Writing a book that ends up being a very long tale can often mean breaking your manuscript into multiple books. It is very tempting when you need to do this to end on a dramatic cliffhanger to try to pull your readers into the next one. But should you?
Good news, you absolutely can end a book with a cliffhanger if done carefully. Write so that readers do not feel the book just stops right in the middle of the storyline. Instead, ensure they get a distinct, satisfying end to that part while weaving in a cliffhanger connected to the next book.
How We Love and Hate Cliffhangers
In one way, we love cliffhangers as they keep us enthralled with a story and wanting more. Think about the most recent dramatic or action series you watched. Most episodes likely ended on a cliffhanger and you couldn’t wait for the next to find out what happens, right?
But we also hate them. We hate to be kept waiting. We want to know what happens now! We like immediate gratification, particularly in a book series where the next one may not come out for many months.
As you decide whether to use a cliffhanger at the end of your novel, keep this mixed love and hate in mind that we have for them.
Bring Resolution to the Story
To keep people happy, the most important thing to keep in mind as you plan out the book is to make sure you bring some kind of resolution to the plot before the end of the current book.
Each book in a series should have a very clear story arc with the beginning, middle and end. Your cliffhanger should work towards the much longer over-arcing plotline that goes through all the different books.
Readers will be more accepting if you make sure the cliffhanger is a suspenseful scene that leads into the next book as long as you have already given them an engaging story.
If you do not carefully execute this, people will think you have done it just to divide it into two or more books to push them to buy another and make a bit more money.
Also, build up to the story cliffhanger throughout the book, don’t just drop it in totally unexpectedly. It should make sense in the context of what they have just read.
There should be a clear benefit of following it on to the next book in the series and this comes from carefully weaving it in and building through the story.
Just make it a satisfying experience, not a story that just stops suddenly and they will generally forgive you.
Handling a Fix Length Series
If you are writing a fixed-length series such as a trilogy, you should be able to plan your two significant cliffhangers at the end of book one and book two during your plotting phase.
This type of fixed-length series is a little easier to build in cliffhangers as you typically plot out the full series story in an outline before you begin. This allows you to craft a story that has some natural breakpoints where you can put your cliffhangers.
You also get to make sure you have sufficient build-up of the main series-wide plot in each book which helps the cliffhanger feel natural and not forced.
Make sure to plot carefully right at the start to successfully incorporate your cliffhangers.
Open-Ended Series and the Cliffhanger Dilemma
If you are writing a more open-ended series such as a detective fiction series of novels, you will have to handle cliffhangers much more carefully.
Because you don’t have any definitive ending to the series, you will need to be a bit more subtle with your cliffhangers.
They will typically be more related things such as the character’s personal life, relationship, or professional life than the book’s story as these obviously continue on with each book.
Suppose you do have the opportunity to plan a few ideas you intend to use in future novels, such as a bad guy that you would like to return at some point. In that case, this can allow you to have something of a cliffhanger related to that character.
The risk is that if you don’t follow up on these types of plus hangers in the next book or very soon, people will feel somewhat annoyed I’m let down that you didn’t follow up.
So a little planning and you can use a few end-of-book cliffhangers if done right.
Although we love to hate them, cliffhangers are a very effective storytelling tool. Do not be afraid to use them just because you read online about people’s dislike for them.
Just plan carefully and they can be super effective at bridging the gap to the next book.