The Business Side of Cliffhangers

After my somewhat ranting post on cliffhangers a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about what would make authors go to such lengths in an attempt to guarantee readership.  And there is a reason.  I might not agree with it, but it’s there and I understand it.

Let’s prove three things before going any further.

First, money is good.  I wholeheartedly agree with this.  It is the ideal to write a book, publish it, and make a tidy sum that is hopefully enough to quit the day job.  Should it be the sole reason for writing a book?  No.  It is, however, the practical end-goal of many authors which enables them to spend their time doing fun stuff like writing instead of, say, flipping burgers.

In the same vein, readers are good.  The readers, after all, are the people who make or break a book’s success.  They buy it, read it, review it, recommend it. . . the author’s success is heavily dependent on readers’ reactions.

With that said, we can also conclude that publishing the first book is only clearing the first hurdle.  After the book is on the shelves, there’s a whole slew of marketing activities the author needs to do to give their book a fighting chance.  Then, of course, there’s writing the second book, which should be published soon enough that the author is still known.  However, even if the author markets like crazy and publishes regularly, there’s still no guarantee that readers will pick up the second book–and then, boom, back into obscurity they go.

At this point, it’s easy to start looking for a way to guarantee that the next book–and the next, and the next–are picked up by readers.  After all, writing may be a hobby, but publishing is a business, a career.  Which brings us back to point 1, money is good.

With that in mind, what can an author do to make readers wait anxiously for book 2?  Well, there’s marketing the heck out of book 1 and building up hype as book 2 is on the journey to being published.  This takes a lot of work and doesn’t always work.  Then, of course, there are cliffhangers, which are not nearly as difficult, give the author a good excuse to write another book, and are certain to induce a longing in the reader.

Which seems more attractive?

Granted, cliffhangers don’t always work either.  As a reader, I am more inclined to blacklist the author rather than wait anxiously for the next book.  (The exceptions to this rule are serialized stories and manga–due to their format, I realize cliffhangers are necessary.  That, however, is the subject of another post.  I’m also softer towards cliffhanger if the whole story is available–think the Lord of the Rings trilogy :D.)  I’m sure that there are other people out there who react the same way as I do. In rare cases, the public outcry is enough to condemn the book to the lands of the out-of-print. . .

. . . but there’s also strong evidence that cliffhangers do, in fact, work wonders.  Take James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series or Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series.  Maximum Ride ends on a cliffhanger on every single book except the last one, and it’s a bestselling series.  Eragon ended on a cliffhanger for two books out of the planned trilogy.  Paolini then shocked the world when Brisingr was published with an even bigger cliffhanger and the news that Eragon was now a four-book cycle, thankyouverymuch.

Needless to say, it is also a bestselling series.

For more examples:  Serialized stories rely on cliffhangers to keep readers’ interest burning until the next installment.  Because it works.  Same with a lot of TV series (if you don’t mind me dipping into another form of media).  Because it works.  Need I go on?

Like I said, there’s reason for the continuing reign of cliffhangers.  I don’t agree with the evidence, but it’s there.  So, writers (and readers!), my question to you is:  What is your take on the debate?  Are cliffhangers acceptable, condemnable, or just part of doing business?

*A final note:  I realize that many authors who otherwise would use cliffhangers are unable to or choose not to for their first book.  There are many reasons for this, including traditional publishers being more likely to publish a stand-alone book vs a series when looking at a first-time author.  However, I chose to go for simplicity in this post by using a two-book example rather than being vague or complicated.


4 thoughts on “The Business Side of Cliffhangers

  1. An unfinished story for me is a glass half empty – I like to give my readers
    a whole read. Endings are a lost art – I judge an author on their ability to
    close – great endings are hard as heck. I feel they are what makes or breaks a story – leave it out and you are cheating. (fear may be a reason endings are omitted) I admire the courage of anyone who can end a story.

    That said I’m okay with cliffhangers when a sequel is guaranteed, but you should never leave your reader hanging if there’s a strong chance they will
    never hear from you again. It is possible to do both. Even a happy ending
    can leave your characters in a situation that is extremely interesting –

    The good guys are rescued by friendly dragons now they will live with the dragons – the end. Whoa! What is it like to live with dragons! There’s your
    sequel – end and cliffhanger it works as both – lame idea but it’s just a model.

    Interesting article. I’m working on another installment for my Enthralled series – my publisher doesn’t like cliff-hangers. All endings must be solid.
    You can still end a story and offer tantalizing clues for what might lay ahead though.

    A good ending opens a door, an invites the reader to step through it –

    a cliffhanger tries to push you through and that bugs me –

    I quit my favorite comic book series because the cliffhangers wouldn’t stop.
    An ongoing story stringing together a series of episodes is all the cliffhanger
    I need. Maybe once are twice – but every episode? depends on the type of
    story I guess – maybe I just haven’t met an author who is good at cliffhangers yet. 😀


    1. First off, I love your description–cliffhangers really are glass-half-emptys. And I understand that endings are hard (I haven’t ended any of my stories to my satisfaction yet), and I agree that authors who end stories should be admired. Definitely! When it comes to sequels, though, I’m iffy–sometimes it feels to me like the author/publisher is just trying to prolong the story artificially–but, admittedly, there are a few times I haven’t felt that way (the Lord of the Rings trilogy comes to mind). Though, now that I think of it, I might feel less annoyed when the sequels are already out. . . .

      I love your dragons example! It would be awesome if more authors would end their books like that–then there would be just enough to tempt readers back again. And they’d probably come back, don’t you think?

      You’re writing a sequel? How’s it going? How many installments do you think you’re going to write?

      Oh? Which comic book series was that? It seems that many comics are like that; even my favorite manga series, Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE, had a cliffhanger every chapter (but each chapter was very short, so I understand why). I suppose that it’s because many comics are serialized, so they want to keep you coming back for more. . . .

      Thanks for commenting, Rastelly! You made me think about my position, which I appreciate. Let me know if you ever meet an author that’s good at cliffhangers–I’ll have to meet ’em too!


  2. Thanks for responding. I didn’t want to be too hard on cliffhangers –
    Some times the very nature of a story demands it – especially if it’s
    a scary story. Also – a series told in short snippets may not have
    enough room to get interesting unless it’s stretched across episodes.

    I’m not sure how many episodes of enthralled I’ll write – I’ve got four
    planned. I call them episodes because each story is only 12,000
    words long. I also have another Burlap cat written (but I need to post
    it – ) those always end in cliffhangers – but I’m planning to write an
    episode that gives it a little closer – (Slight Spoilers) basically – Joanne completes a mission for the cat but the cats ultimate agenda remains unknown and exactly what the cat is will remain a mystery – and I might
    keep going still.

    If you want to write the kind of story that goes on forever there are plot
    models that allow for it and plot models that don’t A character that has
    to guard an indestructible cursed item can constantly be threatened by
    it – every day life for this character is overshadowed by this curse and
    so becomes interesting –

    but once this item is destroyed – continuing may seen forced.

    I liked the Syfy series Warehouse 13 because it centered on dangerous
    magical artifacts that could be literally anything – It was like a who dun it.
    I was always trying to guess what the cursed item would be – a chair, a
    watch a truck – an antique vase. Anything could be causing the trouble –
    and the item’s powers were all different – thus the means of dealing with
    the items were all different.

    The show doesn’t always live up it’s great plot model – but it’s still a great
    model for a series – with each episode centering on a different item and
    it’s unique history – and quirky characters who have to control the magic
    give the series it’s heroes.

    Romeo and Juliet is the only story I can think of right now that
    is a stand alone – the two feuding families learn their lesson when
    two of their children meet in secret and ultimately kill themselves
    over what would have otherwise been a passing fling –

    All the forces driving the story converge at the end and explode –
    There is nowhere to go from there –

    Most stories that make strong statements about something specific
    seem to be best if they stand alone –

    Basically you can write anything and make it good, If you plan ahead.


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