Ask Peggy: Cliffhanger Endings

Dear Peggy,

Is it good form to end the book with a cliffhanger or does it alienate the reader? I read a book recently where a major sub-plot was unresolved and it has me on the fence.

Hanging by a Thread

Dear Hanging,

alegro sardiniaAh, cliffhangers. You want readers to come back for book two and a cliffhanger may seem like a great way to do that. On the flip side, the author runs the risk of the reader being unhappy and unsatisfied.

Here’s my take, and it’s just my opinion. This and five bucks will get you a fancy coffee at Starbucks.

When a book ends, the author needs to wrap the core story question. For a mystery, this is answering “whodunnit” (naturally). It’s not a very satisfying ending to me – and I think I’m not alone here – if you reach the last page and you still don’t know who the killer is. That thunk you’d hear is the book hitting my wall.

Now, whether or not that killer is brought to justice, well, that’s going to depend on the type of book. Cozy? Oh, that guy is going to jail. Police procedural? The killer is either in cuffs or dead in a shoot-out or something. Noir? Maybe the killer gets away from the law, but a kind of justice will be served. These endings cannot really be mixed and matched. You can’t have a shoot-out ending in a cozy, and your cop is not going to go off the reservation to exact justice in a procedural, and there are no “happy endings” in noir.

But the story is ended. Wrapped. Finite and everyone goes home until the next book.

If this book is part of a series, there may be questions left. Maybe your cozy heroine has met a hunky handyman and an equally hunky dog groomer, and you don’t know which one she’ll pick. The cop from the procedural may be haunted by a long-ago, still unsolved case; he picks up a clue in this book, but the culprit is still out there. Those kind of things I think can go from book to book…as long as there’s some progress. Nobody wants to watch your amateur sleuth dither between two guys for nineteen books. (When Liz was writing book two in her series, she wrote a fairly emotional scene between her two main characters, nothing happened, and she went on her way. Her critique group was unhappy, but she didn’t want to resolve the relationship question yet. “That’s fine,” they said, “but you’ve gotta give the reader something or they’re going to be unsatisfied.” The critique group was right.)

It’s hard to pick a mystery series that illustrates my point because…spoilers, so I’m gonna go off-genre and talk about Harry Potter (hey, the books have been out since 1997 and there were eight mega-million-dollar movies, so if you haven’t read or seen this series yet, you probably aren’t going to).

The BIG question in Harry Potter is “Will Harry beat Voldemort?” and that question isn’t answered until the end of Deathly Hallows. In the meantime, Harry has lots of other adventures though, right? Each book has it’s own question and that question is definitively answered by the end of the book. They find the Sorcerer’s Stone, they enter the Chamber of Secrets, they find the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s name comes out of the Goblet of Fire and he competes in the tournament…you get the point.

There are also relationship questions along the series: Will Ron and Hermione get together? Harry and Hermione? Harry and Cho? Who’s going to be prefect? Blah, blah, blah. Some of those get answered along the way, some stretch for several books. But it’s okay, because each book ends with a satisfying conclusion.

I think that’s the key. The book has to end with a satisfying conclusion. The core question, and any major subplot questions, are answered in a logical way. You can spin out more minor sub-plots, like relationships, but be careful how you do it.

As I said, that’s my take, anyway. Good luck!


(Photo courtesy of Paul Homer; used under Creative Commons license)


13 thoughts on “Ask Peggy: Cliffhanger Endings”

  1. Great answer, Peggy! I recently read Linwood Barclay’s PROMISE FALLS trilogy and where some plot threads are resolved, others are left hanging, and the new ones are started in books #2 and #3 but you expect that because you were told it was a trilogy. It says so right on the book cover. Good books. I recommend them. Buy them all at once, though, because you’re going to want to pick up the next book as soon as you put down the prior one.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think setting that expectation is huge. If you know ahead of time it’s a trilogy, you’re less likely to be disappointed when you don’t get all the answers at the end of book 1. Expectations management is everything.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I agree Keenan. I read the “Promise Falls” trilogy, but even though I LOVE Linwood Barclay, I by book 3, I was “tired.” Stopping after two books would have been fine with me.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Love this! And I’m with you on the need for answers to major story questions. I don’t necessarily need a bow at the end, but it at least needs to be wrapped up. I could even do with a metaphorical gift bag.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Perfecto, Peggy! Satisfying as a good conclusion should be. As Kathy and Keenan have pointed out, hanging threads are fine, but the major story question of each novel needs to be resolved. Maybe it all goes back to playing fair with the reader?

    Peggy, I never thought about it before, but you are right, each sub-genre does have a unique satisfying ending. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yep. I think it does. As Liz pointed out above, it’s all expectations management. And playing fair. I don’t know anyone who is happy when you get to the end of a mystery, and the author pulls the villain out of a hat, no hint of anything before hand.

      And imagine how unhappy a reader who likes baking and cats would be with a gory shootout ending!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Peggy … you’re so smart! My enjoyment of a book comes when the author fulfills the “promise of the premise.” When I read the blurb and by its style and language it tells me what to expect, I dive in with those expectations. But when I get to the end, if it hasn’t fullfilled that promise in some way, by not telling me whodunnit, or spinning off into a different genre, or being gory when I expected funny … well, then I’ll want to punch that book right in its throat.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I know Peter W.J. Hayes is releasing the first book (The Things That Aren’t There) in a trilogy from Level Best this month, but I haven’t read it so I don’t know if it’s the same as Keenan’s suggestion above.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Awesome answer, Peggy! I read a book one time that had that no-answer ending. It was clear the author expected me to buy her next one. Nope. Not happening. (Except I’ve forgotten her name so I could accidentally do just that.)

    Liked by 1 person

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