Some weeks ago I talked about endings, and in there I promised to write about cliffhangers someday. Well, this is it.
Cliffhanger endings tend to be less common in books than in movies and TV shows. I guess in writing, even if something ends in a cliffhanger, it is still written in a conclusive tone (it’s not as if one can end off mid-sentence, after all) and still feels like some kind of resolution has been reached, even if questions have been left unanswered. Among the cliffhangers found in books, most exist in those in a series — where there is guaranteed to be a sequel resolving it — or in horror stories. It is hard to find a cliffhanger in a regular story. If Inception were a book (and it may well be now, since popular movies do end up adapted in books), how would the ending have been written?
I guess the biggest difficulty about writing a cliffhanger is to make it such that readers recognise it is a cliffhanger. It can be unexpectedly hard to write a cliffhanger, because there are so many ways to end a story well, and so much fewer ways to end it with an air of suspense. Of course the ideal is to use a cliffhanger only when the story calls for it, and not just whenever you feel like.
Cliffhangers are ideally used to evoke a negative tone, because a story lacking a sense of completion isn’t going to make your readers happy. Cliffhangers should be open to the possibility of a positive outcome, but mainly give the readers a sense of helplessness. Something is going on that can lead to various possible consequences. They don’t know what will happen in the end, but they cannot do anything about it. They cannot read on and hope something good occurs. In fact, they aren’t even privy to the fate of the character now. The lack of knowledge can be a haunting feeling, and authors can make use of it well if they want to connote a sad, helpless feeling.
Another incidental benefit to cliffhangers is that fans will jump in to write a myriad of possible endings for you, thus sparking off fan activity and leaving a legacy to your story. In a too-completed story like Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, there isn’t much to write about if J K Rowling explicitly says “all is well”. However, if your character is still (literally) hanging by a cliff, with his secret mission yet unsolved and not committed to any love interest yet, your fans can go wild writing up a storm of fanfiction, inciting discussion and adding a lot of fun to your story. This is where readers can shake off that feeling of helplessness and wield the power to turn the wheel of fate.