Thursday, October 21, 2021

Hanging from a Cliff

How do you feel about cliffhanger endings in novels? I've just finished reading the second book in a thrilling, very inventive dark fantasy series. (I suspect it will be a trilogy, but that hasn't been announced as far as I know.) While the first novel ended with an intriguing hook for the continuation, this new one concludes with an outright cliffhanger in the final sentence. Now we have to wait a year for the resolution! That sort of thing bugs me a little, because devoted fans will read the next installment regardless, while the author risks annoying readers less deeply invested. On the other hand, in this particular case it's hard to see how the story could have ended without leaving the audience in suspense. I can't go into details, of course, because of spoilers.

A classic example in pulp SF comes from one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' early John Carter adventures, THE GODS OF MARS. On the last page, Princess Dejah Thoris is trapped with a couple of other people in a revolving chamber designed to open only once a year. The villain is preparing to kill her as the hero watches the tableau vanish into the depths of the temple. Fortunately for me, I read that series many decades after its publication, so all I had to do was find the next volume on my grandfather's bookshelves.

I have a vivid memory of my frustration with THE MIRROR OF HER DREAMS, by Stephen R. Donaldson. In fact, after all these years I don't recall much else about it, not even what the cliffhanger ending consisted of. I do remember that by the time the sequel, A MAN RIDES THROUGH, became available, I'd forgotten so much about the first novel that I no longer felt any enthusiasm for returning to the story.

It was a jarring shock when I read BLACKOUT, Connie Willis's time-travel novel about England in World War II, and reached the last page to discover that it just—stopped. I felt like yelling, "Where's the rest of it?" That sharp break wasn't the author's fault, though. She'd written the duology of BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR as a single work, but it turned out much too long for one volume, so the publisher released it as two books. Happily, they made us wait only a few months for the second half, not a whole year.

Ideally, a series that includes a book with what amounts to an abrupt break in the middle of the story should have its installments released in quick succession over a span of a few months. I realize that's not always feasible with either the author's or the publisher's schedule, though. But I still think the typical traditional publishing gap of a year between books is more apt to discourage than to intrigue a casual reader (as opposed to a devoted fan).

A similar trick that does exasperate me in the extreme is ending a TV season on a cliffhanger, especially if renewal isn't definite, but even if it is. That device strikes me as disrespectful to the established audience and unlikely to attract new viewers. As far as the latter are concerned, how many people will start watching a new season of a long-running series if they're aware they don't have the necessary backstory to understand what's going on? Veteran fans, on the other hand, will tune in to the next season anyway without that kind of irritating manipulation.

As a reader and author, my advice would be that if you're going to end a novel on a cliffhanger, be very careful. One would hope for at least a partial resolution—as the book mentioned at the beginning of this post does in fact offer—so readers won't feel their trust has been abused.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment: