We’ve all been there. We buy a book that looks good. We read it and it is good. In fact, it’s so good, it’s a page turner. We turn in to wolves reading voraciously until we reach the end only to get a sharp slap in the face. Rather than get the closure that’s kept us reading, we’re left open mouthed with a cliffhanger ending and no more pages left to turn.
Cliffhangers aren’t new. They’ve been around for ages and it’s not just novelists that use cliffhangers; scriptwriters have done it too. If you’re as old as I am, you remember the most famous television cliffhanger of the eighties being “who shot J.R.” on the prime time soap opera, Dallas. Man, I just dated myself!
The idea of the cliffhanger is to get readers so invested that they come back for more. They buy the second and possibly third and fourth books in the series. Writers net more sales and make more money and readers get more of the characters they love. It’s a win-win situation. Or is it?
I’ve noticed lately that more and more readers are fed up with cliffhanger endings. This is particularly true when the author offers the first book for free and leaves it on a cliffhanger. If you want to find out what happened to the characters, you’re forced to buy the subsequent books. Some readers flat out refuse to do it, but some are so compelled to find out how it ends that they invest the money.
Some readers are not only putting their foot down and refusing to buy the books, but they’re leaving online reviews warning potential readers that the book is a cliffhanger. And of course, you know these readers are also giving one star reviews and talking about how unfulfilled they are. This dissatisfaction leads to them finding other things to pick apart with the book and post in their reviews.
I’ll be honest. I’m on the fence about the cliffhanger ending. If it’s a good book, I’m a little more tolerant, but there is one sure fire way authors get my dander up with cliffhanger endings. I absolutely cannot stand when an author takes what should easily be one, maybe two books at the most, and stretches it into five or six books. The first book is typically free and ends on a cliffhanger and more often than not, it’s less than one hundred pages long. Subsequent books in the series are released that are of equal length but priced higher. And even though there are times when I really like the characters and I’d love to know how their story turns out, I take a stand and join the ranks of other readers and say enough is enough. I’m not buying any more of these books.
I’m here to tell you it is possible to write a series of novels, featuring the same characters, and make them standalone novels. It not only can be done, it has been done by authors in every genre. When that happens, readers don’t necessarily have to buy the other books to understand what happens in each subsequent book, but they often will because they’ve become emotionally invested in the characters.
When I wrote the Time for Love series, it followed the love story of one couple over a series of four books. Each book took place at a different time in their lives. Rather than use cliffhangers, I took the approach of what many call “happy for now”. Each book had a resolution to its conflict, but readers knew there was more conflict on the horizon. Thus far, I haven’t had any complaints about that.
No matter how much you want it to, the cliffhanger ending will never go away. There will always be some writers who have convinced themselves it’s the way to go. I would never tell another writer how to write their story, but I will warn you that more and more readers are rising up with cries of ‘don’t leave me hanging’ so proceed at your own risk.