Let’s talk about cliffhangers
26 September 2011
When it comes to book series, cliffhangers are inevitable. That being said, I believe there are two very different types of cliffhangers:
1) The kind that leave you hanging, but settle the main conflict/plot before doing so
2) The kind that leave you hanging at the ultimate climax, with little or no resolution
Personally, I despise the second type. I get why they exist, I really do. As readers, if we are left with everything on the line – if the good guy is just about to triumph and the bad guy pulls out the wild card – it’s sort of hard to not pick up the sequel. Because we need to know what happens. We need resolution.
And herein lies my issue. What is that first novel if there is no resolution? Is it still a complete story? Or is it just a portion of a novel – everything leading up to a climax, with the outcome occurring later, at the start of book two?
Personally, I feel cheated in those instances, like an integral piece of the story has been kept from me. But in comparison, when a story is complete and satisfying, when the author resolves the climax at hand and then hints at an even bigger conflict on the horizon, I find myself even more anxious to pick up a sequel.
THE HUNGER GAMES does this perfectly. Let’s break it down, shall we? (If you are in the .2% of the population who has not yet read this novel, look away now. Spoilers ahead.)
Katniss pulls out the berries. Claudius announces her and Peeta the winners. They return home, uncertain how their stunt will be received by the Capitol, and the boy with the bread starts slipping away.
Now imagine if this had been the ending instead:
I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a good-bye, and we begin counting. “One.” Maybe I’m wrong. “Two.” Maybe they don’t care if we both die. “Three!” It’s too late to change my mind.
END OF BOOK ONE
Holy crap! Right? I mean, yes, I’ll totally pick up the second book because I loved book one and I have to know what happens, but how could the author do this to me? The entire point of the first novel was the games. Katniss steps in for her sister, and the book is about her battle in the arena – mentally, physically, emotionally. As readers, we need to know if she succeeds. To keep that reveal until the second novel would be not only unfair, but would leave the first novel as an incomplete story. Part of book two would then be about resolving book one, not a new conflict.
But Collins didn’t do this to us. Peeta and Katniss are announced winners and they head home. We watch Peeta discover that much of the relationship in the arena had been an act, and that breaks our hearts. We realize that Katniss’ trick with the berries is not one that will be taken lightly, especially by Snow. And we know deep down that things will only get worse for these tributes before they get better. THAT is the hook that brings us back for book #2.
Some will probably argue that THE HUNGER GAMES did not end in a cliffhanger, but in my mind, it did. It was just a quieter one. It left me hanging at the start of CATCHING FIRE. The battle of living through the games was resolved in book #1, and the consequences of those games – the berries, the act with Peeta, all of it – are the elements that both end book one and begin book two.
Series are a tricky breast. Each book needs to be its own tale, but even still, the stakes must rise with each installment. Even CATCHING FIRE, which ends in more of a literal cliffhanger than book one, still resolves the climax before it leaves us hanging. We know Katniss got out. The collaboration among districts to break them free works. And we know District 12 pays dearly for it. (“There is no District 12.” – What a haunting last line!) This again sets us up for the start of MOCKINGJAY.
The more I type the more I realize this post may be less about cliffhangers and more about the arc of a series. Where an author chooses to slice their series into distinct and separate works has a crucial impact on the reader. For me, I’ve always favored the series that grow more intense with each novel, but are never incomplete works on their own. I always want resolution when I close a book. That resolution doesn’t have to come with every single string being tied into a neat bow, but I sure hope that the main battle the character sets out against gets some closure.
And in case it’s not clear, this is me talking as a reader. These are my opinions and preferences when it comes to reading books (and series), and yes, these opinions obviously effect how I personally write. But I am in no way trying to say that this is how every series should be written. I’ve read and enjoyed books that utilize cliffhanger #2, after all. I’ve just had beef with their endings.
So what about you? How do you feel about cliffhangers? If a novel leaves you literally hanging, without resolution, are you more or less likely to pick up the sequel?