Cliffhangers have been on my mind lately. Partly because in the serial I just finished a couple of books within the serial end on cliffhangers–which is why I’m calling it a serial and not a series. A reader has to start at book one. There are no other entry points like a series can have.
Another reason why is because the last Nora Robert’s book, the one that caused a lot of drama over on her blog, ended in a cliffhanger and the fans were both excited for the next installment and appalled they had to wait until Fall of 2021 to see what happens next. (Laura, Nora’s publicist, defended her by saying Nora rarely ends a book with a cliffhanger, which could be why readers were so up in arms about the whole thing.)
One particular cliffhanger that I didn’t appreciate was the cliffhanger season two of Virgin River on Netflix ended with. By now there are spoilers online, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll leave it to you to look it up (or watch the show!). I was wondering why the credits played out when I realized it was because that was the last episode of the season.
Of course cliffhangers have a reason for their existence–they spur readers and viewers on to the next book or season/episode.
While big authors like Nora Roberts can tell readers to wait and not receive too much flak for it (or simply not care), indies aren’t so lucky. Some indies write what they want and only consider the reader or their feelings when they start getting bad reviews. Writing and publishing what you want, your passion project, your project from your heart, whatever you want to call it, is all fine and good. We should be excited about our projects or why bother to write? But you also want your readers to love what you’re writing just as much as you do.
When does a cliffhanger work against you? Here are my thoughts and you can tell me if you agree or not:
*When you know you’re going to have too much time between books. Do you remember a long time ago when Mad Men’s last season was split into two parts? How many people hung around and waited for those last few episodes to drop? I didn’t. If you end your first book with a cliffhanger, and you’re not even writing the second book yet, think about when you should publish the first. You CAN sit on a book. Most indies are too excited to publish to think about hanging onto a book. And as Andrea Pearson likes to say on the Six Figure Author podcast, your book won’t make you money sitting on your computer. But. How worth it is ticking off your first wave of readers, earning some poor reviews (and maybe even some spoilers thrown in). Bad reviews won’t make you write faster–the opposite is probably true. Nothing kills motivation more than a reader saying they hated what you wrote.
*You (maybe) kill off a beloved character. We all know the last scene in the book–will he or won’t he . . . live. He’s lying on the floor, gasping for breath, an arrow sticking out of his ribs just below his heart. Fade to black. And your readers see red. This is especially bad if you don’t know if he’s going to live or die. There’s a big difference between an upbeat cliffhanger and a horrible, horrible readers-are-crying ending to your book.
*Your cliffhanger is too sad and it makes readers angry. Like I explored a little above, if your cliffhanger is devastating and it makes readers mad, that’s a big difference between something happy–like your MMC about to propose to his girlfriend and someone interrupts them. Now you have a “will they or won’t they,” and it’s a different tone, more anticipation rather than dread. Like in the Fifty Shades of Grey (movies, I didn’t read the books) when Ana leaves Christian’s penthouse. They’ve just broken up over his lifestyle choices–but there are two more books in the serial. They will get back together. Readers know it. There’s anticipation in the how. How will they get back together? Will she forgive him? Will he change for her? The second movie ended on a cliffhanger too–but not with such a steep drop. We see Jack Hyde skulking in the shadows planning his revenge against Ana and Christian. Ana and Christian are HFN (happy for now). He’s proposed, she’s said yes. But we want to know, what will Jack do? Will Ana and Christian be okay? We want them to have a HEA.
*If you think you won’t finish at all. There is a surprising amount of unpublishing in the indie community, more than I ever thought I’d see when I first started writing. I can name two of my writing acquaintances off the top of my head who have unpublished incomplete series. Maybe because they think they won’t finish, or maybe their sales weren’t what they thought, or more likely, their writing wasn’t what it could have been. Writers are a neurotic bunch, and we can get hit hard with criticism and scrutiny. But no matter why you choose to unpublish, and unpublish a book with a cliffhanger, it’s a poor business choice that screams unprofessionalism and poor planning. I have read the series that have been unpublished, and yes, maybe I am their only reader, (disappointing one customer is too many as far as I’m concerned) but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I will never know how those stories end. And what’s worse is when I asked, I didn’t get an apology, only a virtual shrug and an “it is what it is.”
In my blog post about Nora Roberts and her readers’ entitlement, I talked a little about how indies are spoiling readers with quick release dates. Traditional publishing is mainly a book a year model, and Nora tried to explain this. As indie writers take more slices of the reader pie, fewer and fewer readers are going to want to wait. Even for their favorite trad pubbed author. It makes me wonder if traditional publishing will finally start making some changes. Quick release dates aside, maybe readers are more tolerant of cliffhangers in traditional publishing because they know the books after will eventually come. Indies, unfortunately, aren’t held to contracts, they only write on their own steam and deadlines. They can unpublish, not finish, or take years on a book, and no one (besides readers) are telling them to get to work.
Is there anything you can do if you have to end your book with a cliffhanger?
*Have the pre-order link set up at the end of the book. Depending on the kind of cliffhanger you write, you’ll either have readers clamoring for the next book or throwing their ereaders across the room. Having a pre-order available won’t ensure you’ll have the book done (I’ve seen plenty of pre-orders canceled) but having a self-imposed deadline will give you a date to shoot for.
*Have an excerpt in the back of the book for the next book. Having an excerpt might cool some tempers if they don’t like the way your book ended. Ideally, you’ll want to include the first scene of the next book but anything that will clear up a question will keep readers interested–especially if you can announce a release date for the next book.
*Offer a newsletter sign in exchange for clues about what will happen next. This is advice I’ve gotten from other authors, and I have no idea if it works. Some say you do get lots of email signups if you can offer a hint at what happens next, or maybe an alternate ending, or an epilogue not available anywhere else. Something that will tie up some loose ends to appease your readers until the next book is done/available.
The bottom line is, when you end a book with a cliffhanger, you need to be professional about how you go about it. The best way is to have the book ready and either rapid release, or offer the book on preorder and make sure you meet the deadline (and don’t schedule it too far out, either). There’s no excuse not finishing a series, especially ones that end in a cliffhanger. We are all in charge of our own careers, and if you mess up, there’s no one to blame but yourself. We’re all adults here.
Here are some more thoughts on ending books with a cliffhanger:
Thanks for reading! Until next time!