Creativity Sessions: Cliffhangers as a Narrative Device

I enjoy cliffhangers in novels. As someone in the marketing profession, I also understand why they are often used at the ends of novels. I’ll be just finishing up the story when the author throws a curveball, making me go Oh shit, how can you leave me hanging like that?! And then Book 2 comes out and I buy it immediately, because obviously I have to see what happens. It’s good business.

But as a narrative device? I’m becoming more and more skeptical of the end-of-book cliffhanger.

The King in the North!

I had this argument with our own Jessie (you should be noticing a pattern by now) a couple years ago regarding Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. I’ll go light on the details, just in case there is still a single human left who has not either read the books or watched HBO’s smash hit of the same name.

We should mostly all know what happens at the end of book 1 by now (or season 1, for you heathen non-book-readers). A particular character dies, causing a chain of events to unravel which ultimately leads to civil war in the Seven Kingdoms.

When I first read through this section, I was ecstatic. Not that the character died, but that another character decided to declare war on the Crown; it’s one of those Oh shit! moments. After forcing her to read book 1 and share in my newfound literary love, Jessie declared that she did not enjoy it as much as she might have, mainly because it does not stand on its own as a singular novel.

Here’s where I’ll just name-drop, because while I see her point that book 1 sets up directly for book 2, I think it still stands on its own. Even with the mini cliffhanger of Robb Stark declaring war on the Crown, there is a pretty clean end to the story. Ned Stark was the focus of the book; his story ended. And yes, it can be assumed that events will continue in a historical context, but isn’t that always the case? Maybe it’s because I always look at narratives in the macro, but no story ever really ends. It just ends in its most contemporaneous form.

Plus, I’m betting it’s virtually impossible to write an epic fantasy series where each book can fully stand on its own. That’s why it’s a series.

Say No to Cliffhangers

Anyway, I get why major cliffhangers can be irritating to readers at the end of a book. It feels like more of a page-break than a conclusion.

I’m beginning to think it’s a bit of a cheap shot, an easy way for an author to keep fans enticed by throwing in a moment of suspense before the curtain falls. But really, if the story stands on its own as an engaging narrative with a logical progression of events (which is always the goal), then the cliffhanger should not be necessary to keep fans enticed for future stories.

I had such a cliffhanger planned for “Jaed and Aston”, where the fate of one character is left in limbo, to be discovered again in part 2. This was problematic for me for a few reasons.

  1. It forced me to consider my first book in terms of how it sets up the second book, which is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Part 2 of “Jaed and Aston” will not and was never intended to be a traditional sequel, where the narrative picks right up where it left off with mostly the same actors, and perhaps a few new ones sprinkled in to keep it fresh. “Jaed and Aston” is a singular narrative, while “Part 2” will be more of a follow-up, diverging away from the main thread of part 1 and following a tangential stories.
  2. In trying to set the stage for “Part 2”, this cliffhanger did not leave me much room to potentially advance the narrative timeline. Readers would have wanted to know what happened to Character A. And I’m frankly not sure where “Part 2” will pick up. It could be a few months removed from the end of “Jaed and Aston”. It could be a few years. I haven’t decided yet, but having a cliffhanger would have pigeonholed me into a particular timeline. No bueno.
  3. After considering these more logical dilemmas, I came to the final question: Do I even want a bloody cliffhanger to end “Jaed and Aston”? Ultimately, the answer was a resounding No. “Jaed and Aston” was intended to follow a particular story arc of my two protagonists discovering themselves and each other through conflict. The cliffhanger would have detracted from that essential story.

I scrapped the cliffhanger idea altogether. “Jaed and Aston” will tie a nice bow on that story arc, and “Part 2” will follow up on some of the events and characters introduced while still standing on its own as a novel separate from its predecessor. I did not set out to write a full-fledged series, so I will not. Think of it as more of an anthology.

Novel Update

“Jaed and Aston” is proceeding at a slow pace. I’m at 157,000 words, with 10-12k words to go and some revision to do once I reach the end. Traveling nearly every weekend for the last two months has not helped. I’m reaching the point where my stress over finishing may actually push me to settle for a lower quality manuscript, so it’s an effort just to keep my own impatience at bay.

Some of my alpha readers have actually made comments about how they’re still waiting, so that’s actually encouraging. At least I know they’re really interested in reading the damn thing. I promise I will update as soon as I finish, hopefully by the end of the month, as well as announce the unofficial-official title. I’m like 99% sure about the title. I just need to see it on the manuscript cover.

Steve D

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