My Thoughts on Cliffhangers

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion

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,

Madame Writer

16 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Cliffhangers

  1. When TV shows (or in my case, anime) do this, it’s usually to “sequel bait.” And most of the time, I hate that.

    That being said, I think that cliffhangers are good in small doses and only appropriate in certain situations. For example, if you write a series of chapters focused on a large battle, cliffhangers are a must. But if it’s more slice-of-life, breather type chapters, cliffhangers don’t make much sense, with a few exceptions (such as to convey a “calm before the storm” feeling or to lull the reader into a false sense of security). It really comes down to what you want to achieve with a cliffhanger. If it’s just to keep the reader engaged, there are better ways to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting thought. Depending on what kind of book it is, cliffhangers do lend themselves better to the plot. If it’s a thriller or fantasy (a more action-type book, like your example with a battle scene), it can work really well. But if it’s a more relaxed book, or even a slower part of a book, it doesn’t work as well. And yes, “sequel bait” is so annoying to me too!

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  2. I enjoy a good cliffhanger at the end of a chapter or episode of a TV show, but I agree that they can be annoying at the end of a book or a season of a TV show where you’re going to have a long wait for the conclusion. That’s assuming the book gets a sequel or the show gets another season of course. The worst is when something ends on a cliffhanger and then doesn’t get a continuation!

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    1. Yes! This happened with several TV shows I’ve watched, where they end on a cliffhanger and the next season is canceled. But I agree with you. At the end of a chapter or episode, it can work well, but it rarely works at the end of a book or TV season.

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  3. Books that end in cliffhangers really annoy me. It’s a low down, cheap trick. I don’t read their sequels on principle. A good ending should prime the pump for the next installment in the series but not at the cost of feeling incomplete.

    Conversely, I don’t have a problem with writers ending a chapter with a cliff hanger. Though you’re right, it is tiresome when overdone. I recently read the first book of a space opera that was cover-to-cover action and boy was it tedious. I forced myself to finish it but will not continue on to the second book because all the action and adventure came at the cost of character development. I just didn’t care what happened next to the characters.

    For my own writing, 7 out of 22 chapters of my last book ended in cliffhangers, 3 in a row in the middle and 4 in a row near the end, through which I tried to create a roller coaster effect for the tale. I’m halfway through its sequel which begins with five cliffhanger chapters before leveling off for a good spell of world building and character development. There are two more blocks of cliffhangers planned for its own roller coaster effect.

    That’s how I like them. That’s how I write them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting thoughts. Yes, I do feel like usually cliff hangers at the end of a book are a cheap trick, especially if the author is building up to something just to end the book with a, “You’ll find out in the next book.” That feels like betrayal. But, like you talked about with your own writing, ending a chapter occasionally on a cliffhanger can really keep the reader interested in the story.

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  4. A cliff hanger is a trick. Now, if a book is really good I can easily accept it. It will feel like a good conclusion, give us a feel one one book flowing into the other.

    Now, if the book is ordinary, it probably won’t convince me to purchase the sequel.

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  5. I think I do appreciate cliffhangers at the end of books, just because I love when books end with a bang. But I find it gets a bit tiring when every chapter ends with what the author intends to be a cliffhanger, it just makes me roll my eyes and – if anything – take the book less seriously. So yeah 🙂

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