Written by JJ Barnes
If you are planning a series of books or films, then you need to write the first one in a way that will encourage your audience to come back for the second instalment and excite them to read further adventures with those characters. One way of doing that is with a cliffhanger, so you leave part of your story untold and end it at a point of tension that the audience hopes to be resolved next time. However, there are negative consequences to that decision.
A Cliffhanger Gives No Guarantee You’ll Resolve the Conflict
When you buy a book or film, you’re spending money, and investing time, to experience a story. Ending the first instalment of a series on a cliffhanger is placing a massive assumption on your audience that they’ll be willing to return, especially when you haven’t yet demonstrated you’re able to tell a complete story and charged them to get part of a story without their consent.
Your main story is following a conflict. Your Protagonist wants something, and they’re going after it whilst things get in their way, and your story ends when that conflict is resolved, and they either have what they want, or they don’t.
If you choose to end this portion of your story before that conflict is resolved, you’re giving no guarantee to your audience that you are able to resolve it, nor any time scale of when it will be resolved. Without a guarantee of when your story will end, your audience won’t know how much more money and time will be required from them to get satisfaction.
What to Do Instead of Writing a Cliffhanger
If you want to tee up a sequel by leaving conflict unresolved, you can do it as long as it’s with small threads, not with the main plot.
Small plotlines that are left unresolved with the promise of more to come can make your reader excited that you have plans to grow and expand in that world, without leaving them unsatisfied and frustrated that they signed up for a story and got a piece of one.
For instance, if you look at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, that book launches a successful series. The conflict you’re signed up for is about the philosopher’s stone; what it does, who wants it, and who will get it. That conflict is resolved at the end and the story is complete. However, the threads are left open to entice you back for more, because you’re told Voldemort will want to come back.
If no more books were ever written, you’ve still experienced a complete story, but it’s drawing you in to read on to find out if he’ll come back and what happens when he does. If she’d ended the book before Harry had faced Quirrell and Voldemort, then the first book would have been far less enjoyable, and nobody would have known if it was worth coming back for more.
Mistakes I Made
When I first started writing I had a lot to learn, which is why I was writing for years before a book came out. And this specific lesson is one I had to be taught.
When I started writing Lilly Prospero and the Magic Rabbit, my first book, I tried ending it on a cliffhanger. The entire book built up to what is now my midpoint, because I felt like it was a dramatic and exciting moment and would make people want to read more. But I hadn’t written more.
I started the book with Lilly’s conflict, which is that she has the power to create life and she doesn’t know how to use it nor what the consequences are, and ended it with a striking development, but not a resolution. Obviously, now it’s resolved at the end. However, the world is now different for Lilly and there was plenty of space for that story to grow into, without being an unsatisfying ending.
New Audiences Have to Be Treated with Care
With a first book you have no guarantee that there will be a sequel. No guarantee of how long it will be until that sequel is released. There’s no way of knowing if and when a conflict will be resolved if you leave it hanging, and your audience will all be left unsatisfied, which is not the overwhelming feeling you want from your readers if you expect them to come back for more. A first book is delicate, and has to be treated as such, because it could launch your world, or it could turn everybody off and destroy it.
When you’re further along and have a solid audience base and can afford to be more experimental and play around with your stories, then you can try a cliffhanger end if it appeals to you, because you know they’ll come back for more because of how much they’ve already invested in your world and your characters. But until you’ve earned that loyalty, it’s foolish to test it.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose