I recently watched the PBS Masterpiece mini-series, Endeavour. You might be familiar with Inspector Morse from the Colin Dexter books or the Mystery series. Endeavour portrays Inspector Morse as a young Detective Constable in the 1960s. It’s free on Amazon Prime, which means I got to binge watch two seasons.
It was awesome.
Until the end. Season 2 ended with young Morse in jail thanks to the corrupt Masonic society that had infiltrated Oxford’s politics and police force. And if I were that kind of person, I would have thrown my computer across the room.
Of course, I’m not that kind of person. I’ve never even thrown a book. How could I? I love books. Most books, anyway.
The point is, I was mad at the writers, director, and producers for leaving the season with a cliffhanger. I quick changed my browser from Amazon to PBS and checked the listings. Nothing. I don’t even know when Season 3 of Endeavour will come out.
Is that my problem? Or is it their problem?
It’s both. It’s my problem, because I’ve invested my time in a story that left me unsatisfied. And it’s their problem, because they’ve written a show that left me unsatisfied.
Which brings us back to my original question: Are cliffhangers evil?
(Total aside: Is anyone else singing “Cliff Hanger…hanging from a cliff?” If so, high five, my friend.)
What do you think? As a reader? As a writer?
As a reader, I don’t like them at all. As a writer, we can make a case for them. Some genres use the cliffhanger more than others, thrillers for example. And from a marketing standpoint, if your reader needs to find out what happens next, he might buy the next book in the series immediately, compulsively.
But what if your next book is still being written? Then you’ve left your reader hanging with a strong desire for the next installment and no way to get it. Just like my Endeavour situation. Some of those unsatisfied readers might remark on this fact in their reviews, might even drop a star or two off their ratings as a result. That might not be reason enough for you to avoid the cliffhanger—go forth, intrepid author!
The fact is, you can’t satisfy everyone.
But do you want them to resort to violence, tossing your book (or their e-reader) against a wall?
I’m writing a series now, which has given me reason to consider the difference between a cliffhanger and a hook while developing my own philosophy of how to end books in a series.
My end goal is to both satisfy the reader and hook him into buying the next book. To do this, I rely on a few tactics.
1. Plant Seeds
I know what the next book is going to be about, and the one after that, and the one after that. I might not have them thoroughly plotted out, but I know enough to plant some seeds in the current book that will bloom in the future books. I’m counting on the fact that readers of book 2 will enjoy being rewarding for having also read book 1, which will make them look forward to book 3 even more.
One of the ways I do this is by introducing characters and situations in book 1 that may not really be important until later books. My little girl Isabella is one such case. She’s present throughout book 1, and just when Jess’s haunted house becomes unhaunted and you think she’s done with this ghost nonsense, there’s Isabella waving to her from the window. And then there’s Love Interest #1. Just when Jess has settled down with Love Interest #2, #1 rolls back into town. He returns in the final scene. Clearly, his purpose is to get the reader wondering if Jess will return to him in the next book. I could tell you, but that would spoil my hook.
2. The Preview
The preview of the next book is your best friend. Depending on your series and the kind of continuity you have between books, you might preview the next book in an epilogue, assuming you have a prologue. Or just tack a sample from the forthcoming at the end of the current book. If your sample is a grabber—and the opening pages of any book had better be—then it will function as a hook. The best thing about the sample text is that, like a movie trailer, it’s all about the promise of what’s to come and does not, in any way, detract from what has just been.
3. Character and Setting
Your characters and your world should make readers want to stay with them, or at least come back to visit again. If you’ve got an unlikeable antihero, he’d better be damned interesting. If you’ve created a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested hell, you’d better populate it with some endearing, if difficult, characters, the ones we want to survive.
Who’d want to hang out with Rooster Cogburn if not for Mattie Ross? Who’d study Daisy Buchanan—sober anyway—if not through the eyes of Nick Carroway? Who would Marilla Cuthbert be without Anne Shirley to soften her edges? And Green Gables would not be half so lovely without Anne’s rose-tinted glasses. Who’d venture onto the Island of Dr. Moreau without Edward Prendick as the voice of moral astonishment?
One of my readers told me Skoghall sounds like the kind of place she’d like to live. I couldn’t help thinking, Yes, me too, except for all the murders and ghosts!
You might love cliffhangers and use them to great effect. By all means, do so. I, however, will stick to the hook and spare my books and my readers’ walls the pain and suffering inherent in the cliffhanger!
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