Friday, July 6, 2012

Cliffhangers - Suspenseful or Irritating?

Discussion Topic: Cliffhangers - Suspenseful or Irritating?

If you follow my reviews, you've probably already noticed my thoughts on cliffhangers popping up here and there, often very opinionated...and sometimes even contradicting each other! In a horrifically generalized statement, I detest cliffhangers. However, I can name books with cliffhangers I adored. So what's the distinction?

My problem with cliffhangers is that they're often an easy, arguably cheap, way to hold the reader's attention. Have you ever found yourself in the following situation: you turn on the television, you watch a few minutes or even seconds of whatever show’s currently on, you intend to change channels but the show ends on a cliffhanger right before commercials, you don't like the show...and yet you have to know what happens next. This is what irritates me about the cliffhanger technique. The need to know "what happens next" proves that humans are curious beings, not that the story's high quality. Caring about what happens next is what counts.

Cliffhangers play more off our curiosity than our empathy or intellect. Strong characters, plots, and themes should hold a reader's attention without cliffhangers. The books I love best are ones where I do desperately want to know what happens next, but not because the author withholds secrets to lure me forward - instead because I love these characters (or perhaps themes) and I care what happens to them, be it dramatic or mundane.

I'd be curious to know how many people agree with me versus how many love cliffhangers. I'm a writer as well as a reader and I'm shocked by the common opinion among writers that the more cliffhangers packed into a book the better the book. One piece of advice I frequently encounter when reading articles or books on the craft of writing is to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. I balk at this, because, as a reader, I hate that method (and I do buy into the advice "write what you want to read"). So I would be very curious to know if readers really love the cliffhanger as much as writers think.

I like each chapter to have a sense of closure, as that's often where I pause. When a chapter ends on a cliffhanger I do read on longer than I intended, but I find myself irritated rather than impressed. Usually I read only as much as needed (a sentence, a paragraph, a page) to resolve whatever cliffhanger kept me reading and then I go ahead and close the book anyway, annoyed that it didn't reach that nice stopping point in between chapters.

Don't get me started on chapters that cut off mid-scene or, even worse, mid-conversation! (Hmm, too late.) Sometimes scenes or conversations "black out." They continue off the page and leave room for interpretation, but the scene won't pick up again later; it's done! This doesn't bother me. What annoys me is when a chapter or an entire book in a series ends mid-conversation or mid-scene only to pick up where it left off in the next chapter or book. Why then, I always think, can't the conversation be kept together, whole? It makes sense stylistically if we only see pieces of a certain scene every few chapters if it slowly gives context to the story. But if there's nothing else in between the conversation or scene, I see no point in slicing it down the middle with a chapter or book divide. The clear aim is to keep the reader reading - you already started that conversation or scene, so you follow it across to the next chapter or rush out to get the next book. However, in the best writing we forget the author exists and only think about the characters and the plot. Clumsy cliffhangers make me all too aware that a writer's attempting to manipulate me, thus dragging me out of the story.

So when do I like a cliffhanger? Above all else, the story cannot lean on this tool. Usually when I enjoy cliffhangers the most is when I’m already entirely invested in the story and characters. As I touched on above, I more or less never like cliffhangers that cut off mid-conversation or mid-scene, but rather ones that still possess some measure, however small, of closure and resolution. There may be a lot of questions left unanswered, but the author makes a skilled attempt to draw meaning from this particular stopping point rather than simply cutting off, thus utilizing our primal "need to know."

I've been avoiding specific examples, because they exclude people who haven't read that book, (and they often include spoilers!) but I'll list two for anyone who wants an idea of what cliffhangers I do like. The first: LORD OF THE WHITE HELL by GINN HALE left me absolutely desperate for the book’s sequel. It's my favorite kind of cliffhanger. We know exactly what happens. What I craved to know is how the protagonist recovers. Therefore, my frantic desire to know "what happens next" remained rooted in character. Hale crafted a protagonist I cared about, so that knowing how events played out wasn't enough anymore. The climatic event passed, its ramifications were established, but even as things settled down I found myself desperate to check in with the protagonist and ensure he's emotionally okay. My second example: DARK WHISPERS by BRUCE COVILLE, the third book in a quartet, ends on an intense cliffhanger. However, it also has that magical sense that the book couldn't have ended any other way. Despite leaving plenty of plot threads open, the end is a good stopping point. The characters spent most of the book fighting to keep the villain from accomplishing a certain goal. At the very end of the third book the villain accomplishes that goal. Sure, that climatic ending falls in cliffhanger territory, but there's a clear divide: the third book is the story of a failed attempt at preventing disaster while the next book will focus on the consequences of that failure.

At the root of this pet peeve, I want to love a book because of the complex characters, the unexpected relationships, the intriguing themes, the discussions and questions raised, and the way the story makes me feel. Honestly, yes, I want the author to manipulate me, but it's a fine line. There's skillful manipulation where I forget a writer has carefully combined these elements to tug my emotions here and there and simply fall into the story versus crass manipulation when I'm yanked from the story with the realization that someone's not telling me what I want to know right now in the hopes that withholding juicy secrets will keep me reading. Forgive the ambiguity of this statement, but in the simplest terms I like cliffhangers that feel right rather than ones that feel forced.


  1. I agree that a cliffhanger has be done right, your argument makes a lot of sense. I definitely do no like when an author ends each chapter with one, just like with any literary technique that kind of abuse just leads to it looking ridiculous rather than giving meaning to the writing.

  2. I completely agree, 90% of the time cliffhangers are obnoxious and are a marketing strategy to get a multi-book deal, the other 10% are necessary and well done (in which case, they annoy me only if the following novel hasn't been published).