Cliffhanger Endings And Why Writers Use Them

raccoon writing a cliffhangerEvery once in a while, I’ll scan my reviews for reader feedback in hopes of finding ways I can improve future novels. I usually stick to middle-of-the-road reviews, because IMO reviewers who are “meh” about a book often offer useful feedback for authors who are willing to listen.

However, I recently happened to stumble across a negative review from a reader who complained about a “cliffhanger ending” in one of my latest novels. “Never again!” they cried, before detailing the extensive emotional and personal damage this writer had done to them.

The review went something like this:

  • “I (the reader) hate cliffhanger endings…”
  • “This other author wrote a novel that had a cliffhanger ending, and after I read that book I swore I’d never let another writer do that to me…”
  • “I’ve read this entire series, and loved it! However, this book ended in a cliffhanger ending, and now this author has earned my eternal enmity. So there!”

Alas, if I had actually ended the story on a cliffhanger, then maybe this person would have a reason to beef. But the fact is, there’s a huge difference between leaving a story unresolved (a cliffhanger ending), and simply giving readers a taste of what’s to come (the cliffhanger preview, a.k.a. the bonus scene).

I realize this may be a nuance that’s lost on some readers, so I’ll do my best to explain the difference in this post. I’ll also address why that distinction matters, why it might not matter at all to most readers, and my ultimate position on the topic. This is going to be a long post, so do bear with me.

What Is A Cliffhanger, And Why Do Writers Use Them?

There is little debate about what exactly denotes a cliffhanger in literature, television, and film. According to MasterClass.com, “A cliffhanger is a plot device in which a component of a story ends unresolved, usually in a suspenseful or shocking way, in order to compel audiences to turn the page or return to the story in the next installment.”

The italics are mine because there’s the rub. Cliffhangers are simply a device to whet the audience’s appetite for what comes next. Every writer knows this, and it’s common knowledge among readers and moviegoers as well.

This is why cliffhangers are often used, and dare I say even loved, by many popular authors and screenwriters. For example, almost every single Star Wars film contained unresolved plot points. But oddly enough, no one bitches and gripes about George Lucas’ propensity for using cliffhangers.

Curious? Hardly, and here’s why…

How Writers Craft Complete Stories

As I said, there’s a difference between an unfinished story and an unresolved plot point. Basic story structure dictates that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, the conventions of modern storytelling require that most genre novels follow the same general pattern:

The main character (the protagonist) wants something (the goal). Something or someone (the obstacle) stands between the main character and their goal. Thus, the main character must endure trials and tribulations in order to attain their goal, surmounting obstacles and defeating villains over the course of the novel (rising action) in the attainment of the intended objective (climax) and achieving a return to normalcy (denouement).

According to this model, once the stakes are delineated and the goal is defined, an expectation of fulfillment is created by the author within the reader. If the main character does not achieve their goal or resolve their dilemma in some fashion by the end of the novel, the reader will feel cheated and the story will seem incomplete.

This is why every author worth their salt takes great care to resolve major plot points by the end of every novel. In most cases, this means putting the main character through the wringer before eventually allowing them to finish what they set out to do in the first act of the story.

However, there’s nothing that says the protagonist must succeed in every outing. But if the main character does not achieve their intended goal, there had better be damned good reasons for it. As well, the plot should be resolved in a way that’s satisfying enough to justify the main character’s defeat.

Fail to do that, and you’ll have disappointed the reader. And disappointed readers generally do not come back for subsequent installments in a series of novels.

Unresolved Plot Points Do Not a Cliffhanger Ending Make

Unresolved plot points are a common device that writers use in series and serials to carry the story forward into future installments. You find this in just about every major movie franchise and novel series, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings.

Typically, this involves leaving something unsettled at the end of the novel or film, usually a minor plot point that hints at a hidden danger or coming trial the character will soon face. While it might seem unfair to some readers to leave a plot thread hanging at the end of a novel, this is very different from a failure to resolve the main storyline.

If the writer wrapped up the main story arc in the final act, then you can’t reasonably accuse the author of ending the story on a cliffhanger. For most reasonable readers and viewers, they don’t determine a story to have ended on a cliffhanger if the author has presented a complete plot arc with a beginning, a middle, and a definitive end.

Emphasis on reasonable, of course. Sadly, it has become all too common for consumers to pitch a hissy fit online whenever art and media fail to meet their personal expectations and standards.

I suppose it is the consumer’s prerogative to do so, but it seems to me that a person’s time and energy could be better utilized, I don’t know—maybe in finding other entertainment that’s to their liking?

One Reader’s Cliffhanger Is Another Reader’s Bonus Scene

Allow me to pose a question: Why do they include bonus scenes at the end of virtually every MCU movie? It’s not because they need to pad the production budget, that’s for sure.

In the movie industry, bonus scenes sell tickets to sequels and coming entries in franchises and shared universe properties. And, the majority of fans love them. Nobody, and I mean nobody complains when a bonus scene at the end of an MCU movie reveals something previously unknown, and they sure don’t bitch and gripe when a bonus scene hints at a future spin-off.

That’s because moviegoers are eager to glean every bit of enjoyment they can from the franchises in which they are invested. When the people at Marvel Studios give them a juicy bonus scene, they don’t cry foul and scream, “But you didn’t finish that subplot!” Nope, they rejoice, because they realize that more is definitely coming.

Building Anticipation Is Not A Crime

Upon viewing unresolved plot points through that lens, it becomes apparent that there is nothing wrong with giving readers a reason to anticipate the next entry in a series. Nothing.

Whenever a reviewer says something like, “Massey is just doing this to sell books!” I laugh. No shit, I’m here to sell books. This is my livelihood. It’s how I pay the bills, how I’m going to put my kid through college and retire (not from writing—from my day job gig), and I work damn hard at it.

It’s funny how you never hear someone say, “That restauranteur only sold us a delicious dessert because she wants us to come back next week. What a jerk she is, for wanting us to come back to her restaurant. The nerve!”

Yet, readers say that stuff like that about authors all the time. Here’s a news flash to folks who think authors are nothing more than greedy, money-grubbing capitalists—we eat what we kill. If we don’t keep writing books, and if readers don’t keep buying them, the checks stop coming. Then it’s back to rolling burritos at Chipotle or frothing milk at Starbucks.

So yeah, Ima sell some m’funkin’ books. And that’s not a crime, either.

Final Thoughts

Finally, I’m going to leave you with this quote from Sally Rooney. In a recent interview, her response to readers and reviewers criticizing her subject matter was as follows:

“If as a reader you want to exercise control over the kinds of things that are depicted in novels, try writing one. That’s what I did and it worked for me. If, on the other hand, you just don’t want to read novels about writers, or women, or Irish people, whatever, that’s OK, don’t read my novels. I won’t mind [emphasis mine].”

That’s pretty much how I’ve felt from the beginning about reader criticism. Sure, it sucks to get one star reviews for silly reasons, but in the grand scheme I really don’t mind all that much. As I’ve always asserted, people who hate my work aren’t my target audience.

Having said that, it bears consideration that just about every fiction novel I’ve written since Junkyard Druid has had some sort of cliffhanger bonus scene at the end. If someone has read my entire oeuvre to date, and they’re pissed because I ended a recent book with a final, tantalizing revelation hinting at future misadventures in the Druidverse, well…

…seriously, what did they expect?

Finally, if you’re one of the many loyal readers who supported my work all along, thanks for doing so. I sincerely appreciate your continued support, and I promise there’s much more to come in the Druidverse in 2022.

~MDM

8 Comments

  1. Bonita Gutierrez on January 7, 2022 at 11:21 am

    Yes to all of this! The Werewolf Whisperer (book 1) ends with a cliffhanger. BUT we pick up right where we left off with The Alpha & Omega (book 2). There have been a complaint or two about it. However, our read through rate from book 1 to book 2 is pretty good. So, I think reader’s digest it more than not. And IMO leaving the reader wanting more is always a good thing. Cheers!

  2. Samantha on January 7, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    Some peoples only joy in life is sucking the joy out of others. If you aren’t enjoying the entertainment you are consuming, pick something else.

    And I always like the Junkyard Druid series, and come back for more all the time

  3. Steve on January 7, 2022 at 4:28 pm

    Having seen some awful reviews or, worse still, a one-star rating without even an attempt to explain why such a reaction, I’m glad I only read. ? I find the same sometimes in restaurant reviews, it amazes me that such small grounds for complaint can be magnified so much.
    Ever since I began to read, any series I have enjoyed has used the unresolved sub-plot to encourage me to wait eagerly for the next installment (although if the spark between the author and me isn’t there, then no cliffhanger of any size works). I am old enough to remember Saturday morning cinema which was mostly serials all of which ended on an exciting cliffhanger to get next weeks bums on seats. I think the unresolved plot device gives a sense of continuity and ‘of a pieceness’ to a series. Stay safe and keep writing!

  4. Terri Ruppert on January 7, 2022 at 5:25 pm

    I have loved the Druid else since the beginning. Your characters grow and evolve. They aren’t stuck as “Superman” forever. Thank you for letting me ride along for the ride.

  5. Jo Whittall on January 8, 2022 at 10:10 am

    Just put a warning, ‘cliffhanger ending’ then the reader knows to wait to read until they have all the set. There is nothing worse than reading a book and finding that it has a cliffhanger ending and knowing you have to wait 6-12 months for the next one, suspecting that it will end in the same manner. I now only buy books in sets.

  6. Jon R. Osborne on January 8, 2022 at 9:32 pm

    I had a cliffhanger at the ends of book one (A Reluctant Druid) and book two (A Tempered Warrior) of my trilogy. The one at the end of book one provoked some critical reviews. I’ll be reluctant to write another cliffhanger in the nature of book one based on the reaction (even though it was inspired by something I’d read in my youth and prompted an immediate burning desire for the next installment).

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