Cliffhangers have been used to great effect many times in fiction. They can make your readers desperate to find out what happens next, and can almost guarantee people will buy your next book. On the other hand, they can cause people to feel cheated and unsatisfied. Sometimes the reaction will simply be a matter of opinion, but often it depends on what type of cliffhanger you’re creating.
Imagine you’re writing a trilogy. (Maybe you actually are, in which case, think about the trilogy you’re writing!) There’ll probably be plot points which aren’t tied up in the first or second book, and which only get resolved at the very end. That’s absolutely fine. If everything was sorted in book 1, there’d be no point in making another one. (Filmmakers seem to forget this sometimes. I’m looking at you, The Neverending Story 2 AND 3.)
However, each entry usually needs some form of resolution; there should be an answer to a central narrative question. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back ends with Han Solo frozen in carbonite, and the rebel alliance very much on the backfoot. Luke Skywalker’s also just found out that he owes Darth Vader a lot of Father’s Day cards. (Or does Darth Vader owe him a lot of birthday presents? Both, maybe?)
There’s plenty of story left, but the film has its own complete arc. Luke’s had his confrontation with the antagonist, and most of the central characters have escaped to fight another day. Imagine if it had ended elsewhere, though:
Luke gets into his X-wing and takes off from Dagobah. Yoda hints that there’s someone else who could become a Jedi if Luke fails.
How frustrating would that be? Nothing’s been resolved at this point. Leia and Chewbacca are still at the city in the clouds, and C-3PO still needs his legs reattaching. Lando hasn’t revealed he’s planning to betray Darth Vader yet. It would have been less a cliffhanger and more just the story stopping randomly.
Readers want to feel satisfied by an ending, even if there’s something else coming next. For some reason, most humans have an in-built need for resolution. For another example, listen to this short piece of music. You’ve never heard it before because I recorded it last week, but you’ll almost definitely have a strong opinion about whether it feels finished.
If that was all I gave you, would you be willing to wait months or even years for me to compose the next bit and (maybe) resolve things? I doubt it. The good news is that you don’t have to wait that long on this occasion. Here’s the same piece, with the missing bit added in:
How much better does that feel? Hopefully you no longer want to hunt me down and forcibly extract the final chord. I provided a resolution which made the section feel complete, or like an answer had been provided. However, I also added a few notes at the end to hint that everything hasn’t been wrapped up in the overall piece.
Do you agree that something should be resolved? Or are you happy for characters and readers to balance on the precipice until next time? Get in touch and let me know!