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.