Writing Series: The Cliffhanger Dilemma
When it comes to series, people seem to either love or hate cliffhangers. I've always been in the camp that prefers a cliffhanger-free story. This doesn't mean I expect all plot threads to be tied up in a neat bow by the final page, but I do expect the story's main conflict to be resolved.
Let's quickly look at a graphic you've probably seen countless times before:
The character starts out with some level of routine comfort until the inciting incident occurs, or, as Sooz so brilliantly dubbed it, they reach The Point Where Everything Changes. From here, the character faces a series of increasingly challenging obstacles, until they reach the ultimate climax. The character overcomes this huge conflict (be it external or internal) and is left forever changed.
Most standalone novels follow this arc, as do some series. Harry Potter, for example, almost always ends with near-complete resolution. Harry beats Voldemort, has a resolving conversation with Dumbledore, and returns home for the summer with everything at peace. (I think Book 6 is maybe the only one that doesn't follow this logic.) Series made up of companion novels—where the world is the same but the main characters/conflict unique—often follow this arc as well. A good example is Cashore's novels set in the Seven Kingdoms.
But most series, especially those following a central character throughout, seem to have one of two endings: cliffhangers, which leave you hanging at the height of the climax, and "soft" cliffhangers,[1. "Soft cliffhanger" is not a technical writing term, but it certainly explains a trend I've noticed in series endings.] which in my mind aren't really cliffhangers so much as they are hooks for the following book.
Let's take a closer look:
In a true cliffhanger, the character climbs a mountain of obstacles, but before they can triumph over the final conflict, the story simple ends. Right at the height of the conflict. This would be like if Suzanne Collins had ended THE HUNGER GAMES at the moment Katniss and Peeta popped the red berries into their mouths. They were selected as tributes, struggled through interviews, tracker jackers, mutts, and more, but we never learn if they survive the games.
Examples of the classic cliffhanger ending:
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
And then there are series that resolve the main conflict and go one step further:
While not every plot thread is resolved, the "soft" cliffhanger allows the characters(s) to triumph over the main conflict before hinting at even bigger conflicts on the horizon. Essentially, the reader glimpses the possibility of a new inciting incident just before the close of the book. The Hunger Games is a "soft" cliffhanger in my mind. Katniss and Peeta have survived the games but we understand there will be consequences for Katniss' trick with the berries based on Haymitch's warning before the closing interviews. We also witness building tension between Katniss and Peeta as they ride the train back to District 12. New conflicts for a new story.
Examples of the "soft" cliffhanger ending:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
Divergent by Veronica Roth
The line between hard and soft cliffhanger often depends upon a reader's personal opinion and preference. For me, I typically need the main conflict to be resolved in order to feel satisfied with the 300+ pages I've just read. At the same time, a world, its characters, exceptional prose, etc, can all make up for a killer cliffhanger. (For instance, I absolutely adore Patrick Ness' series, so a cliffhanger ending doesn't mean I won't like a book. Just that I might feel momentarily cheated ;) ) Regardless, both cliffhanger approaches have the same goal: entice you back for the next book.
But what do you think? I'd love to know if a cliffhanger ending makes you more or less anxious to read the rest of the series. And if you can think of more examples to fit the cliffhanger vs "soft" cliffhanger categories, leave them in the comments!