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That’s Why It’s Called a Cliffhanger

February 19, 2013

A reviewer wrote that the end of The One Rider made her angry, because I left too many plot-lines open that would need to be resolved in Stone of Power. While that may, at first reading, seem like a negative comment, I take it mean that I’m doing my job as an author of serialized fiction. While book-length plot-points should have a level of resolution, I want readers to “need” Stone of Power, not just “want” it. It’s this “need-building” that keeps a series moving forward. The cliffhanger has been an integral part of serials since the old days of Saturday Matinees featuring Buck Rogers, Commander Cody, and Flash Gordon. I know. I was there, and always convinced to “tune in next week” because my hero was hanging from a cliff, hence the term “cliff-hanger.” Let’s take a look at this literary technique and some of its most celebrated users.

Is it unfair to our readers if we leave them hanging? Not if we are going to give resolutions in future editions. One of the expectations from a series is the continuation of larger story arcs, and if the overarching story is absent, then everything should be handled in a standalone novel. That being said, the reader deserves some form of closure. The main plot of the individual book should be resolved in order to satisfy the three-act play format. Put your characters in a tree, set the tree on fire, and then get them out of the tree, but the underlying and overall series plots are fair game.

Terry Goodkind, author of the Legend of the Seeker series, is King of the cliff-hanger. I “needed” to read each book, ten in all, just to get closure for all of the dangling plot-points. I hate this man! Each book was better than the first, and the endings were more along the lines of pauses in the story. That is my idea of a correctly constructed series, and its craftsmanship is one of the reasons it was picked up for production as a TV series of the same name. What Goodkind did was write an epic tale in ten volumes, and each one dangled more plot-points than hooks at a fishing convention.

The cliffhanger style of writing is also evident in the Rings Trilogy. Tolkien forms a close-knit group that eventually falls apart at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. We say goodbye to Frodo and Sam as they are traveling to Mordor, while Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas leave on a quest to free Merry and Pippin. The resolution, sad as it may be, is the disbanding of the fellowship, while the larger plots of the overall story hang from a cliff. The Two Towers closes with the same type of formulaic ending, and it’s only when we reach the final chapters of Return of the King that we are granted a sense of release. It’s important to note, though, that there is a cliffhanger at the end of Return of the King. Frodo and Bilbo sail off to new lives, and certainly new adventures, with the elves. Aren’t we just the least bit curious about what awaits them at the end of their voyage? Of course we are. That’s a cliff-hanger.

Frank Herbert left his Dune characters dangling from every available sandstone cliff among the deserts of Arrakis, and readers couldn’t get their hands on newly-released books fast enough to satisfy their curiosity. Dune was so popular that it resulted in two movies, if you count the first one, which many fans ignore, though it seems to be gaining a growing, cult fan-base. When I was in college, many years ago, Dune was a topic of conversation as common as the weather. “How about those Atreides? Think Mau’Dib will overthrow the Guild?” Well, we had to wait to find out, and wait we did. We stood in line with money in our hands before the ink was dry on the next installment in the series. Post-Apocalyptic, Mutant, Ninja Zombies of Dune? Bring it on!

It seems that the desire of the readers of serial fiction is clear. Fans want, dare I say “need,” the cliffhanger ending. It defines the genre from the early days of space serials and will continue to drive reader interest and book sales.

“Tune in next blog to see if . . . well, you get the idea.”

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From → Art and Craft

One Comment
  1. Been hangin’ patiently Bro’.

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