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
Ah, 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)