Endings: Setups Versus Cliffhangers


In the past year I’ve had multiple unfortunate experiences of reading a good book only to have it end in a Cliffhanger.  For me, it yanks the enjoyment of a wonderful story out from under my feet and leaves me feeling rather cheated. I hate Cliffhangers.

No, not this Cliffhanger

I’ve read reviews and chatted on Reddit and learned that while I’m hardly the only one, I discovered that there’s a whole lotta confusion as to what “Cliffhanger” means. I’ve even been accused of using one at the end of Mountain of Daggers. Some people confuse a Cliffhanger with a Setup.

A Setup is when a story is complete, the narrative is wrapped, and while the problems might not be over for the heroes, the reader or audience can leave there and still feel a sense of closure.  A great example would be 2002’s Resident Evil.

In it, our heroes have escaped the Hive, closing the plot narrative, but then Alice awakens to a city overrun with zombies.  The closing shot is our hero, severely under-dressed, holding a shotgun, and ready to face-down what comes next.


While the movie might end with the audience screaming, “Oh my God! I want more!” it does not end with them requiring to know the very next thing that happens to Alice in the 30 seconds following the fade to black. We leave the theater knowing that while her initial adventure is done, there are more to come.

For me, that’s the essential definition of a Cliffhanger. “Do We Need To See What Happens In The Next 30 Seconds?“. If the answer is Yes, then you have a Cliffhanger.

Cliffhangers came from the old serial shorts that played in theaters. Every episode would end with the hero in some hopeless bind, such as sinking in quicksand, falling from an airplane, and most obviously, hanging from a cliff.  The gag was used to leave viewers in suspense and make them feel obligated to come to the next movie to see how the hero makes it out.

The 1960’s Batman also used Cliffhangers to end the first half of each two-episode adventure. Leaving the audience with the line, “Tune in Tomorrow!  Same Bat-Time! Same Bat-Channel!”

“Oh no! How will they escape? I’d better tune in tomorrow.”

Aside from being a cheap ploy, the key for an effective Cliffhanger is that they are not endings.  They’re chapter breaks.  Ending a chapter with a Cliffhanger is perfectly fine.  I don’t need to wait long to get to the rest, and I’m not required to buy another ticket or book to find out.  Authors that coax me into buying a standard-sized book, only to pull a surprise Cliffhanger at the end, leaving the plot unresolved and forcing me to buy the next book, make me feel cheated. 

“But what about a series?” you ask.

Well I’m glad you asked, because I have an answer for that, too.

First, the fantasy obsession of taking a massive epic tale and breaking it into multiple parts at seemingly random points is attributed to Lord of the Rings.  However, Lord of the Rings was never intended to be a trilogy.  Tolkien’s publisher was daunted by the costs and commercial appeal of a single enormous book so they chopped it up.  Even then, readers were not forced to wait years between installments.  The entire series was published between July 1954 with Fellowship of the Ring, and October 1955 with Return of the King.  There was no waiting presidential terms between installments.  Authors that hold a story ransom and extort readers by forcing them to keep buying books are not following Tolkien’s tradition.

Second, it’s my opinion that a series with Cliffhanger endings is perfectly fine, providing it follows two simple rules:

  1. That the first book be effectively a stand-alone.  That way, readers have a moment once the dust has settled to decide if they want to keep going.  Some might say, “I’m good with this,” and simply walk away, happy that they had resolution. Or they might say, “Holy shit that was awesome! What happens next? Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” Either way, they get to decide.
  2. That each installment has a beginning, middle, and end.  While some stories might take multiple volumes to tell, there are still sub-stories within the larger plot. As long as the heroes have an obstacle and resolve the obstacle within the covers of the book, even if the much larger problem is unresolved, then that is perfectly fine.

Waste LandsA good example of this is the Dark Tower Series.  Readers can enjoy the first book, The Gunslinger, and be perfectly happy. Yes it ends with a setup, but the story is complete.  The Gunslinger chased the Man in Black across the desert and then caught him.  You can end there.  However, readers that continue the series will enjoy several self-contained adventures along the way, even experiencing the massive cliffhanger ending at the end of The Waste Lands.  That book is the only one that ends on a cliffhanger because the heroes are in an active moment of peril in the last sentence.  However, even then, the story still has a beginning, middle, and end (They enter the waste lands, they leave the waste lands.)

MistbornTrilogyEven though I say that there is a specific time that a Cliffhanger between series installments is acceptable, a Setup is much, much nicer.  Harry Potter is a perfect example of a series that follows these rules, choosing a setup, versus a cliffhanger. A reader can enjoy Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and leave there being perfectly happy. The readers that do keep going with the series are treated to small, self-contained stories that occur while the larger narrative is unfolding. Another favorite of mine in the Mistborn Series, which follows the same rules.

People that claim books like The Well of Ascension, The Republic of Thieves, or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince end on cliffhangers are completely wrong.  Yes, readers are invested in the story and are desperate to see what happens next, but in none of those stories is our hero in a hopeless situation that might kill them in the next 30 seconds. This need to know is the product of great writing and storytelling, while a Cliffhanger is merely a cheap trick used to make up for a lack of great writing.







2 thoughts on “Endings: Setups Versus Cliffhangers

  1. Nice article. Personally, I think cliffhangers are fine if you intend for a release in a timely fashion like another author has difficulty with. Uhm, let’s call him, Bob Q.Q Marvin. Yes, when there’s trouble on that end then you should avoid it.

  2. Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle books are horrors for leaving us with cliffhangers rather than setups… I still can’t get enough of them though. Damn him and his conjuration of cheap tricks.

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