Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Cliffhangers are evil

A post at Book Riot: Cliffhangers: is the suspense worth it?

Spoiler: my opinion is NO.  Let’s see what the author of the post says …

Oh, it turns out she is even more NO that I am:

Because cliffhangers occur at the end of a story, I finish the book with a bad taste in my mouth about the whole thing. It ruins the whole reading experience for me. It could have been a fine book up until the final “…”

For me, when a book leaves off like that, even if I really want to see what happens, and even if the Goodreads reviews are decent for the sequel, I refuse to read the next book.

Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Usually.  But being burned by cliffhangers long ago when I was young and impressionable means that I generally try to avoid reading more than than the first book of a series until the whole series is complete. I hate the feeling of dread when I am coming up on the end of a book and there doesn’t seem to be room left for the story to finish. It makes me want to just stop right there, without getting to the final …..

In case you are interested, here is the book that gave me a serious aversion to cliffhangers: The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly

When I read this book, it had just come out. That was 1986. I think this was the worst cliffhanger I had ever seen. It’s still in the top ten. The second book did not come out till 1988. Note that the hatred of cliffhangers this series instilled in me has lasted, so far, for 32 years. Pretty sure this is an aversion that is not going to wear off, ever.

It is of course much worse when the second book never actually comes out at all.

Things I don’t mind: a book that ends with loose threads. As long as something important is wrapped up, I’m okay with it. For example, take Foreigner. Waiting for the actual end of that series, well, a person could live a full life and die of old age before it ends, apparently. (Which is great, I’m not remotely tired of it yet.) But there’s no problem because (a) every book is self-contained, or (b) if not, at least every sub-trilogy is self-contained, which is close enough.

With new-to-me authors, I read the first one to see if I like it, then buy the others as they come out and shelve them until the whole series is available. This worked well for The Thousand Names series, the first three books of which were pretty much self-contained but the fourth of which ended with a cliffhanger. I was really glad I had the fifth right there.

Note that if readers don’t buy the books as they come out, the publisher may decide sales don’t justify finishing the series at all, so there you are, stuck with half a series. This is highly unfortunate, to say the least, and that is why I do buy the books and hang onto them while I wait. I have no problem looking at a book without reading it for a year or two or three. Ten might be different, but that’s the risk you take when you buy books as they come out. Hopefully the author won’t be struck by a meteor before finishing the series, but you never know.

How about you all, do you feel the same way about cliffhangers? Can you peg a book that burned you badly enough with that kind of ending that you have never quite gotten over the experience?

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9 Comments Cliffhangers are evil

  1. Megan

    I’ve been burned on cliffhangers. Worst one was a sequel series to a series I had liked (which did finish) which I guess didn’t sell well enough for them to ever publish book 3 of the trilogy. Which left the main character of the sequel series literally buried alive in cement (and he’s relatively immortal so he’d have a long time to appreciate this). Still mad about that.

    I prefer series with books where each book has some kind of ending even if the ongoing plot is still a bit of a cliffhanger. That leaves me feeling okay with having finished the book even if I really want the next one.

  2. SarahZ

    I was just reading an Eileen Wilks book that basically ended mid-fight, with no plot lines concluded. It isn’t at all the standard for that series, so I was pretty annoyed.

  3. Pete Mack

    My favorite cliff-hanger remains The Empire Strikes Back, with (spoiler!) Han Solo frozen in carbonite. That was by far the best Star Wars film.

  4. Craig N.

    To me, the paradigmatic cliffhanger ending will always be the end of THE TWO TOWERS. Particularly since he doesn’t immediately pick it up in the next volume: I don’t know how many times it was before I actually read LotR straight through.

    (Imagine reading them as they came out, with nine months between the two volumes.)

  5. Rachel

    Why did I not think of The Two Towers? I bet I’d read TLotR four times at least before I ever read the stuff in between Frodo getting caught and then getting rescued.

    SarahZ, especially if it’s a series novel, and the series is not known for that, I think the author / publisher really ought to include a warning somewhere prominent … but what I REALLY think is, the author should try harder to tie up something important in that book! Maybe it’s just not possible (says my writer brain). Find a way! (insists my reader brain).

    Megan, very uncool. I might try to write an ending myself, just so I could feel better about it.

  6. Macsbrains

    Hmm, I can’t remember my first book cliffhanger, but the first TV one I remember was the last episode of the 3rd season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when Captain Picard becomes assimilated by the Borg. It aired when I was 10, and I didn’t realize that TV worked in seasons; shows seemed to me to air randomly according to the predictions of that magical grimoire, the TV Guide. But after I was left to wonder what fate would befall Picard, my Dad explained that there wouldn’t be an episode the following week and I’d have to wait till the end of summer and that the purpose of the cliffhanger was so I would be inclined to seek out the show again after it disappeared for 3 months. How anyone could forget about Star Trek was beyond me, but I found it mostly curious, rather than frustrating, and as I was out playing through the summer I would occasionally consider possible outcomes to the episode.

    Even now I don’t mind cliffhangers, most of the time, if they are constructed to be cliffhangers. What bothers me is when series go on hiatus, randomly, in the middle of something (usually for reasons beyond the author’s control) and the fate of the end is uncertain. Then it is just unfinished.

    But I read serials, including comics and manga, and am used to dealing with weekly or monthly installments with varying intervals of time in between chunks. It’s part of the appeal to be able to talk about a work with others as it’s being made.

  7. Mary Catelli

    I read through the first book of Return of the King but I was just about ready to scream when I read the first page.

  8. Rachel

    Mary, you have way more self-discipline than I do!

    Macsbrains, Oh, yeah, I remember that! I was slightly more than twice your age and therefore not startled by the idea of a season finale cliffhanger. Thinking about it, I don’t think I was ever as bothered by cliffhangers in TV as by those in books.

    Either way, unfinished series are much worse than cliffhangers. The reason McKinley’s Pegasus was so upsetting was that no one knew the second book might never. Honestly, if they had known that, I do think surely the publisher would have hesitated to publish the first without at least requiring a different stopping point.

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