Hanging off a Cliff: To End in a Cliffhanger or Not to End in a Cliffhanger

As the publisher of Acorn Book Services, I get a lot of requests from new authors for editorial reviews. This is great. I love to read work by new writers who are eager to see their work in print and e-book. I feel like a prospector looking for gold and I have been lucky in having discovered some literary gems. You will discover them, too, in the upcoming months.

When I first started looking at new manuscripts, I also made a few other discoveries about the direction that books and authors are taking: Many writers have developed a big attraction toward ending their books with cliffhangers. It’s like an epidemic in literature. Some will tie up almost all of the lose ends and leave only one small dangling as a seemingly tasty lure to move on to the next book. Others will leave a bigger piece of business left undone.

One manuscript submitted to me ended literally in the middle of the climax. When I e-mailed the writer to ask where the last chapter was, he replied that the ending was in the next book. In other words, readers were going to have to buy the next book to find out how the first book ended.

Blast from the Past is Lauren Carr's fourth book in the Mac Faraday Mysteries. Even though her series contains continuing characters, each book is a stand-alone and none end with a cliffhanger.

Blast from the Past is Lauren Carr’s 4th book in the Mac Faraday Mysteries. Even though her series contains continuing characters, each book is a stand-alone & none end with a cliffhanger. (Click on Book Cover to Purchase on Amazon)

As a reader, my gut reaction when I read a book with a cliffhanger is to throw it across the room, which is risky nowadays because I don’t think Kindles like to get tossed across the room. I get mad when I watch a program on-demand and it ends with “to be continued”. What if I can’t find the next show? (which has happened) I also don’t watch continuing dramas on television. Will the big couple get together forever or will they not? End it all already. I get equally mad when I read a manuscript or a published book that ends without everything being tied up, even if it is a series.

Many budding authors who I have talked to about this epidemic have the belief that by ending a book in a cliffhanger, they are going to have a built-in, guaranteed, audience for their next book. The author who comes to their mind is J.K. Rowling. When the next to the last Harry Potter book ended in a cliffhanger, readers were waiting in lines for days for the next (which would be the last) book when it was released a year later.

It is now time to replace new cliffhanging authors’ fantasy with the reality: J.K. Rowling and other big name authors who have ended their best sellers by going over a cliff have two safety nets that new authors don’t have: An big  audience faithful enough to hang onto the cliff until the next book comes out and a huge media machine that won’t let the readers forget.

Forget? Forget what? Forget about that cliff they went over.

Maybe it’s because I’m over fifty and I have a lot of things going on, but more than once, I have read a book that ended in a cliffhanger and by a couple of days later, after I get over my mad, I forget about it. So, when the next book with the ending is available months or a year later, I have forgotten and really don’t care anymore to get the book to find out how it ended. As a matter of fact, when reminded that this book is the next one in the series that left me hanging, my mad about being left hanging is renewed.

Getting your readers mad at you for leaving them hanging is not a good thing.

Many authors are now writing book series or trilogies. Since it is a series, that means the story will need to continue on to the next book. I get that. However, there is also the obligation of the author to leave the reader feeling satisfied. You can build an audience to the point of having readers waiting with baited breath for your next book without taking them over a cliff.

Blast from the Past is the fourth book in my Mac Faraday series. It was released on January 10. Within less than a week of its release, it was in the top-100 on Amazon under the category of mystery/thrillers-police procedural. The lion’s share of buyers were fans of this series, which never ends with anything hanging. This is proof that you can develop a built-in audience without any cliffhangers.

Of course, I will admit that there are probably readers who are huge fans of cliffhangers and maybe, as an author, that is your desire. If so, here are a few things to consider and tips:

1) Do not end your first book in a cliffhanger.

Prove you are able to finish a book. If you end your first book in a cliffhanger, readers, reviewers, literary agents, publishers, will think you don’t know how to end a book. Literary Agents and commercial publishers will not consider a book from an unproven author that has no ending.

Consider this: J.K. Rowling did have an ending for the first Harry Potter book. She did not end with a cliffhanger until after she had won her audience. George Lucas literally started his famous Star Wars movies with Episode Four, which had a full ending.

2) Try to tie up as many of the lose ends as possible. The more loose ends, the less satisfied your reader is going to be.

In The Legend of Tyoga Weathersby, by H.L. Grandin, the author ends with a cliffhanger, however, he does end it in such a manner that a majority of issues pertaining to the title character are  taken care of and the reader feels as if the book is moving on to the next adventure.

3) If you are writing a series or trilogy that leaves readers hanging, have the follow up book written before you go about publishing the one with the cliffhanger.

People have short memories. Unless you have a multi-million dollar media machine behind you to keep your books in the forefront of readers minds, they are going to forget about your book and the cliffhanger.

Thank about it: Your book with the cliffhanger comes out in January. You are half-way through writing the next book. Say you are fast and finish in May. It goes into editing. You go to the beach during the summer. Maybe the book with the ending will come out next January–a year later. By then, your readers may have to re-read the first book to get up to speed with the next.

Or, worst case, you get hit by a truck and the book with the ending never comes out! In which case, your readers are left permanently hanging from the branch over the edge of the cliff.

Not a good way to have your readers remember you.

In Blast from the Past, Mac Faraday finds himself up to his eyeballs in mobsters and federal agents.

After an attempted hit ends badly with two of his men dead, mobster Tommy Cruze arrives in Spencer, Maryland, to personally supervise the execution of the witness responsible for putting him behind bars—Archie Monday!

Mac Faraday believes he has his work cut out for him in protecting his lady love from one of the most dangerous leaders in organized crime; but when bodies start dropping in his lakeshore resort town of Spencer, Maryland, things may be hotter than even he can handle.

In this fourth installment in the Mac Faraday Mysteries, readers learn more about Archie Monday’s past in a flash—as in a gun fight when the syndicate comes to town. “Readers love to be surprised,” mystery author Lauren Carr says. “In Blast from the Past, they are going to be surprised to discover the secret of Archie Monday’s past, which threatens her and Mac’s future.”

Blast from the Past also takes the Mac Faraday Mysteries to a new level as his relationship with Archie Monday moves onto a whole new level. “I do listen to readers,” Carr explains. “They have been clamoring for Mac and Archie to get together for three books.”

What about Gnarly, Mac Faraday’s canine inheritance—the only German shepherd to be dishonorably discharged from the United States Army? “It’s not a Mac Faraday Mystery without Gnarly,” Carr promises. “Let’s just say Gnarly kicks things up a notch in his own way.”

About the Author

Lauren Carr is the author of the Mac Faraday Mysteries, which takes place in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. It’s Murder, My Son, Old Loves Die Hard, and Shades of Murder, have all been getting rave reviews from readers and reviewers. Blast from the Past is the fourth installment in the Mac Faraday Mystery series.

Lauren Carr is currently scheduling her Blast from the Past Book Tour. For the schedule, or to book Lauren for your site, visit her website. Email Lauren at writerlaurencarr@gmail.com to get on her schedule.

Also receiving rave reviews, Dead on Ice, released September 1012, introduced a new series entitled Lovers in Crime, which features prosecutor Joshua Thornton with homicide detective Cameron Gates. The second book in this series, Real Murder will be released Spring 2013.

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2 thoughts on “Hanging off a Cliff: To End in a Cliffhanger or Not to End in a Cliffhanger

  1. All very good insights as usual, Lauren. But I believe that if you are careful you can leave a small cliffhanger to keep the reader intrigued and waiting for the next installment–but as you pointed out–as long as they don’t have to wait long–no more that 5-6 months for the next book. The cliffhanger should be something that can easily blend into the series as well–not something that sticks out like a sore thumb. Great article!

    • Lauren Carr

      Thanks. You are right there, Cindy.

      There are some book series that will have a major plot in the forefront, while have a smaller conflict in the background, a subplot, that does not get resolved until the last book in the series. For example, Sherlock Holmes was always chasing after Moriarty, who always managed to escape. The main plot would be the current murder case, which would get resolved to the reader’s satisfaction.

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