To Cliffhanger or Not to Cliffhanger, That is the Question…


by Sara Butler Zalesky

Not long ago, an installment on A Writer’s Path was “How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat“, written by novelist/guest poster Larry Kahaner.

While I balked at the title, I liked the article and even commented: ‘If the story is as good as French Macaroons, readers will go on to the second book in the series.’ As more people commented on the post, I started to think defensively because Wheeler kind of ends on a cliffhanger. Sort of. The Mama Bear came out to protect what is essentially my soul.

“I hate it when…” “I wouldn’t read that if…”  Such a strong word, hate is. Such negativity, which is probably why the title irked me in the first place. To ‘cheat’ would be to NOT write the end of the story. Taking a story to multiple books gives the author the ability to tell it, completely, i.e. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings.

To clarify the original meaning of ‘cliffhanger’, Wikipedia says: “A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.”

Can a story still be a cliffhanger if nobody’s actually hanging off a cliff?

I’ll use “Desolation of Smaug” in the Hobbit cinematic version as an example of a true, unsatisfying cliffhanger. When I watched the movie, I stood up at the end and screamed: “NO! This CANNOT be how it ends!”  I stomped around for about an hour before moving on with my life. When the next movie came out, I happily paid my $12.25 to go see it; but hey, that’s me.

Another example, Rick Riordan’s book Mark of Athena. I’ve read all of the Heroes of Olympus series and they all had me eagerly waiting for the next one. At the end of Mark, Percy and Annabelle are literally hanging by a thread before tumbling down into Tartarus.

While little is resolved, I knew the story continued and when I got the email that the next book in the series was about to come out – a year later!! – I happily plunked down my Target card and got the next hard cover for my set. Read it in two days because I was invested.

The Divergent series. Harry Potter, especially the later books. That vampire/werewolf Meyer series. None of these were cliffhangers per se; the major plot line didn’t end, only the secondary ones did. Still, they made for good stories and the reader looks forward to the next one. Okay, maybe not the vampire/werewolf ones.

If every story was wrapped up in a pretty little bow with a happy ending, it would be an incredibly boring story. In my opinion.




Guest post contributed by Sara Butler Zalesky. Sara is the author of the novel Wheeler, bringing the excitement of the women’s European cycling peloton together with women’s fiction, romance, and suspense. She is a paralegal at a boutique law firm in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA, an avid road cyclist, and indoor cycling instructor. 

14 thoughts on “To Cliffhanger or Not to Cliffhanger, That is the Question…

  1. I think the original article was more so talking about the cliffhangers that author’s use to not resolve the plot. I loved the cliffhanger in Mark of Athena, but I didn’t feel cheated because we’d already gotten a pretty full narrative in that story. I also think there’s an exception to be made once you’re two or three books into a series. Cliffhangers after book 1 usually leave a bad taste in my mouth, but if I’m on book 3/4/5/etc, I already trust the author, and I’m less likely to feel cheated by a cliffhanger ending if I’ve already willingly picked up multiple books of theirs before.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Some readers feel they are cheated if they read a book and come to a cliff hanger ending. I’ve seen readers complain bitterly saying the author should have warned them before they spent their money. But that is just madness, as you say there are plenty examples of books with successful cliffhangers, which audiences accept as part of a series.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t mind if the author leaves minor threads dangling (presuming they resolve them in the next book), but a book should resolve the main issue that kicked off the story.
    FWIW, Tolkien originally wrote LOTR as one book. The publisher broke it up into three. Of course, some people don’t like reading doorstopper books and would prefer to read the narrative in more bite-sized pieces.
    Either way someone is going to feel miffed, so we might as well write it the way we want the story to go 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I’ve got to admit that I dislike stories that leave the reader or viewer to make up there own mind (not sure if that counts as a cliffhanger) I am a total fan off the man in the white hat who rides off into the sunset with the heroine. As far as serials are concerned you have to have a cliffhanger otherwise no one is going to want to see what happens next. As far as chapters are concerned that is good story telling? There has been many occasions when the alarm clock states 3am and I am still looking for a stopping place 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m probably out of step, but I love stories that end with ambiguity. Open ended stories stay with me and make me part of the narrative.
    The way Hollywood has derailed the art of the satisfying cliffhanger, by making the current narrative an advertisement for the next installment just makes me angry. And neatly wrapped up packages with pretty bows kind of bore me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are a lot of readers who think like you. I’ve been told that to keep the reader engaged, you have to keep the angst high. What better way than to have the main goal of the MC fulfilled, but look forward to how the mess that created is resolved.


  6. A few years ago I bought a first book in a series. Normally, each book ends but leaves you wanting to know more. This book did not end. If you did not buy the next one, then you never knew how the author ended it. I could imagine my own ending, but that isn’t why I buy a book. I didn’t bother to buy the rest of the series. It was a well-written book and enjoyable to read. I was truly sorry the author thought she’d be cute and force the reader to buy the next book. Her writing would have done that for her.


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