Writing the Cliffhanger

1 Nov

Love them or hate them, cliffhangers are popular and utilized in lots of books nowadays, even the ones that never get (or intend) a sequel to follow up the ending. 

So what’s the difference between a cliffhanger that makes a reader pick up the next book and the one that makes the reader chuck the book across the room? 

That’s what I’m here to discuss. 

First, there are three ways to end your book:

  • Complete conclusion
  • Non-Ending Ending
  • Cliffhanger

Second, if you’re here to learn about cliffhangers, you’ll want to focus on the non-ending ending and the cliffhanger. What’s the difference?

A Non-Ending Ending doesn’t answer most (or any) of the questions posed, not even the ones asked at the beginning of a story. This is becoming more common. I personally dislike it a lot, but alas, this isn’t about my feelings. As an example, consider a murder mystery. The main question posed at the beginning of the book is “Who is the murderer?” The secondary question might be “Why/How did this murder take place?” 

(I will be coming back to the idea of main and secondary questions, so keep that difference in mind.) 

By the time you get to the end of a Non-Ending Ending book, you still have no idea who the murderer was. You may know how the murder took place, so some of the secondary questions might be answered, but the main question is not. 

A popular one that I can think of off the top of my head is The Selection series by Kiera Cass. The first book asks, “Who will be chosen to marry the prince?” The ending of that first book doesn’t answer. It just dwindles the group down to the top ten. If you take a careful look at the trilogy, you’ll notice all three books follow a one-book arc versus a trilogy arc. But that’s another post for another day. 

As much as I hate to say it, a Non-Ending Ending is a valid choice. But I recommend you be intentional when making this decision. By choosing this, you are risking the reader feeling duped and not trusting you to finish the story. I myself typically put a series down if they have a Non-Ending Ending. However, I finished The Selection series, so there’s always exceptions. Typically, though, the traditional cliffhanger is more likely to get readers coming back for more.  

In my opinion, reading and writing a traditional cliffhanger is a lot more satisfying. Why? Because you will answer that main question. Your reader will know who the murderer is. But those secondary questions might lead them into a new mystery. For example, instead of wrapping up why the murder happened, the murderer tells us they were under orders and don’t know the answer themselves. An underground organization hired them–and a few others. There are more murders to come. Now your hero isn’t trying to solve murders; your hero is trying to stop them. EEK! That’s a cliffhanger. 

Readers will be much more likely to trust your stories if you answer the main question posed at the beginning of your book. They know they might not get all the answers they want, but they know they’ll get a story that is satisfying, even in its twists. Whereas, in a Non-Ending Ending, they might ask themselves where the book is headed or how long the story will be stretched out. 

Don’t know which ending your book has?

Read other books. Have you ever been twenty pages away from the end and stopped, wondering how the author is going to wrap it ALL up? That’s either the best pacing ever or extremely poor pacing. Spoiler alert: It’s more often poor pacing.

Most of your story’s questions need to be wrapped up by the 75% mark. The subplots, the clues, etc. As your characters head into the climax, they need to know everything they are going to know about their opponent. Of course there might be that single plot twist that sparks the “hero is absolutely alone, hopeless, and at their lowest” part, but other than that, having your protagonist learn anything new after the 75% mark is going to feel convoluting, and it risks your ending spiraling out of control. 

So where do you throw in the cliffhanger?

Typically in the climax aftermath. 

Most writers have a natural cliffhanger buried somewhere in their work. I recommend taking a look at your main and secondary questions again. Typically, one of your secondary questions will serve as a lead-in to the next book. Make sure your cliffhanger is small enough that it doesn’t leave your reader feeling robbed of an ending, but big enough that they cannot resist the urge to pick up the next book to experience how your universe expands. Promise another story in that cliffhanger. This is also a great place to ask yourself what you have planned for book two. If book one’s cliffhanger is easily dismissed in the first few pages of book 2, it’ll feel cheap, and readers might put book 2 down before they’re invested in the next plot. Book one’s cliffhanger should lead us to the inciting incident of book 2. Example from our murder mystery: Book opens up with the detective tracking down the organization he believes hired the murderer. Instead of arresting, he poses as a hitman to infiltrate. He’s handed his first assignment… 

Now we’re invested in book 2, and the cliffhanger isn’t resolved. Rather, it’s evolved into a new story. 

A great cliffhanger will feel inevitable. 

A fantastic cliffhanger will appear right as the reader feels comfortable and believes the book is about to end with a satisfying conclusion.

Last piece of advice? All choices are valid. You don’t have to have a cliffhanger to have a fantastic book. Some readers love Non-Ending Endings. Some readers hate any type of cliffhanger. You can’t satisfy everyone all of the time, so make the decision you need to make to have a book you love. 

~SAT

4 Responses to “Writing the Cliffhanger”

  1. kingmidget November 1, 2021 at 9:17 am #

    Read a book a few months ago … it was the first in a series and ended right in the middle of the big scene where everybody would either live or die. Without resolution. I felt manipulated and have refused to buy book two. As you say a cliffhanger at the end of the book can’t be the big one.

    • Shannon A Thompson November 1, 2021 at 9:19 am #

      Exactly! I’ve been there as a reader before, too, and I can’t trust book 2 to treat me any differently. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.
      ~SAT

  2. DebyFredericks November 2, 2021 at 9:11 pm #

    Have you read Naomi Novik’s latest, The Last Graduate? That ending is a true cliff-hanger, agonizing and inevitable.

    But, for myself, I prefer the “it’s over for now” ending, which answers the immediate questions but still leaves over-arching issues unresolved.

    • Shannon A Thompson November 4, 2021 at 4:22 pm #

      I have not read it, but sounds like I need to! I love those inevitable endings. Those always tear me up!
      ~SAT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: