Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Cliffhanger endings

There are basically five types of cliffhanger-ish endings I can think of. Here they are:

Type A: At least one main character is in a truly dire predicament and wham! The book ends. This is like The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly, which is still the worst cliffhanger ending I have ever seen in a fantasy novel. In response to Elaine’s comment, I think I’d tend to put Frodo’s predicament here, and note that it took at least a decade for me to read the whole LotR trilogy rather than skipping forward to pick up Frodo and Sam’s plotline in the next book.

Type B: All the important characters are in an okay place and there is a natural pause in the action, but none of the big plot threads have been resolved.

Type C: The Big Bad is ascendant plus at least one important character is in a fairly dire predicament when the story ends. This is like Jinx by Sage Blackwood. Also perhaps like the 4th book of Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series.

Type D: All the biggest stuff has been resolved, but nevertheless, an important character has been left in a predicament of some kind when the story ends.

Type E: All the biggest stuff has been resolved, but there is at least one important plot thread that has been left hanging.

Vote, please! Which of the above types are really disturbing to you as a reader? Which, if any, are okay?

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12 Comments Cliffhanger endings

  1. Mary Beth

    I’d prefer Type B or E—especially if I’m going to wait a while on the next book. I still have trauma from Mat Cauthon being left under a collapsed wall for an entire book!

  2. Amy R

    C is the worst cliffhanger (see King Javan’s Year, which I can only read when my mental health is rock-solid).
    All the others are viable endings (augh, Antryg!) depending on the story.

  3. Elaine T

    Is type C “Frodo was alive, but taken by the enemy”. turn page. end of the Two Towers type? That’s a bad one. I can’t remember the Silent Tower at all – my example may be a type A.

    Type B is an acceptable ending. Types D and E are also, if it’s made clear that there will be a follow up book.
    There was a series by Anson Dibble that was published here as a trilogy (in the Netherlands there were five books). Book 3 ended with assorted things resolved and a major character going off down the river on a new adventure. I wouldn’t have minded reading more, but all the major plot threads of the three books were tied up. I didn’t have to find out what happened with that character.

    I remember somewhere GGK remarking that people kept demanding sequels because he left ‘cliffhanger’ endings, (I suspect Tigana especially got that) when what he was trying to write was “life goes on endings. ” I don’t know how to solve that problem.

  4. Lindsey

    If there is a cliffhanger E and D are the best way to go. B is also acceptable. A and C are the worst!

  5. SarahZ

    Cliffhangers of any of those kinds can be ok with me, as long as it feels like *something* ended. It can’t feel like the author just forgot to write the next chapter (eg, that McKinley Pegasus book). But, it depends somewhat on the genre. Like, if I was promised a romance, the couple better have made up with each other by the end. (I’m looking at you, Crazy Rich Asians)

  6. Hanneke

    I agree with Elaine T. Type A and C I find intolerable.

    Type B, I need to be very sure there’s a sequel in the works, which will be published within a reasonable time, like no more than a year. I might hold off on reading it until I’ve got the next/final book, but I would buy it to support the writer while writing that next book – if I trust her. For instance, CJ Cherryh’s Alliance Rising – I heard that has a cliffhanger ending (I don’t know which type, as I haven’t read it) so it’s waiting on my shelf for the next book to come out.
    No endless waiting for a book that might never come, like McKinley’s Pegasus; that was what I was thinking of when I said something like this breaks my trust in an author.

    Type D, it depends on the predicament. If it’s immediate, both serious and urgent, I really dislike those. Like what Mary Beth said: don’t leave a character under a collapsed wall for a long time. If you fish him out and put him in the hospital/medic’s tent, I can wait to find out what happens next, whether he recovers completely/lost a limb/was traumatised & continues the quest/retires from the story (maybe to provide an unexpected safe house when the protagonist goes on the run) etcetera.

    Type E is acceptable – life goes on. People don’t stay where you put them. Mayor characters going off on a new adventure is okay; so are a few unresolved smaller threads, like the one about Barr’s daughter that Lois McMaster Bujold left at the end of the Sharing Knife, and picked up in Knife Children.
    The Malices weren’t solved forever at the end of the Sharing Knife, either, and that was okay because it wasn’t the protagonists’ job to solve them “once and for all”. They brought their world to the start of a positive way forward into the future, with the coöperation between Lakewalkers and Farmers off to a good start; and they reached the settling-point in their own lives, where they came to the end of their personal quest adventures and could settle down and live their own lives.
    That view to a positive way forward in future, both for the people involved and the broader canvas, is something I need, to be content with an ending. That we don’t get to know how this will play out exactly is acceptable to me.

  7. Pete Mack

    The shorthand term for class C endings surely is ‘frozen in carbonite’. But this is hardly intolerable, as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is by far the most popular Star Wars movie.

  8. Rachel

    Pete, even I, not particularly a Star Wars fan, definitely think of this as a “frozen in carbonite” ending whenever I see it.

  9. Jeanine

    To be fair, Robin McKinley didn’t intend to leave Pegasus unfinished for so long, but life (and illness and death in the family happened). A sequel was still in the works, last I heard. I can understand the dismay at an indefinitely incomplete story, however. Generally speaking though, cliffhangers don’t bother me as long as I have reason to believe they’ll get resolved eventually. No Mystery of Edwin Drood or Sanditon for me!

  10. Rachel

    Jeanine, I know in THEORY Pegasus will be finished someday. I have not only serious doubts, but a basic conviction it never will be.

    My solution to this sort of problem: Never, ever bring out the first book of a series, with a cliffhanger ending, until the second book is actually completed. Or however many are necessary to resolve the basic plotline(s) of the story. Period. Just never do that.

    I am aware that this is not a perfect solution. For example, I’m glad to have read the Steerswoman series, to the point it exists, even if the series never gets completed.

    Nevertheless, overall, I think it’s a superior strategy to avoid that situation entirely by completing the story before breaking it into volumes and starting to bring them out.

  11. Kathryn McConaughy

    I am not okay with A. I feel like A exists to sell the next book. This makes me grumpy.
    For C, it depends on what exactly the predicament is. Frozen in carbonite is okay, in a dungeon is okay as long as they are imminently going to starve or something. In the process of falling off a cliff is not okay. (I recent book I was reading did this. NO.)
    Other options are fine.
    Regarding Sanditon – there is an excellent completed version by Mary Anne Dobbs that Austen herself might approve of.

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