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In the second (not yet written) book of my novel series, the ending is a cliffhanger. A very hopeless one. The very hopelessness of it is deliberate. Not only am I signing them up for the next installment, but I'm shocking them in a way as to leave them traumatized and scared for the rest of the series (the books are generally quite hopeless and unforgiving). I want to create an everlasting suspense and fear for the characters by killing off a very narrative and plot important MC. Not only is his dead also instrumental for the plot, but as said, it serves to put the readers in the right mindset, and to contrast it with the first book's more hopeful ending.

But I am a bit scared of cliffhangers. Seeing the outrage over The Walking Dead's cliffhanger, I'd like to know the do's and dont's when it comes to creating one. Whereas The Walking Dead's cliffhanger centered around who a certain act was done to, my cliffhanger centers around what they're supposed to do next, in the coming book. What I suspect TWD did wrong is leaving the viewer with an annoyingly intense curiosity, and perhaps the lack of resolution factored in too. But with my cliffhanger, I feel like the death itself serves as a lot of resolution. And there are no annoying details left unanswered. The only question present is simply, what do we do next? In this way, the characters are as clueless as the readers.

But for all I know, this is an arbitrary difference, and the distinguishing of good and bad cliffhangers lies somewhere else. Perhaps there are no good cliffhangers? Or perhaps getting annoyed at cliffhangers is the issue itself?

  • Off the top of my head, the archetypal "good cliffhanger" is The Italian Job, and the archetypal "bad cliffhanger" is Halo 2. I can't articulate what makes the first one good and the second one bad, but they're further examples to look at. – F1Krazy Jan 22 at 13:37
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Perhaps the difference between good and bad cliffhangers isn’t so much the cliffhanger itself (although some cliffhangers can be annoying because they feel too contrived to blatantly manipulate the readers emotions), but rather the more important issue is whether the reader had some resolution as well.

Cliffhangers are the opposite of resolution: they are a type of suspense. The balance is maintained as long as you have resolved some questions in your story before ending it with some suspense.

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  • Well put. A cliffhanger is basically a promise to the reader for later payoff. It's not the cliffhanger itself that is the issue, but the payoff or lack thereof that can make people ornery about them. – Dmann Feb 25 at 21:38
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First thing you should do is not think about it as Part 1 and Part 2 of a cliffhanger, but one complete story presented with a very extended intermission. As the writer, you should know the answer to every possible fan question that will be asked in between the first run on the cliffhanger.

I consider two well known and quality cliffhangers to be "Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back" and "Star Trek The Next Generation" episode "Best of Both Worlds: Part One" and both are night and day in the execution of what I will term the Short Stop and the Sudden Stop (and yes, I am paraphrasing from Pirates of the Caribbean)

In Star Wars, the drop is subtle and leaves a lot of lingering questions to the viewer (Is Vader Telling the Truth? How do they save Han? How are they going to stop the Empire? Who is the "other" that Obi-Wan spoke about?). Notably all matters directly tied to the conflict of the film are resolved and while the Empire won today, the heroes are all alive to fight tomorrow and we have some new guys to boot. Our heroes are broken, beaten, tired, battered, bruised, injured, maimed and/or mangled, or rendered artistic conversation pieces for the time being, they are going to be around for the final chapter. The final ending scene is bitter sweet... we're going to set things right, but we need to regroup and breathe a bit. This is merely a Short Stop.

Best of Both Worlds on the other hand is designed to build up to the very last line of dialog. Every moment of the episode slow builds from there... the opening is like any other ordinary episode, but by the final moments the tension is ramped up so high that the viewer might not realize a cliff hanger is coming until the tell tale "To Be Continued..." is played on screen and one slightly more aware of his surroundings has checked his watched and relized they have minutes to cover what would be 5 minutes of drama AND we haven't the coda to end on. When the pre-asskicking one liner is finally given (Ryker: Mr. Worf, Fire!) the camera work, combined with the dramatic musical build up tell us right away to pay attention to this moment, before cutting to black with the Cliffhanger's signature promise. Naturally "Part 2" opens with Worf pressing the fire button which not only fires the super-duper awesome gun but also completely changes the carpet pattern in the blink of an eye, but picks off right were the cliffhanger ends... and if viewed as originally aired, is a 3 month real world gap between the order given and the attack and the results. Here, rather than containing the story within itself, the story is given the feeling that the first 5 minutes of Part 2 could have been fitted into the tail end of Part 1 and made Part 1 a short stop cliffhanger or even an entire episode. This is a sudden drop.

Both can be used to great effect and both don't have to write the conclusion before you release one of the books if necessary, but it's critical to know what happens next as you write it. Know where you want to go.

I say this because the reason for Best of Both Worlds meant that they couldn't write the conlcusion. It was the season 3 finale and Patrick Stewart's contract was up and there was some concern he was not going to renew. Both Worlds was written with the idea his character might not be returning so the set up was for in case he didn't return to have his character exit and the script would be written and shot over the summer when they had better knowledge of what's next. Subsequent Season Finale Cliffhangers were of mixed success as Both Worlds and even then, the Part 2 is not as well loved as Part 1.

Have your finisher some what fully formed when you end and you can avoid this somewhat.

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What is the scope of your cliffhanger? Is it broad, like at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring, with the state of multiple story arcs in question, or is it very narrow, like the closing scene of GoT Series 5 fading out on a dead Jon Snow when everyone assumed he was going to be a key player right to the end of the show? I think if you understand that, you can focus your writing appropriately.

To do it well, the roots of the cliffhanger need to go deep into the narrative structure of your novel series (both the one the cliffhanger is at the end of and at least the start of the next novel in the series) so that you ensure that plot threads that can be tied up are tied up, the right plot threads are left hanging and you keep the reader's emotional focus where you want it (the cliffhanger has to be something they really care about! See the 2019 Christmas special of Gavin and Stacey for a great example of this.)

To be really successful you also need to work out how you intend to resolve the cliffhanger in the next book. I would try to sketch this out in as much detail as the plot sketches that lead up to the cliffhanger: even if it makes no difference to your current book it will be a good investment for the future.

Though, having said that, it's also possible to do a good cliffhanger with no sequel. See the very end of Guy Gavriel Kay's "Tigana", which drops a cliffhanger just as you think everything is wrapped up. There is no sequel and I don't know that he ever planned one, but it achieves a distinct emotional wrench and frames the story very well by alluding to continuations of the characters' plotlines beyond the frame.

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