Structuring Series Novels: Are Cliffhanger Endings Okay?

don’t fall off!!!

A recap for those who might not follow the blog regularly: I’m working on a two part novel for NaNoWriMo. I just hit my 50,000 word goal at the end of the first part, and it’s become clear to me that I could cut the second completely out and make it its own novel, adding a few things here and there to flesh out the novel I already have as “part one.”

It was a very tempting thought. Perhaps I’ll still give into it, but I’m leaning toward my original inclination: keeping it all one novel. Why? I’ve realized it all comes down to my loathing of cliffhanger-ending series novels.

A quick disclaimer: this is just a personal, stylistic preference. I’ve read a lot of excellent novels in series that end with cliffhangers of a sort. I do believe you can have a fantastic novel with such an ending, with the reader understanding the action will continue. Personally, though, that drives me batty.

I much prefer novels with a clear plot and one major obstacle/adventure/danger that gets resolved at the end. Even if the novel is part of a series, that’s doable: the Harry Potter books are a great example of this. While there’s a wonderful arc that crosses all the books and unites them, each is also a complete story unto itself. Especially in the early volumes, each book contains its own attempt by Voldemort, more or less, to return to power, and then a thwarting of that attempt. The fourth is the story of Harry’s involvement in the Triwizard tournament. My favorite of the HP books, Prisoner of Azkaban, is a beautiful story where mysteries surrounding the escaped prisoner Sirius Black and Harry’s Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin, are brought full circle. I made sure to structure my Herezoth trilogy thus–with definable, clear endings to each part–and readers, I’m so glad, have even mentioned that in reviews as something they appreciated. Apparently I’m not the only person cliffhanger endings annoy in fantasy literature.

As children, I think we’re taught to expect stories to have a beginning, a middle, and a definite end. Even if another story, a related story, is to follow, that doesn’t exempt the story before from needing its own ending. As an adult, I personally still demand that expectation to be fulfilled each time I open a book, and I get frustrated when it’s not.

Again, that’s not to say it’s wrong or that it’s always bad writing to use cliffhangers throughout your series and to combine your books that way. It’s an artistic decision, and the thing about art is that while some things please some people, the same things don’t please others. I do think that I, as an author, would have to have a very deliberate purpose in using a cliffhanger if I were ever to end one of my series novels that way.

Now, while the first part of my NaNoWriMo novel wouldn’t have a cliffhanger ending, the following book wouldn’t have a true and definable beginning if I were to separate it out. Not in the way I prefer. The book would have to begin with legal proceedings all related to events that occur in a different book. That’s no way to begin a novel that I’d feel comfortable with, even a series novel, which is the ONE situation when you could possibly get away with it without including big flashback scenes and making those preceding elements a major part of the book’s overall plot. Because of this,Β  I think I’ll end up combining the parts in one novel after all. Perhaps in the future I can figure out a way to separate them, but I’m not sure it’ll happen.

So, what are your thoughts on cliff hanger endings and series novels? This is a really interesting topic to me as a fantasy writer–that genre is FULL of series–so I’d love to really get a conversation going about this if you find it interests you too.

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39 responses to “Structuring Series Novels: Are Cliffhanger Endings Okay?

  1. I feel that the cliffhanger is good for shorter books in a series, maybe a series of novellas perhaps in a way reminiscent of the penny-dreadful serials or ooooold cinema days and of course the new-fangled webcomic style storytelling. Though it’s nowhere near as good a tool for books formatted to novel length.

  2. I think cliffhanger endings mean that the author had too long of a story to tell and didn’t know how to break it into satisfying chunks…middle book syndrome. I hate getting to the end of a book, even if I know it’s a series, with no resolution of a story line. The bigger issues can be unresolved, but it’s just unsatisfying to hav the story just stop. Tolkien be damned for the Two Towers.

    • hahaha! The Two Towers… I hear you! Yes, sometimes I get that same impression too. If it’s any consolation, I’ve heard that Tolkien intent was always to publish The Lord of the Rings as a single work, not 3 parts. That might not be true though.

  3. I am okay with unresolved story lines for secondary characters that can be developed in the next book, but I despise vague endings for the primary characters. To me this is sloppy storytelling at best and a marketing gimmick at worst. Also, sometimes authors mistake vague endings as being mysterious and artistic, possibly even literary. Really it is just irritating and unsatisfying and I am usually done with that author.

    • I totally agree. I had that experience with “The Innocent Mage” and “The Awakened Mage” by Karen Miller. HUGE cliffhanger ending involving the major plot lines. I was so annoyed!!!

    • I completely agree with you. I want resolution to the main conflict. We followed this hero all the way through his/her journey, page after page, and then- we don’t receive the reward? I do like a TEASER at the end though, one that leaves me curious and anticipating the next story.

      Although, I must say about the vague ending…I’m currently working on a short story with a vague and abrupt ending JUST because I feel like irritating my readers moohahaha. As writers we get to control the emotions of our readers- I have chosen tragedy. The ending is pretty implied, just not spelled out. I’m rebelling the nice sloped denouement and dropping the plot off a cliff. But it is not a cliff-hanger- no, there is no hanging.

      I really have no idea from where this literary malice is emerging.

  4. Cliffhangers tend to drive me crazy, it’s a good hooking technique but I much prefer a normal ending, even in books that are part of a series. There are a few exceptions of course, I love Melissa De La Cruz’s Blue Blood series and they’re nothing but cliffhangers, but I know that going in so it helps I think. And on a side note: the 3rd Harry Potter book was my favorite as well!

    • oh awesome about HP! Yes, I just love that story and I adore Remus Lupin as a character πŸ™‚ Totally agree with your thoughts here…. good hooking technique, but kind of cheap/easy I think in some cases.

  5. I was asking the same question….

  6. Cliffhangers are bittersweet to me. I love how they draw me to read the next book but I hate waiting and feeling like I have to set down a story for a year or more. I really enjoy a series that you can read each book separately and still enjoy it in any order but those are hard to find not to mention write. Reading this post really got me thinking about cliffhangers in my upcoming series. Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed your thoughts on the subject πŸ™‚

    • thanks for comment! wow, a series you can read in any order…. that would be tough. the only way I can see doing it is Agatha Christie style, having a sleuth solve unrelated crimes in each installment that aren’t related. But even if the novels do have a progression, it doesn’t mean you can’t wrap up the novel’s individual story at the end of it.

      And I agree, it’s agony to wait for the next installment to come out!!!

      • Maybe I worded that wrong… I meant a series that if you didn’t read the first one because you bought the second first, it still is easy to understand even though you read it out of order, it’s its own book and it is still a great read.
        A lot of series books with cliffhangers are more like one book split in several parts that have to be read in order otherwise you don’t know what is going on.
        And I agree, it’s good to wrap up each individual book at the end of them.

  7. Reblogged this on The Artistic Persuasion and commented:
    Victoria Grefer blogs her thoughts about Cliffhangers in series books. I found it really insightful and now I am really thinking about the structure of The Gifted Series (TGS). Series books that you can read each one separately, in any order, and still enjoy them have always been my favorite although hard to find. They seem so rare because they are that much harder to write but I would love for TGS to be like this. Only a few of you have a little idea about what the plans are for TGS but for those who don’t, I really hope you’ll like the surprise, especially now that I think it will be even better than before. For now though, it’s back to work on Women’s Island.

    You can find more great blog posts by Victoria Grefer on her blog at http://crimsonleague.com

  8. Good questions!! I have an action adventure… set, I guess you’d say. Those books stand alone, but the second is definitely a sequel. However, I spend time in it reintroducing characters, relationships between characters, etc. In the YA I’m doing now, I didn’t start out to write a series, but the first big arc ended at 80k words, and I didn’t want a 200k plus book, so I decided to end it there. In the second, which I’m writing now, I didn’t spend too much time reintroducing characters (some but not nearly as much) – making it more of a series than a sequel… I think! πŸ™‚ I left a lot still to be done in subsequent books, but I did close up the big plot line of the book. Not sure if it’s technically a cliffhanger or not, really! Maybe just incentive to go on to the next books and see how it all turns out.

    • As long as each book has its own climax and resolution, then that’s what important. Like Victoria said with the Harry Potter Series, each book has a big plot with Voldemort, but each book has it’s own ending too πŸ™‚

    • I am never adverse to plugging ahead and seeing how it turns out in my fiction! πŸ™‚ best of luck! never really though to distinguish between sequel/series in the you do, either, using your criteria. That makes so much sense to me, what you said!

  9. Reblogged this on Joshua Lisec and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  10. Although I don’t write in the fantasy genre, I completely agree with you on the cliffhanger endings. As a reader and reviewer, I don’t have a good feel for the entire story if it ends on a cliffhanger. Did the author intend that? Do they want the reader to draw their own conclusions or do they plan a series? Did they just not tie up all the loose ends? Too many questions, no matter what genre you are in. I particularly dislike it in my genre, mystery and suspense. That is the whole idea that the reader has been on this journey of 300 or 400 pages with the author, to get the answer..solve the mystery. If the book doesn’t answer that, or creates another mystery, I think that cheats the reader. I do like cliffhanger chapters that keep the readier going on to the next chapter to find out what happens next. It is our job to give that to them. If we do, I think that the reader is much more likely to buy the author’s next book.

    • Definitely agree with everything you say here! WOW! I cannot IMAGINE a cliffhanger in mystery/suspense. Exactly like you say, the whole point of reading is to figure out whodunit! And cliffhangers lead to so many openings that it’s really just sloppy writing in a lot of ways, or it comes across that way even when it isn’t.

  11. Agreed here. While chapter ending cliffhangers are great, ending a book with one leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I see them as a cheap way to prod the reader into buying the next book. However, like you said, a series wide plot thread can be left open as long as the book itself has its own self-contained plot. That way the reader gets their closure for this adventure and the writer leaves a sequel hook to point them towards the next adventure.

  12. I’m glad to hear that you don’t care for novels ending in cliffhangers, Victoria, even in series, because I don’t care for them either. I still have yet to read The Magic Council (lots of books on the to-be-read list ahead of it), and I am happy to know it won’t end in a cliffhanger! πŸ™‚

    The novel I’m writing now is the first of what I hope to be a set of books set in my world of Pharas, though they won’t all be following the same set of characters. So most of them will necessarily have definite endings. But even the novels that follow the same characters won’t end in cliffhangers, because I believe in the Golden Rule.

    The ONLY way I’d publish a novel with a cliffhanger ending is if I absolutely needed to split a LOOOOONG novel into two and I published both parts at the same time. At least that way the second part would be available to readers as soon as they finished the first part. But even that would feel like a marketing gimmick to me and probably many others, so I would be hard pressed to do it even then.

    I think you have the right idea. Avoid cliffhangers all together.

  13. I used to be an advocate of cliffhanger endings…because I would buy all the books in a series and read them one after the other. So it obviously didn’t matter. Then I got my Kindle and started reading more Indie works, where the whole series wasn’t always available. So I’ve altered my stance: The whole of the original plot should be resolved, with only a minor cliffhanger remaining to lead into the next book.

    (I actually have a post about this subject sitting in my drafts folder, so when I finally publish it I’ll try to remember to ping back to you.)

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