What exactly is a Cliffhanger?

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Lately, I’ve seen people talking about cliffhangers when a book is complete.  In reality, what they’re referring to is a subplot or device used to maintain interest in a series: a lead.  Possibly even a hook.

You see, just because you want to read the next book doesn’t mean the last one ended on a cliffhanger.  Take my Rise of the Iliri series as an example.  Each book ends with an epilogue that sets up the next book in the series, making it clear what’s coming next.  In this series, every novel is basically a battle in a much larger war.  That doesn’t mean the books end on cliffhangers.

Why?  Because there is a clear beginning, middle, conflict, resolution, and ending.  Then there’s an extra hook at the end.  A cliffhanger, however, is one of those stories that might as well end with “to be continued.”  The plot of the story was NOT resolved.  What the MCs were trying to accomplish neither succeeded nor failed.  It’s still in progress.  We see this all the time with season finales on TV.  Just as you get to the point where your favorite character’s life is in danger, and you aren’t sure if they’ll survive… “To Be Continued…”

But a complete novel doesn’t have that.  BloodLust, the first book in the Rise of the Iliri series sets up the goal early on: Sal wants a place to belong.  Ideally, she wants to be an elite soldier, have her freedom, and make humans stop treating her like a second-class citizen.  Most of the book deals with this to one extent or another.  She also has a budding relationship forming, complications between her job and her species’ natural tendencies, and discrimination from humans.  Her success with her unit makes some humans uncomfortable, which comes back to those who’ve helped her.  Then, just at the very end of the book, we learn whether she was successful… or not.  Did her actions result in her losing her place – or cementing her position?  (Sorry, no spoilers here!)

But then there’s that epilogue!  Sal’s only mentioned in it, but the reader gets a glimpse of what’s happening in the background, and what Sal’s actions may have set in motion.  This brings up a NEW problem, and one she’ll have to face in the next book.  It’s a teaser, a promise that this series is about more than the one battle.  It makes the reader want more, and want it NOW.

That doesn’t make it a cliffhanger.

Now, if I’d gotten right up to the point where she gets in the big fight and stepped in the door to see if her friend was still alive… then stopped before revealing what she saw… that’s a cliffhanger.

If I’d made it so she was debating resigning her position, had her talk to her commanding officer, let him know she was leaving, and end with him saying, “We need to think this through…”  Then THAT would be a cliffhanger.

You see, in neither of the above examples is there a resolution.  There’s no ending, no way to know if the struggle we’ve been following for all those pages resolved the way we wanted (or not).  Oh sure, the war is still going on, the Emperor is still amassing his army, the humans are still discriminating against the iliri, and her love life is still unresolved… but those are all subplots.  The STORY, if broken down, is about a girl trying to find her place.  To be a complete story, we need to know if she does or does not.  All the rest is a part of the series arc.

And yeah, I know that cliffhangers are common with indie authors.  You see, it’s hard as hell to write a convincing ending without satisfying everything the reader wants to know.  If we get all the answers in the first book, why is there even a series?  Why would someone want to continue this saga?  And so, there are always some threads left hanging.  It could be a romance subplot, a character backstory issue, or so many other things.  Those are fine to leave open.  They don’t make a book end with a cliffhanger.

And ripping up a book or author for cliffhanger endings when they aren’t?  It can cripple sales, depress authors, and ruin their reputation.  Sure, some readers love that feeling of being left hanging.  Most?  They hate it.  They want a resolution for the plot of THAT book.  Don’t let your desire for the next installment come out as hurtful resentment.  This is most important with newer authors who don’t yet have a fan base and are still trying to get enough reviews to counter that omnipresent one that seems to be for a different book (because we ALL get at least one where we wonder what the hell was being read).  Just know that this is a powerful word in the literary world, and one that should be used correctly.

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