Cliffhanger Book Endings: Pros and Cons
Cliffhangers are staples of many successful self-published books. Love them or hate them, it can be hard to find a selling series that doesn’t end a book with a sudden plot twist on the final page.
Some readers love the drama building in the end, but some feel cheated out of a satisfying story. So is it a good idea to end your book with one of these eye-catching plot devices, or should you stick with a more conventional structure and focus on closing one story completely before diving into another?
One note before we move forward: When people move forward in your series, it won’t be because you had or didn’t have a cliffhanger. It will be because they enjoyed your book and wanted more of that. When deciding whether a cliffhanger ending is a good idea, don’t decide out of a sense of obligation. Your fans will like you regardless.
Pros of Cliffhangers:
First the good stuff. One problem many authors have is crafting a conclusion that is satisfying but still engaging. Once the villain has been fought off and the loose ends have been tied, it can be hard to fill in the final chapter or so with details a reader will still care about.
A cliffhanger ending will give you and your readers a positive direction to move in and a reminder that “happily ever after” is still technically out of reach. You can wrap up and conclude your current story while still giving people something to look forward to, which is a positive experience for everyone involved.
There are some genres where people expect cliffhanger endings. If you happen to write in one of these genres, it’s a good idea to stick to what readers expect unless you have a good reason to deviate.
In these cases, check out your comp titles and see how people end those books. Keep in mind that the cliffhanger might be dramatic or only a subtle tease of what could happen in the next book. You can try a few different options on your book if you aren’t sure how to end it.
Starting a sequel is much easier if you know what you’re aiming for before you start writing it. Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, having a prompt from your last book to run off of will give you a strong direction moving forward.
You can decide how much you want to set up in your previous book and use your cliffhanger as a springboard when you start drafting the next.
Cons of Cliffhangers:
No matter how well you craft your cliffhanger, there will always be some readers who feel cheated on. Cliffhangers aren’t as tidy as conventional endings, and in some cases can look like a lazy way to beg your readers to buy more—not an enticing glance into the next book.
No one likes a retcon. When you publish a book with a cliffhanger, you have to honor it in the next. This means writing a sequel even if your first book undersold your expectations. This means continuing down the path you first set up in your cliffhanger. While it’s fine to pivot to a better story, the more detail you put into your cliffhanger, the more you’ll need to watch it in your next book.
Readers will adopt high expectations when they encounter a cliffhanger. Their own imaginations take over after a point and color in bold implications of where the story is headed. That means that it will be easier than ever to disappoint people when you start the next book.
This is a gamble you’ll take every time you throw in an unexpected twist: the chance that you can take the story even further than your readers can and give them even more than they dared hope for. If you’re not up to the challenge, there’s no shame in playing it low-key and sticking to a more conventional ending.
In the End
Choosing to end your book on a cliffhanger depends on both you and your readers. If cliffhanger endings are common in your genre and if you feel up to the challenge of keeping the tension up, it could be a good way to lead readers into your next books. But don’t feel bad if it isn’t for you—and remember that the quality of what you write is worth more.
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