When is a cliffhanger really a cliffhanger?


An installment on A Writer’s Path recently was “How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat” written by novelist/guest poster Larry Kahaner.

Initially, I balked at the title. I liked the article and even commented that if the story is as good as French Macarons, readers will go on to the second book in the series but as more people commented on the post, I started to think defensively. The Mama Bear came out to protect what is essentially my soul.

“I hate it when…” “I wouldn’t read that if…”  Such a strong word, hate is. Such negativity, which is probably why the title irked me. To ‘cheat’ would be to NOT write the end of the story. To cheat would have been to cut out important parts of the character to save word count. Taking a story to another book, or multiple books give the writer the ability to tell it, completely. I would rather read two books that tell a rich and compelling story than read a watered down version, but hey, that’s me.

To clarify the original meaning of ‘cliffhanger’, Wikipedia says: “A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.”

desolation_of_smaug_by_umbridge1986-d5riks0I’ll use The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug as an example of a true, unsatisfying cliffhanger. When I watched the movie, I stood up at the end and screamed: “NO! This CANNOT be how it ends! Damn you, Peter Jackson!” I stomped around for about an hour then moved on with my life. When the next movie came out, I happily paid my $10.25 to go see it.


athenaAnother example, Rick Riordan’s book Mark of Athena. I’ve read all of the Heroes of Olympus series and they all had me eagerly waiting for the next one. At the end of Mark, Percy and Annabelle are literally hanging by a thread before tumbling down into Tartarus. While little is resolved, I knew the story continued. When I got the email that the next book in the series was about to come out – a year later!! – I happily plunked down my Target card and got the next hard cover for my set. I read it in two days because I was already invested.

The Divergent series. Harry Potter, especially the later books. That vampire/werewolf Meyer series. None of these were ‘cliffhangers’ per se, just the minor plots ended, not the major ones, but still made for a good story and the reader looks forward to the next one.  Okay, maybe not the vampire/werewolf ones.

My book. In Wheeler, Loren’s story doesn’t end with a win. There’s still unresolved conflict; too many loose ends. There’s a teaser at the very last page.

If every story was wrapped up in a pretty little bow with a happy ending, it would be an incredibly boring story. In my opinion.



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