We’ve all had the experience of sitting raptly through a book or movie, only for it to end with a character hanging from a cliff, her fate uncertain. It’s usually a metaphorical cliff, although often the character’s life is in jeopardy, but it’s rarely satisfying. Indeed, since the point of a cliffhanger ending is to make the reader or viewer desperate for the next installment, you could argue that satisfaction isn’t even the goal.
But I’m here to assure you that a satisfying cliffhanger is possible! Mary Pearson wrote what might be my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time, The Remnant Chronicles. If you like YA fantasy and haven’t read these, please stop what you’re doing and go read them. (Obviously, since I’m discussing the endings, there will be considerable spoilers, so I really urge you to read them first!) I’ll also be discussing her follow-up series and how it didn’t quite live up to the first one, in my opinion.
(WARNING! Spoilers! Last chance to turn back! Seriously, I would rather you read her books than my blog post. You can jump down to the numbered lists for the takeaways.)
How to Do It: Resolve the Important Question
The Kiss of Deception begins with Lia, a princess of Morrighan, running away from an arranged marriage to an older man that she assumes would be loveless. At the end, she’s been kidnapped and dragged across the continent as a prisoner of war. Her true love risks his life and country to pursue her and catches up with her just as she’s about to cross into the enemy’s country. In one of the swooniest* moments I’ve ever read, he walks fearlessly through a battalion of soldiers to lie his way into the country so that she won’t be alone in hostile territory.
* It’s officially a word now
In The Heart of Betrayal, Lia and her love pretend they hate each other to survive while plotting their escape from the brutal main antagonist of the series. It created almost more tension than I could bear—I seriously experienced physical anxiety about these fictional characters’ well-being. At the end of the book, she’s unconscious and wounded and they’ve lost track of their friends in a blinding snowstorm—but they’ve escaped from Venda.
At the end of both books, the characters’ lives, not to mention the safety of their countries, are still very much in jeopardy—true cliffhangers. But the books are still highly satisfying because:
- The characters were together and knew they loved each other.
- The main question raised by the beginning of each book had been answered (“Will Lia find true love?” and “Will Lia survive and escape from Venda?”).
How Not to Do It: Throw in a New Conflict
Pearson’s next book didn’t tie up as neatly at the end, in my opinion. I know publishers want authors to keep their readers hooked, but I think she could’ve just let the reader think everything was fine until the next book came out. The problem is that the main characters in Dance of Thieves resolve their romantic tension at the end of the book, and the identity of the sequel’s antagonist is hidden, so there’s no remaining problem for us to wonder about. Her solution was to give us a scene outside of both main characters’ points of view, introducing a new conflict so that we know everything has fallen apart at home while they’ve been gone.
This tactic is a common method of creating a cliffhanger (besides just stopping at an arbitrary moment). To me, it’s less satisfying because the book doesn’t end on a note of emotional resolution—which, as we’ve seen, is possible even for a cliffhanger. More specifically:
- The last scene happens after the “real” ending; it’s literally just the beginning of the next book.
- Of necessity, introducing a new question means new information the reader couldn’t possibly have known beforehand, so it doesn’t feel connected to the rest of the book that came before.
While it’s incredibly hard to come up with an ending that both hits a note of resolution and makes the reader desperate for the next book, it’s something I will strive for if I ever write a series. If you know of any series that have satisfying cliffhangers, do let me know!