I Hate Cliffhangers!
I had a reader tell me this week:
Can I just ask, though, no more cliffhangers, I absolutely hate them!!
It sounds like a simple, reasonable request on the surface (especially as the grammar and spelling were impressive. I did not edit this at all). Yet my internal radar started dinging like crazy.
I did respond to my reader as succinctly as possible, although my answer still required ten minutes of reading. There was so much information backed up behind my shorthand response that I decided to round out the whole discussion here.
I Hate Cliffhangers.
I’ve been hearing “I hate cliffhangers!” a lot lately and not from editors. That’s the really surprising part.
I remember the first time I saw a reader review on Amazon that said the book was great…except for the cliffhanger at the end. It was not my book, but one I was considering buying. I ended up not buying the book. I don’t think the cliffhanger review was the sole reason why I passed, but I suspect it influenced my decision, as I don’t like cliffhangers any more than you.
I remember my brow lifting at the time, because the cliffhanger comment came from a reader. I was impressed at the reader’s sophistication and knowledge of story craft.
Also, one of my favourite authors of all time is Peter F. Hamilton. I gobbled up Pandora’s Star in about three days (and given the size of the tome, that’s saying something). Then I got to the very end of the book.
…and the two main characters fell off a cliff!
They were on a raft, came to the end of the universe and fell over the edge.
And there was a notice about the follow-up novel, Judas Unchained, right after that.
Talk about gob-smacked!
A literal cliff hanger!
I felt cheated. Nope, I felt like I’d been manipulated and disrespected.
So yeah, I hate cliffhangers. I really do.
Sometime later, one of my own books got a “I hated the cliffhanger” review. It was at that point I realized that: (a) readers as a group had learned about this thing called cliffhangers, and that they are not good, and (b) readers were confused about what cliffhangers really are. The book that got the “cliffhanger” warning did not have any cliffhangers. In fact, I don’t use cliffhangers at all because I dislike them so much.
I’ve had a few more cliffhanger warning reviews since then and every time, the reader has been wrong about there being cliffhangers. That makes me wonder if the books I have been avoiding because of cliffhanger warnings may have been worthy reads after all. Pity.
It feels to me like readers have picked up the technical lingo, and also learned that cliffhangers are bad, bad, bad, so now they get offended if what they think is a cliffhanger is visible anywhere at the end of the story.
Actually, what most readers think are cliffhangers really aren’t.
Real cliffhangers are bad, bad, bad, by the way…if they appear in story structures not designed to support them. That would be all movies, most TV series, and all novels, novellas, novelettes or short stories, whether they are part of a series or stand-alone. I include graphic novels in the group, too.
So what is a “real” cliffhanger?
Before the emergence of film and movies, novels were the entertainment of the masses. Each novel was a complete story, even if those novels took thousands of pages — Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, at 655,478 words, and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy at 587,287 words, being well-known examples. (Compare those word counts to the average novel today of around 80,000 words…and novels are getting shorter every year.)
Novels were all stand-alone stories. They started, they ended, a sequel was rarely written. In order to encompass that start and end, the novels would be as long as they needed to be (very long, in the case of Tolstoy and Hugo, and even Charles Dickens was no slouch), but they were just one novel. At the end, all the plot lines were tied up, characters were happy or dead, and the reader got his catharsis, because the resolution was clear (even if it wasn’t happy).
Fast forward to the early twentieth century and silent movies, and radio soap dramas…and pulp fiction. The Perils of Pauline is just one example of the “serials” of the day. Radio dramas were structured exactly the same way. Each week the heroine (or the usually rock-jawed hero) would be put through all manner of shocking and breath robbing perils for the duration of the episode. At the end, Pauline would face the ultimate peril.
Perhaps the most famous of those perils in popular memory was Pauline tied to train tracks by the dastardly bad guy. The episode closes as a train comes steaming down the tracks toward Pauline….
(In actual fact, Pauline in the original 1913 movies was never tied to railway tracks, but the myth has stuck.)
These radio plays and movies and stories were not called serials when they first emerged, but by 1937, serials were a popular format. They all featured an ending of high suspense and jeopardy. For example, the hero is hanging from the edge of a cliff by one hand, while the bad guy chips away at the cliff face with a pickaxe.
This gave rise to the term “cliffhanger”.
All cliffhangers would end with the moment of greatest peril, usually with a placard announcing; “To be continued….”
Cliffhangers are an accepted form of serial endings. The story doesn’t get wrapped up. All those nail biting story questions are resolved in the next installment. However a new cliffhanger was used to end that episode, and so the reader was pulled through a serial from beginning to end.
Back in 1937, when movie goers went to the movie house every week, or tuned in to the radio the same night every week, or brought their favorite pulp magazine every month, having to wait for the next issue/episode to see what happens next was just fine.
There are still serial-style story structures around today. The TV series 24 is a good example. And of course, the venerable midday soap operas on television are master examples.
There are also serialized fiction stories available at bookstores. For these types of stories, the cliffhanger ending to an installment is expected and perfectly acceptable.
However, this is the age of binge-watching/reading and on-demand everything. Readers have been trained to not wait to find out what happens next and get impatient if they have to. Evidence of this is that the more successful written serials publish every installment at almost the same time, or with very little time between installments, so a reader can move through the episodes as fast as they wish.
As a result, serials in any form are fairly rare these days and hugely successful serials are even more unusual.
Let’s get back to classic novels for a minute.
The accepted, traditional form of story structure in novels (and movies, so assume I’m talking about both) is that all story problems introduced at the beginning of the novel are resolved by the end.
As I mentioned earlier, when novels were the only form of mass entertainment, resolving the big, complicated stories with many characters could take thousands of pages, but by the end of the novel, everything was wrapped up, happily or not. Cliffhangers were unheard of.
Even today, if a stand-alone novel ended on a cliffhanger, you would be right to throw rotten tomatoes at it.
Then we come to series.
Book series are a relatively new invention in fiction publishing. In the heyday of paperback publishing, series were common in only certain genres. Perhaps the earliest examples would be Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series. However, the books she wrote featuring Hercule Poirot were never marketed as series. They were only collected together in a reader’s mind that way. I know I tended to lump them together.
Those sorts of series would have a setting or character or both that were the common thread running from book to book.
One of my favorite series ever was Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise series of novels (not the comic strip). The two main characters, Modesty and Willie, were in every novel and every novel featured an ingenious caper. Everything else was up for grabs, including where it was set, who else was in it, the antagonist, sub-plots and all the sexy stuff that made the series notorious. You could pick up The Night of Morningstar, which was the eleventh book in the series, published in 1982, and read that first, with no loss of comprehension. Then you could read the original book in the series, Modesty Blaise, published in 1965, and still enjoy it. In fact, that was how I read the series. I tripped over I, Lucifer in a secondhand bookstore, then went back to find the rest of the series.
This style of series is called “episodic”. Just like a stand-alone novel, the story problems introduced at the beginning of the novel are wrapped up by the end.
TV series, when they first started airing, were also neatly episodic. The shows of the 1950s and 60s–I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, Gilligan’s Island, Perry Mason, even Star Trek—were all cut up into discrete story-telling bits, just like traditional novels.
A lot of comedies are like this. M*A*S*H* is a very good example, especially the early seasons. There was no connective tissue from one episode to the next.
Interestingly, if you look back at the later seasons of M*A*S*H*, you begin to see ongoing story arcs, especially character-oriented ones, like Margaret’s love life, and Klinger developing into a pretty straight and thoughtful guy who ends up staying in Korea, after all.
It was around the time M*A*S*H* ended that TV series started to move away from the fully self-contained episodic stories to stories with ongoing arcs.
Writers and viewers quickly realized that storylines which spread over many episodes allowed for some incredibly complex characters and story-telling, which added depth to the stories and made them far more enjoyable. The fact that ongoing series storylines also brought viewers back week after week didn’t hurt, either.
These days, TV series are nearly all this type of series, where there are story problems introduced at the start of the episode and resolved at the end, mixed in with series question that spread over the entire season or series.
Especially, many drama series have huge season and series storylines that spread over many, many episodes. You may get a quarter inch of airtime dealing with any single arc in this episode, another half inch in that episode over there, and sometimes a whole episode may focus on that arc. There will be forward movement from episode to episode, but the arc doesn’t get fully wound up until the end of the season or series.
Interestingly, many new series start off as “problem of the week” style stories. Crime of the week, romance of the week, funny problem of the week, etc. The successful series quickly include seasonal and series-long problems, developing the characters and situations for the long term. The really, really good series get right into season/series questions from episode one.
Within a season, you can occasionally get a two-parter episode. Guess how that episode ends at the end of the first part? Yes, at a cliffhanger.
However, in general, whatever story problem is introduced at the beginning of a normal episode gets wrapped up by the end of the episode, giving the viewer the psychological payoff that good story-telling delivers, while the series questions bring them back for more.
It’s a far more complicated type of storytelling than simple stand-alone novels/episodes allow. Please note: Series storytelling does not use cliffhangers, if the story-teller knows what they are doing…and what their story-telling does to the reader. That psychological pay-off at the end of the story is crucial to leaving the viewer happy and satisfied.
TV series have taught novelist a great deal about series writing. The marketing of a series and advertising it as a series is very new. Series drive indie author brands, so the art and science of series is exploding right along with the indie publishing industry.
To leave any of the story problems dangling right at the end (as opposed to series questions) is to create a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers in novels is a cheap trick that manipulates the readers, who expect all the story problems to be wrapped up neatly at the end. Readers have a right to pissed when the author does this. It’s shoddy technique and authors who use it don’t understand how they are damaging their story by not delivering that satisfying ending.
So when you hear that cliffhangers are bad, bad, bad, that is what is really meant: Cheap tricks and tawdry come-ons that leave a sour taste in your mouth (or leave you with your eyes rolling).
The opposite of cliffhangers.
On the other hand, if everything is wrapped up at the end of every story so there are absolutely no on-going series questions, then you as a reader experience psychological closure. Your engagement in that story and those characters drops down to almost nothing.
This is the definition of the early episodic series and shows why series with series questions connecting them have become the preferred style.
Perhaps the perfect example of closure gone wrong is the TV series Moonlighting, which used the sexual tension between Maddie and David as the only series question. It was a doozy, though. It shot the series up to the top of the ratings. However, once the writers could find no more excuses to keep the two characters out of the bedroom (and once the viewers had reached the end of their patience), and Maddie and David did the deed, ratings tanked. There were no more series questions to be answered and therefore no tension. Viewers got their closure.
Would the series have survived if there had been other intriguing series questions still in play? It’s hard to say, in hindsight. However, my bet is that the ratings would have slid somewhat, because the will-they-won’t-they story was so compelling, but with other series questions still running, to induce viewers back to find out what happens, the ratings may have been saved from hitting the basement.
SF series are getting in on the act.
Novel series use both story problems and series questions to bind the series together and encourage the reader to keep reading, but often, you can’t dive into the series with any book. You have to start at the beginning with book 1.
Even SF series are growing more complex, thanks to indie publishing.
In the good ol’ days of traditional publishing, a writer might have intended to write a full series of SF novels, complete with story arcs, character arcs, and a complex world.. But the vagaries of traditional publishing, including the horrid practice of printing-to-net meant that many series never saw the light of day. One or two books, and then nothing, leaving readers with a bad taste in their mouths.
This started a practice that you can still spot in classic SF, where the first book is completely stand-alone. Perfect example: Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. The first book, Dragonriders of Pern, is completely self-contained. You could stop reading right there and have everything wrapped up.
It was only when the book sold like hot cakes that the publishers released more books in the series, and those books have on-going story arcs.
You see that a lot. Dune, by Frank Herbert is another example.
Indie publishing allows authors to complete a full series and publish it, to the delight of readers.
I tend to write these more complicated styles of series.
These lingering series questions are not cliffhangers.
And this is where I think many readers are falling foul of the meme that cliffhangers are offensive.
True cliffhangers in a novel series are offensive.
If all the story problems introduced at the beginning of the story are answered, if the heroes (or H&H’s) issues are all resolved, then, even if there are lingering story questions, there are no cliffhangers to get miffed about.
If series questions really upset you as a reader, then perhaps reading series is not for you.
Series questions are what keep you as a reader psychologically engaged in a series. If I introduce no series questions, then your drive to read the next book in the series would be zero.
Series questions are not cheap, shoddy manipulation tricks. They are solid story craft used by every story-teller the world over, no matter what the medium.
Instead of resenting what you think of as cliffhangers, (especially as series questions style story-telling is not going away), you should relax and enjoy the suspense and savor the anticipation, knowing that it will make the next book/episode so much more pleasurable, because you’re already psychologically invested in it.
And practice binge-reading, too.
Do feel free to throw rotten tomatoes at any author or writer who does use a true, cheap and tawdry cliffhanger without a seriously good excuse (Peter F. Hamilton, I’m looking at you!).
I’ll even supply the fruit.