*****Note: since we’re talking about cliffhangers, there will be spoilers.*****
Endings are tricky things. They can make or break a book. A reader may forgive a weak beginning, but never a weak ending. More often than not, endings are the part of the story that stays with us after finishing the book. But what happens when the ending isn’t an ending at all? I don’t think there’s any other literary device that elicits stronger reactions than the cliffhanger. Some love it, some hate it (well, let’s face it, most hate it), but everyone has something to say about them.
Are you a fan of The Hunger Games? How did you feel when you finished the first book? Wait, better yet, how did you feel when you finished Catching Fire? I sat there for ten minutes, looking around me thinking “wait, what?” I was shocked that after such a huge buildup we got nothing but uncertainty. And that’s the problem with cliffhangers. There’s a buildup in the story, and it doesn’t matter if there’s a big confrontation at the end, you can’t drain the anticipation because you’re left with even more questions and expectations. Endings should be release valves, but cliffhangers replace that valve effectively taking away our release.
When I think of cliffhangers, the phrase “sequel bait” is the first thing that comes to mind, closely followed by “shock value.” But that’s not to say that cliffhangers are always bad; they work best within a contained storyline that’s been planned in advance and has a clear ending. They help the plot move forward and blend into the next book, linking the story arc that unites the series as a whole. And I much prefer them when they don’t involve the main couple.
Meljean Brook is one of the few authors whose cliffhangers I enjoy. The first books in the Guardian series were standalones, but when the main story-arc became more complex, the cliffhangers came in handy to answer some questions and set up the following books. Since these cliffhangers didn’t involve a romantic couple, they managed to be effective, shocking and satisfactory. And these are major cliffhangers; she took a huge risk killing one of her main characters and sending him to hell, just to turn him into a dragon when everyone thought he was finally free (it makes sense when you read the books). His fate is hanging (pun intended) but since his book is next, I’m sure he’ll be just fine.
One of my all-time favorite series has one of the most heartbreaking, gasp-inducing, cliffhangers I’ve ever read. Anyone familiar with Suzanne Brockmann’s books knows that if the book has a secondary romance, chances are, they won’t get their HEA in that book. And if said couple are Sam and Alyssa, they won’t get it in the next four or five books either. But in this case, the biggest cliffhanger happened in their second book as secondary couple. In Over the Edge, Sam decides to stop being a jerk finally confess his feelings. He tells her he likes her and that he wants to give their relationship a try. And that’s when the call comes telling him that his ex is pregnant. The End. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what I call an evil cliffhanger of doom.
I think of Karen Marie Moning as the Cliffhanger Whisperer, because the Fever series was one cliffhanger after the other. Even the last book in the series left us with a bunch of questions. But if I had to choose the cliffhanger to rule them all, I’d go with the one in Dreamfever. She ends the book with the death of a character that leaves the heroine devastated. So it must be an important character, right? The hero, perhaps? We don’t know. That’s how the book ends, with a huge death, a thousand questions and almost two years of speculation in front of us waiting for the answers.
Shiloh Walker’s Ash trilogy had a mystery that wasn’t resolved until the last book. Each story had a different couple and a HEA, but the suspense part didn’t get a resolution until the final installment. This series was original and organic. I even enjoyed having my own suspect list and adding new names to it. It also helped that the books weren’t released that far apart from each other so the waiting wasn’t as tortuous.
The last cliffhanger I read came courtesy of Nalini Singh’s latest book, Tangle of Need. Kaleb has been a secondary character since the first book. He has always been fascinating, especially after we discovered that he was desperately looking for someone. His intentions are still unclear, but he’s a complex character and one of the most popular in the series. At the end of this book he finally finds the person he’s looking for, and it’s a woman. What that means to the overall story arc and to him as a character, we don’t know. But hopefully we’ll find out in the next book, whose hero is yet to be announced and I pray is him.
These are but a few of the most heart-stopping, gasps-inducing cliffhangers I’ve read. Regardless of how we feel about them, one thing is certain: they give us a lot to talk about.
How about you? Do you love cliffhangers? Hate them? What’s the most memorable cliffhanger you have ever read?