Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cliffhangers: You Just Keep Me Hangin' On

Today on Gillian Talks About Things Like She Knows What She's Talking About, I'm going to discuss something that's been bothering me lately: cliffhangers.

Quick, someone save it! Someone save the little gender-free stick person before it plunges into an Acknowledgments page without first resolving his or her plot arc!

cliff-hanger noun
1. a melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment
2. an ending to an episode of a serial drama that leaves the audience in suspese
3. literary blue balls

Okay, so that third defintion probably wouldn't fly for Merriam Webster, but in the Gillian Berriam dictionary, it's pretty accurate, at least in regards to my last two reads.  

After the End by Amy Plum was a hit-or-miss read for me that totally picked up steam in the second half, at least until I was ejected off the train with no warning (aka I swiped to the next page in my e-ARC and came face to face with that cruel and final Acknowledgements page). The Falconer by Elizabeth May, however, had me by the heart. I loved everything about it. And then it simply decided to STOP and I WASN'T READY FOR IT TO BE OVER. And not in the way I like to feel at the end of a great book. More in the way like, "Wait, but the story's not over. No, seriously, come back here. COME BACK."

Joey: Rachel's pregnant?! Who's the father?
Phoebe: We don't know.
Joey: Ohhh. I wonder if it's that dude.
Monica: There's a dude?
Joey: Yeah!
Phoebe: Who? Who is it?
Joey: Well, about a month ago this guy spent the night with Rachel. I didn't see who it was, but...
Joey: *leaves the room*
Phoebe: Was that story over?
Phoebe and Monica: *follow*
Joey, holding a red sweater: The guy left this.
Phoebe, taking the sweater: Oh my God! I know who the father is!
Phoebe: *leaves the room*
Monica: People have GOT to finish their stories!
When it comes to series (particularly of the epic or fantastical variety), I do like to be teased. I do like for there to be dangling threads, the sort I'm compelled to follow into the next installment, even if it takes a cruel, long year. I understand that books should end in a way that makes you hungry for more, because that's what makes readers buy book two, and that's how writers, you know, get to buy food and houses and clothes. But to me, there's a difference between a cliffhanger, and a CLIFFHANGERRRRR *shake fist at the ceiling* *fall off the couch*

In After the End (more like After the NON End), we're left with a major character's life in jeopardy and the main thrust of the novel unresolved. It felt like the action paused in the middle of act three, in that part riiiiight after the protagonist's nadir. Have no idea what I'm talking about? Let's look at this handy dandy plot arc chart:
It's not a hard and fast rule that all books must follow this classic structure, but generally, they do. See that dip there near the end? That's the low point, where everything needs to be really, really bad before going up OMG CLIMAX and things start to get good again. After the End cut off right after the low point and well before the climax. It felt like we were moving towards something big, but--surprise--tune in next week year to see what it is! The Falconer, on the other hand, is the true causer of literary blue balls, because that book cut off mid-climax, and you just don't do that to a Kiaran-loving girl, okay! You do not end in the middle of the most important scene of the book! You RESOLVE THAT SHIT! You end the climax for good or for bad, and because it's the first in the series, you discover that "unexpected challenge" over there to toss you into book two.

Again, I don't want to rag on these books. I ADORED The Falconer and am basically ordering you to read it because KIARAN, but it also made me think about why some cliffhangers work for me (Siege and Storm, to sort of name one) and why some don't. I think the biggest difference is that the main arc of the narrative of the first book feels complete. It needs to feel like it's own VOLUME, instead of a truncated part of a larger story. It can't feel like one story chopped into thirds, but like three stories that make up one bigger story. You feel me?
Thanks, creepy soulless sharkbeast.
Let's pull apart The Hunger Games (spoilers all up in this bitch, because honestly). Imagine if book one had ended just as Katniss and Peeta put those berries to their lips. Like, just as the put the deadly nightlock in their mouth, and you and the whole of Panem are waiting on tenterhooks to see WHAT WILL HAPPEN, the book cuts to black like it's the freaking Sopranos. That would be extremely NOT COOL. ("There is no District 12" is, however, and example of a great sort-of cliffhanger. Leaves you asking questions, makes your brain go WHAT WHAT WHAT, but it is not an unresolved thread from the plot of Catching Fire).

It's another part of why Harry Potter works so well as a series-- each volume works so well as a novel. There are overarching mysteries that last the whole series, but the ones of central import to each installment are solved in that installment. Harry doesn't seize the Triwizard cup on the last page of Goblet of Fire  and then show up in that graveyard in the opening chapter of The Order of the Phoenix. IMAGINE IF SHE DID THAT. Ten-year-old Gillian would have THROWN things.

Okay, so mostly this was a post to rant about how unsatisfying it is to invest in a story and not get the emotional and intellectual payoff you wanted, and less of an intellectual "how do we fix this?" problem. Probably because it's a matter of taste, and to some people it's not a problem. Lots of people love cliffhangers. They love waiting a whole nine months to find out who shot J.R. And most of the time, I think there's nothing wrong with that.

What about you? Are you a cliffhanger lover or hater? What was the last non-ending that made you scream? Or, you know, frown slightly, since you're probably a bit more emotionally balanced than I am, and you probably don't yell at inanimate objects as much.


  1. I completely agree with you. Chopping off a story at the end of the book doesn't work for me, I HATE THAT. But I like it when the ending makes me anxious for more, while it still ends most of the important things that has been going on in the book. Harry Potter always manage to make me want to read more and it doesn't end with a cut-off ending. But, I can live with such a cliff-hanger if it's part of a series. I seriously can't stand cliff-hangers in the conclusion. It makes me rage why in hell I've read that book when there is still no solution.

    1. YES! Could not agree more on wanting endings that make you anxious for more and that HP did that brilliantly.

  2. I could not agree more! Oh man, you made me giggle too, damn you girl! I'm very picky over cliffhangers; if it's just ended abruptly and really not fairly at all, then I'm a little less eager to try the next book, like The Knife of Never Letting Go, but if it ended well with a rounding off and then it just continues onto the next book, much like most second books in the series, then I'm more okay with that. It's always the middle books in trilogies that get to me though, unnecessary cliffhanger alert there! Great post though hunny, well done, and rant away, I like rants all the time! :D

    1. Hee! Glad to make you giggle! And yep, it's totally always the middle books in the trilogies, though recently for me it's been the FIRST, which is annoying.

  3. Well THANKS for that horrifying HP image O_O Ten year old me would have thrown a fit! I guess cliffhangers for me really depend on the book, like you said. I loved the cliffhanger for Siege and Storm as well. But if it's a book where it's cut off MID SCENE, I will flip tables for sure

    1. Can you imagine? The youth of the world would have rioted in the streets.

  4. Ugh yes! I just finished The Falconer and nearly threw the book across the room >.>. I like that distinction between cliffhanger and CLIFFHANGER ;-). I just can't help but get grumpy and think less of an author/book when it ends like Falconer did since it honestly leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. Does the author not trust that I enjoyed their book enough that I would want to read the sequel? Do they really feel that the only way to get people to read the sequel is to literally not end the first book?? I'm a firm believer in every book in a series having its own self-contained plot with threads that build over the series. /endrant ;-)

  5. This author-person feels the same. Books--they are not Must See TV. It's bad enough I have to wait THE WHOLE SUMMER to find out who lives or dies on my fave TV shows. Waiting fifteen months to see if one-half the couple I ship is dead, no thank you very much. There are too many other shiny books :-) #TeamStandalone

  6. That FRIENDS example is perfection! ;) I agree with you, some cliffhangers make sense and don't bother me, some are horrible and are just plain rude and I feel robbed and that the author just wants me to spend money on the next book.

  7. Oh good, I wasn't the only one who flipped the epub page on my ipad to be confronted with CLIFFHANGER. The other two books I consumed last week (The Taking and The Murder Complex) did pretty much the same damn thing. I'm cliffhangered out. I need to find a book with a functioning conclusion.

    This is almost as bad as that time there was a nuclear bomb on LOST.

  8. I hate cliffhangers. HATE THEM. We simply have to wait too long with book releases for them to be pulling that crap with books. I still haven't gotten to my ARC of The Falconer yet. Now I'm scared. Maybe it will be better now that I am prepared. I will possibly feel less rage. The last cliff hanger ending to really get to me was more of a non-ending and that was to The Riverman. I was seriously unhappy with that book.

  9. I hate cliffhangers so dang much! HATE! I feel like they are a ploy to sell more books and to torture the readers. I LOVE when a book concludes that particular conflict, but the series overall has a bigger conflict that isn't resolved until the end of the series. That keeps me coming back for more without the torture.

  10. Oh, cliffhangers. I think you and I pretty much have the same reaction to them! While I don't personally mind having unresolved plot threads to carry me over into another book (because more book = more face time with awesome characters!), I hate it when each book in a series cannot stand alone on its own as a story! It explains why I love the Harry Potter series AND the Percy Jackson series so very much.

  11. Oh, yes. There are cliffhangers done well, and then there are cliffhangers done very, very poorly. I wish more authors understood that writing a GREAT book is the best way to get me to read the next one. Pissing me off with an unsatisfying cliffhanger is a good way to get me to ragequit your books forever.

  12. I NEED freaking closure. What the hell is with it with YA books and all the cliffhangers and books that don't stand well on their own. I get it, I really do - you're writing a series - but that does NOT mean that each book has to be so heavily dependent on the other that there can't be a main arc that will satisfy the reader in that one book alone. I hate hate hate that about YA and think it is strictly a ploy inherent in the genre. I heard the theory that it is done because they don't think young readers will stick with the books if there isn't a hook at the end and what do I FREAKING SAY TO THAT?? They aren't giving their readers and their attention spans enough credit.

    *makes the angry face then a quick switch to crazy maniacal smiles* Lovely post dear

  13. By the way....did I tell you how lovely it was meeting you at BEA? Are you scared now because I'm going to be a creeper and stalk you? you should....I creep and creep


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