In a recent book I read and reviewed, Sky Without Stars, I found myself noticing that many of the chapters ended in cliffhangers. While I’m not adverse to having an occasional cliffhanger, I found the constant use of them in that book to be a bit tiring. The book got me thinking about cliffhangers in general, and whether I usually like or dislike them. What do they add or detract from a story? Why do authors employ them so often? Are they a cheap tool to illicit a certain response from a reader, or are they really a brilliant mechanism to tell an interesting story?
Today I want to share some of the thoughts I have about cliffhangers, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
A Cheap Trick?
The whole point of cliffhangers is to force the reader to turn the next page or start the next chapter. It is a way to make a reader want to keep reading. It may be at the end of a chapter, or the end of a book, but they always serve the same purpose.
For me, I’ve never minded cliffhangers at the end of a TV episode or a chapter of a book, because I know I can just watch the next episode or read the next chapter. But when it comes to an entire book or a TV series ending on a cliffhanger, I have a slightly more negative view.
If an author ends a book on a cliffhanger, it is purely to get the reader to read the next book. But this prompts the question: without the cliffhanger, is the next book worth reading? If your answer is ‘no,’ then the cliffhanger is a cheap trick. If your answer is ‘yes,’ then the cliffhanger is pointless. Either way, my view is that it is not needed at the end of a book.
Saying that, I don’t mind if a few chapters in a book end on a cliffhanger. But that makes me ask myself: do I just not mind them, or do I think they really help make the story better.
Unfortunately, my answer has to be that they don’t often make a story better.
The History of Cliffhangers
Let’s go back into history, and look at how cliffhangers developed.
Cliffhangers are hardly new to storytelling, as Sheherazade could tell you in Arabian Nights, or One Thousand and One Tales. For those who don’t know the story, she married a king who killed all his wives on their wedding night. In order to save herself, she told him a story, ending it on a cliffhanger so he would let her live one more day so that she might finish the tale. She did this for many nights, until he fell in love with her and gave up trying to kill her (isn’t that romantic?).
But cliffhangers did not become really popular until the Victorian era, when serials became popular. Serials were parts of stories which were published in newspapers. Some of the most popular classics were published in this form, like The Three Musketeers and The Brother Karamazov. The term “cliffhanger” comes from Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, where a character is literally left hanging off a cliff. Back then, it was a way for readers to be excited for the next installment. And it worked, as cliffhangers remain a literary device found in almost every fictional work.
So history has proved it to be useful, but does that mean it is truly good storytelling?
Big = Bad, but Small = Good?
Let’s look at a bunch of good and bad cliffhangers. Most book series leave some plot points open for the next book. If they don’t, why should you read it? If everything is resolved, it’s not really a series, right?
However, if the biggest questions brought up in the book aren’t resolved, and left wide open, why would you want to read on? Take a mystery, for example. In a mystery series, you always have an individual mystery solved. In that sense, you have the satisfaction of a conclusion while still feeling invested in the larger picture (in most cozy mystery series, it might be getting a couple together, or in a thriller, it might be solving a bigger mystery). My point is there should be some satisfaction at the end of a well-written book, even if it does not solve the larger problem.
I have read many horrible books which think that ending everything on a cliffhanger is a good idea, but it can have the opposite effect that is desired. It can make the reader so upset that there was no closure, they don’t bother reading further.
My point is, having small cliffhangers is good, but don’t push it too far.
What is your view on the topic? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I don’t mind cliffhangers, but they can be overdone very easily. But do you like them, or dislike them? Let me know your opinions down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,