Oh cliffhangers...what a plot device! The bane of my reading existence and yet the joy of my writing existence :)
I know, I know, how does that make sense? Let me explain...
As a reader, I'm all:
But as an author, I'm all:
(As explained by the wonderful Rick Riordhan!)
When it comes down to it, cliffhangers are fantastic plot devices! Sure, they annoy the heck out of readers (especially cliffhangers at the very end of a novel), but they are extremely useful.
I normally boil cliffhangers into two basic categories--short-term cliffhangers (my favorite to use) and long-term cliffhangers (the ones that drive people crazy).
I define short-term cliffhangers as chapter-to-chapter cliffhangers.
You're reading, enjoying, laughing with the character, when suddenly she comes face to face with her crush, they talk, he leans in, she catches her breath, then BAM--chapter ends. Or more high-stakes--your hero is exploring an empty castle, he hears a sound, turns, his eyes go wide, there's a sword at his throat, then BAM--chapter ends.
There go your plans to go bed at the end of the chapter! You NEED to keep reading so you can find out what happens. And since it's the middle of the book, you can!
These are my favorite cliffhangers to use! Here's why:
1) Can't stop syndrome! When done right, your reader won't be able to stop him/herself from turning the page and starting the next chapter. This just heightens that amazing "couldn't put it down" feel to reading--my favorite!
2) Immediate gratification! Your readers don't have to wait months to find out what happens, they get the answers right away.
3) Creates tension! My favorite books contain oodles and oodles of tension--high stakes, lots of pressure, a ticking time bomb. Using internal cliffhangers can help keep the pace quick and emotions high.
I found this technique especially useful in my new book The Shadow Soul because it is told through two different character perspectives. Using these short-term cliffhangers I hope kept the pace quick for both tales, while also keeping the readers emotional invested in the states of both characters.
I define long-term cliffhangers as those that happen at the very end of the book.
You're reading, speeding through the pages, and the end of the novel is coming to a climax. You can feel the pages thinning and know there isn't much time left. The hero meets the villain, they share words, a fight commences. Your hero is thrown down, the fate of the world rests on his/her shoulders, you greedily turn the page to see how it all ends...and NOTHING!
The next page is blank, the page after that contains the title of the sequel and an on-sale date that is A YEAR away. A long, long time.
Let's face it--if an author is writing a series, these cliffhangers are somewhat unavoidable. You want the readers to keep reading, you want to hold their interest, so you can't give the entire story away at the end of the first book--no one will come back for more! HOWEVER, I think there is a right way to do this and a wrong way.
To me, the right way is for each individual book to have its own thematic arc that comes to a close at the end of the novel, but the overall story still has open threads that keep the reader invested. Take Harry Potter for example--the titles tell you what the thematic story for that book is going to be. Prisoner of Azkaban. Goblet of Fire. Each book has it own story. But, the overall fight against Voldemort carries on and it keeps readers invested in the lives of the characters and the fate of the world.
To me, the wrong way to use a long-term cliffhanger is to completely leave your readers in the lurch--a filler book. I understand why authors do it, but I can't shove my reader side far enough way to let myself write something like that. Because as a reader, I LOATHE THIS ENTIRELY! I'm okay with not knowing if a character will live or die at the end of a novel, as long as the scene has still played out and the action is done. I enjoy the suspense, the mystery. I'm okay waiting as long as I feel like the entire story I just read wasn't the first act in a two act play--I want to feel like it had worth on its own, and wasn't just the prologue.
Either way, long-term cliffhangers have some great benefits:
1) Reader buzz! Are you dying about how a book you just read ended? Are you getting all the feels? Don't you just need to tell everyone through every social media outlet you belong to? Awesome! A good cliffhanger ending can be great free press for an author because hopefully your fans won't be able to stop talking about it!
2) Reader engagement! If the fans are dying to know what happens next, chances are they'll be ecstatic if you post a teaser. Or chat about what may or may not happen next! And let's face it--as an author, this is pretty freaking cool!!
3) High continuation rate! If someone reads book one and is dying to know how the cliffhanger is solved, there is a very good chance they will buy book two. However, if the book has a nicely tied ending, readers might not be as invested in picking up the sequel.
Danger!! Like I said, I personally think there is a right and wrong way to handle long-term cliffhangers, and when done the wrong way, you may risk losing a reader!
Case in point for me--the Wings series by Aprilynne Pike. I adored that series, until we reached book three. I don't want to give anything away, but the book basically ended in the middle of a scene--practically in the middle of a sentence. And I was so annoyed. I never went on to read the last one, because it felt like such a money grabbing move to me. The entire third book seemed slow, like it was a little forced. Any and all action that could have been included was stripped away and replaced with a cliffhanger. Sometimes an extreme cliffhanger can make the book seem like filler, which is exactly how that book felt to me.
What do you think about cliffhangers? Love them? Hate them? Any good or bad examples? I would LOVE to hear from you!!