I am writing a YA fantasy series, and I'm wondering if the first book should end in a major cliffhanger. Right as the book ends, the main characters get trapped by the enemy. I'm wondering if this is too much of a cliffhanger-- would anyone want to read the next book if this one ends at such a climactic moment?
I would personally not do this.
First of all, not giving a satisfying ending to a story is almost always very, very irritating to readers. Leaving things unfinished after a large period of buildup and hype is a huge mental itch in people's brains and almost always a letdown for your reader, and this is especially the case with books, where the whole story is expected to be contained within the book. Spending a whole book building up to the climax and confrontation with the villain, only to yank it away from your reader without any satisfaction, would definitely anger your reader, who expected a conclusion to all the things they've been building up their anticipation for.
That being said, I think there are some ways to do this right. You can still have a cliffhanger while also making it feel like an ending. However, that is a big challenge to do right, especially for first-time authors.
The main thing is to have the cliffhanger come after the climax and falling action, not disrupt or replace the climax and leave it unfulfilled.
Maybe your climax is the big fight scene with the villain. Have the fight scene, have the heroes come out victorious and develop the full ending... and then have an epilogue scene where the villain plots his revenge or is about to capture the characters, to set up the sequel. Don't leave the characters in a spot where they're about to die and the reader angrily closes the book and says, "I read that whole book and fell in love with this guy and now he's just going to die at the end? What the hell kind of ending is that?"
You want your reader to walk away satisfied and glad they read your book, not angry and unfulfilled. For this reason, I don't recommend cliffhangers as endings.
As much as readers claim to hate this, it can definitely drive future sales. Roger Zelazny ended every single book in his long running, popular Amber series on a cliffhanger, including the last one.
My advice would be to to provide some closure in your book, either before the cliffhanger or as a part of it. Bring some story arcs to a close, answer some unanswered questions. That shows the reader that you're not just stringing them along indefinitely.
I don't think any reader loves a cliffhanger, but I really only hate them, as a reader, when it feels like the author is cheating us by a) deliberately withholding the real ending, b) disguising the fact that they just don't have a satisfying ending or c) cynically trying to sell more books (i.e. making decisions for commercial reasons, not artistic ones). I don't even mind a cliffhanger as a final ending (no sequel), if it makes good artistic sense (which is to say, if ambiguity is playing an actual role, and isn't just an easy out). There's no ending I love more than of the movie Children of Men, and that one is a complete cliffhanger.
It depends on the cliffhanger, has to be the answer.
Book 3 of Stephen King's Dark Tower series finishes on a cliffhanger. (And until King decided to continue writing the series - with, for some fans, questionable results - this was the ending.) The characters are facing trial by riddle with Blaine the Mono, who may kill them at any time.
However this is a positive cliffhanger. To get there, the characters have fought their way through the city, overcoming a number of obstacles. They have also had a showdown with Blaine to earn the right to this contest. The book does not end on a cliffhanger in the sense of "they are immediately about to die", but in the sense of "the story continues". The major obstacles presented in the book have been resolved, and whilst the characters are not safe, their situation is at least stable.
Also consider The Empire Strikes Back. Hoth has been lost to the Empire. Han Solo has been lost to Boba Fett. Luke has been comprehensively beaten by Darth Vader, and has also discovered that what he's been told by his Jedi mentors about the father he's been trying to emulate was a lie. There has been no resolution to events in the film.
And yet the situation is stable. The evacuation of Hoth was a success, and the Rebels have regrouped. All the major characters are at least still alive and safe. Luke's hand has been replaced. Lando and Chewbacca are leaving on a mission to rescue Han. Again, the story continues.
These examples are very different to the pulp-fiction cliffhanger of "tune in next time to find out whether they survive". You can get away with a "will they survive" cliffhanger for something like a TV series where you only have a week to wait until the next installment. For a book where there may be a significant delay until publication of the next installment, this is not acceptable to readers.
You can - but there's some important factors to consider here. This level of cliffhanger goes far behind a simple sequel hook where you've left some unresolved plot threads for the following book to pick up and run with, or even "part of a series" - instead you're literally finishing the book before the end of the story. As it stands without the next book it's incomplete.
So if you want to take this approach what you need to do is write the next book as well. Then look at the two as a whole - do they constitute a single story in two parts or is the cliffhanger resolved (relatively) quickly before moving on to the story of book 2?
If it's the former then you've got yourself a genuine duology, and if you were looking to publish this by a publisher you would be able to provide them with both parts. This can allay concerns that the second part isn't going to deliver - and they might even prefer to have the option of combining the two.
If it's the latter then I'd consider moving the resolution of the cliffhanger into the first part - the pattern of having a cliffhanger and resolving it quickly is a fine (if somewhat cheap) trick to keep the audience engaged in some formats (weekly TV shows, soap operas, comic books - that sort of thing) but in a book series? It's poor form in my opinion and readers are very likely to be annoyed by it.
Having a complete story I think is better than a cliffhanger. Honestly, if your book is good enough, your audience would want to continue the story without being manipulated by a "tune in next time to see how our heroes get out of this" type of ending (which let's be honest, that's usually what cliffhangers end up being). Think of the LotR: The Fellowship of the Ring movie ending. Thematically, it's a complete movie with all but the overarching goal tied up, and there's no "Tune in next time to see whether Frodo and Sam survive" ending; they just get on a boat and start towards their next destination.
I would need to know more as to the plot of your story, but, let's say, there's an overarching goal your characters need to complete. The climax of your first book is a battle or action scene (hypothetically speaking), but that scene is, in the grand scheme of things, not the battle to end the war (metaphorically speaking). Continue your story past that battle and into the falling action (the heroes recover or move on to the next battle) and end it there. Your heroes aren't endanger and there's no "tune in next time..." feeling. The story is complete but the overarching goal is not. Your audience is satisfied with the book being a one off adventure of sorts but need to know whether the overarching goal is completed in the next installment. So, they come back for next installment without the manipulation of "Tune in next time to see how our heroes get out of this".
That's how I would go about it. Hope that helps
When was the last time you were watching a TV show that the season ended in a cliffhanger, but then wasn't renewed for the following season?
Were you happy, sad, or mad about it? And then compare that answer to how you liked the show and how fulfilled you are by it ending.
That's your answer right there.
Here's one example.
Farscape. It was a science fiction series that many people had grown to love. The 4th season ended in a major cliffhanger. And then it was cancelled. A year later and after many complaints, it was picked back up and they made the equivalent of a 3 part movie to resolve the cliffhanger and all the other story arcs left dangling.
It being cancelled left people angry and unfulfilled, which might have happened even if it wasn't a cliffhanger, but with it's cliffhanger, it made them that much more angry.
So what I'm saying is that the only way a cliffhanger really works is if the next book is already available to read or maybe guaranteed to exist. Otherwise you make the reader feel jerked around. Do this enough times with starting a series and never finishing the 2nd book, and you'll lose readers before you get them.
I think you can get away with it, especially in the very serialized YA market. Be sure to have a detailed transition plan. Make sure your first novel has a clear climax and a resolution. Otherwise, it sounds like a good hook to sell your second book.
Another alternative is to tone it down a little and foreshadow the cliffhanger. This tells people there will be a sequel, and they have something to look forward to, but they also get resolution. Do you already have a second book planned and laid out? If your second book is years away, readers may lose interest or get frustrated after a cliffhanger.
If your potential publisher doesn't like it, have a backup end planned. This is likely to simply be an end to the story slightly earlier. If you've gotten an agent to read to the end of your story, they are likely already "bought in" enough that they will tell you if the end is a deal-breaker. You can immediately give them the alternative.
If, however, you are planning to self-publish, then this could get tricky. If the end turns off readers, they won't recommend the book, and you are less likely to have the equivalent of an agent telling you, "This doesn't work." Editors come in all shapes and sizes, though, and will perform as many of these functions as you have money to pay them for. You also need to find some really good beta readers (start recruiting now among people in the field familiar with YA books).
Hopefully, they will either say, "That end was frustrating!" or "So...What happens??!!!" Still have a backup end in mind to respond to the feedback.