for me outside of fairy tale retellings where that’s the end goal going in. Personally, I don’t find the idea that the characters went through so much and then just settled down like nothing happened very interesting. So a stand alone, or a final novel in a series, that ends with an open ending bordering on cliffhanger works for me.
Spoiler Warning for the endings of A Prison in the Sun and Clarissa’s Warning.
The reason I hated the cliffhangers in these two books is that they left no payoff and clearly never get resolved. The first cliffhanger I experienced was A Prison in the Sun. There, Trevor has made a series of decisions that lead to him keeping a stash of cash and not reporting a murder to the police. Despite having been smart and paranoid about the cash throughout the majority of the book, Trevor decides to book a last minute flight home and try to travel with it. He spends a last lavish day on Fuerteventura staying at a high end hotel and eating a luxurious meal. When he arrives at the airport, he tries to act casually but is detained at check-in and put in a windowless interrogation room.
This cliffhanger was not satisfying because we don’t know who turned him in, how the police tracked him down, or what happened to him next. Trying to get some answers, I looked into the previous books of the series and discovered the previous one–Clarissa’s Warning–concerned the character Claire. Claire and Paco somewhat befriended Trevor, and it was Paco’s cousin’s money that Trevor had–something Trevor overhead them speculating about. However, Clarissa’s Warning has no overlap with Trevor’s stay on the island and then infuriatingly enough ends on another cliffhanger. And not one that was resolved by anything that occurred in A Prison in the Sun!
Dissatisfying cliffhangers that are just for cliffhangers’ sake leave the reader frustrated and unhappy. This kind of cliffhanger is often written by writers who want to say “I know what happens next!” despite refusing to share this knowledge with their readers. It’s the kind of trope used by writers of TV, movies, and books that try to make their works more cerebral in order to exclude “unwanted” fans who are perceived by the creator as lesser. Not all works that end in a dissatisfying cliffhanger are produced by such obnoxious creators, but it is absolutely a trademark of theirs.
When a book that is meant to be stand alone ends in a dissatisfying cliffhanger, it turns me off the author. I don’t mind intertwined books that may leave certain things unresolved to be passingly mentioned in other installments, but I can’t stand a book that just ends on a cliffhanger and you’ll never see the ending.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, book bees! Tell me in the comments how you feel about cliffhangers, or about a cliffhanger that really drove you nuts!