Writing a Series: Cliffhangers?

I had a conversation the other day about when it is – and isn’t – appropriate in a book series to have a cliffhanger.  Common rule of thumb is that each book in a series should be a stand alone book so that a reader need not buy the entire series, but only read one book and know what’s going on.

At the same time, many authors, both traditional and self published, employ the cliffhanger ending. The Morganville Vampires is a good example of this. The first book drops off in the middle of a “battle”, like the old serials with the main characters in deathly perril.

That seems to have worked for Rachel Caine since she’s ready to publish book 11 in the series.

So, when should an author leave an open ending and when should they be sure that each book can stand alone?

I think genre may be an important factor.  Thrillers and mysteries are more likely to draw in readers who will not go back and read earlier books, or who may not read the series in order. On the other hand, a fantasy epic will likely attract readers who want a huge story arc that spans several novels.

I believe another factor is how much time passes between one book and the next. If an author takes two years to finish that dramatic fight, readers will likely lose interest. If you followed the Rachel Caine link above you can see a list of her novels with publication dates, and see how close together the books are. Even if she drops off at the end of her book, fans only have to wait a few months before they can have the conclusion; and the set up for a new cliffhanger.

At the core I’m a fantasy reader, so I find that I prefer books that have a long story arc. I want to “have” to buy the next book, and I want to “have” to read them in the correct order. I want characters and situations to pop up five books down the line that make me have to scramble back to the first book in an effort to remember what the heck the author is talking about; I want a whole world. However, I don’t like it when a book drops off in the middle of a scene. If there’s a fight, then I think that fight needs to end, or else the next book should open with the fight in it’s entirety.

What about you? How do you feel about cliffhangers or stories that arc from one book to the next? Do they make you want the next book or do you prefer a book that can stand alone, even if it’s part of an ongoing series? What genres do you think lend themselves to long story arcs? What genres don’t?

25 thoughts on “Writing a Series: Cliffhangers?

  1. ChristinaLi July 22, 2011 / 5:30 am

    Read Sonya Noble’s sci-fi e-book “We Stand Together” (Amazon kindle and Smashwords) and loved it. It ended on a cliff hanger making me want to bug her to no end until she published the next one! I think you’re right about certain genres being more accepting of cliff hanger endings though. If it was a mystery I think I might feel a little cheated. On the other hand, part of the fun of a series is the fact that not all questions are answered! 🙂

    • Joleene Naylor July 24, 2011 / 10:30 am

      Yeah, I know when it comes to thrillers and mysteries I prefer to have them open and shut in one book so I can read them randomly. I’m hard to please on cop thrillers, though, so I often only read one or two of a series and then never bother with the rest of it.

  2. C.B. Wentworth July 22, 2011 / 5:38 am

    I am a big believer that each book in a series should offer some sort of close to the story (or that particular part of the story) while also opening the door for future developments. Cliffhangers are a way to tempt a reader to buy another book, but it shouldn’t leave them hanging midair grasping at straws. IMHO, it should only be used if it serves the story overall. The one thing that really irritates me is a contrived cliffhanger that serves no other purpose than selling another book.

    • Joleene Naylor July 24, 2011 / 10:31 am

      Yeah, I thought that ending in mid scene was a bit much, but I’ve seen it done in several series. I think if the author is doing that then they should churn the next one out really fast!

  3. mariminiatt July 22, 2011 / 8:18 am

    I try so hard to make each book stand on its own, but when you read the whole series the larger picture presents itself. This is because I HATE, HATE finding out about a series halfway through and have to go back and read the first books because I do not understand what the heck most of the characters are talking about.
    So I try to be like Pratchett, he has like 30 or 40 books out, based in Discworld. Each novel stands alone. But if you were to take all the ones that deal with the City Watch, a larger plot appears.
    I did read a fantasy novel years ago which was book 4 of a series. The author did a good job explaining enough, through characters, about the past important bits. like “Remember when we did X” That I only read that book and was satisfied.

    But I am only talking about fantasy.

    • Joleene Naylor July 24, 2011 / 10:32 am

      I love Pratchett’s discworld, though I have to admit I wish he had more continuity, LOL! That’s the only thing that bugs me about his novels because what happens in one doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what happens later so character I assume will show up don’t always. He’s good enough though I am willing to overlook it 😉

  4. Sarah Ettritch July 22, 2011 / 11:58 am

    I don’t mind cliffhangers as long as the next book comes out within a reasonable period of time (~2 years max). I gave up on a couple of series because the gap between books was too long. I would have had to reread the last book to get into the series again, and I couldn’t be bothered, not when there are so many books I want to read for the first time.

    • Joleene Naylor July 24, 2011 / 10:33 am

      Yeah, I know what you mean! I get impatient waiting more than 2 years even without a cliff hanger 😉

    • robertyel July 24, 2011 / 2:36 pm

      I think the “King” of making a reader wait has got to be Steven King himself. Took the man over twenty years to complete “The Dark Tower” series. That man kept his readers sitting on Blaine the Monorail along with Roland, Eddie, Suzanne, Jake, and Oy, for over seven years. I was howling in frustration. LOL!

  5. julihoffman July 22, 2011 / 12:00 pm

    I prefer “stand alones” in a series. I’m not sure if I could read a story that stopped in the middle of a battle. If I like a series, I’ll buy them all, however there are exceptions to this rule. There’s a series that comes to mind where the author brought a wonderful character into story line, only to slowly kill her off at the end of the book. I was SO upset. I never finished the series, and it took me YEARS before I would read anything else written by this author. Be careful who you kill off writers! I’m still not happy with this author.

    • Joleene Naylor July 24, 2011 / 10:34 am

      LOL Oh no! I love killing off people… 😉

      Now that could be a whole blog post! “Watch out what characters you kill off…”

    • Ruth Ann Nordin July 30, 2011 / 7:31 pm

      “Be careful who you kill off writers!”

      LOL This is what makes romance so easy. People rarely die.

  6. Lauralynn Elliott July 22, 2011 / 1:16 pm

    I’m actually having that challenge right now. I’m working on the second book in a series, and I tried to make the first one stand alone. I think I accomplished that. I feel like if there’s more than a month or so between books, then there shouldn’t be too much of a cliff hanger. I really prefer stand alone books.

    • Joleene Naylor July 24, 2011 / 10:40 am

      Heh-heh, yeah I am asking for research purposes. I have two ending I am trying to decide between. Sadly, I think I may go for the semi-cliff hanger anyway.

  7. robertyel July 22, 2011 / 2:56 pm

    My first book (Rashnar) in the fantasy Kantura World series ended in one heck of a cliff hanger. I mean it was a dilly. LOL! It ended in the middle of a battle scene, PLUS, the heroine is dieing laying in the middle of a dusty road. Before publishing it I made sure that I was at least completely finished with the rough draft of Krae (book 2). I was able to hold the time gap between the two down to just 2 months.
    I also made sure that I put in the blurb of Rashnar that it WAS a CLIFF HANGER.

    Sadly this fantasy series has got me deeply questioning my ability as a writer. Rashnar has had 300+ downloads. Of course it is free. (except on amazon)
    Krae has had just 1 copy sold. (Thank You Ruth **waves**)

    Back to the subject matter. I do not know if it is because that book 1 was a cliff hanger as to why the series is flopping. But with that many downloads of the free first book… and only 1 sold copy of the second book… that kind of clears the cliff hanger name and puts it squarely on my shoulders.

    • Joleene Naylor July 24, 2011 / 10:39 am

      I’ve found that people are very likely to download a free book – and then never get around to reading it, so they don’t ever make it to the next one in the series. I have a similar problem with my series – I sell 1 book 2 for about every three of book 1. (book 1 is 99 cents and book 2 is 2$) and when I have the first one for free then I get pretty much no book 2 sales off of it at all. I know that conventional advice is to give the first one away to boost sales, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much for me, either. I think it’s just a tough crowd out there!

      I saw the word free there, but I don;t see a link, so I shall put one here for you 🙂 – http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/58241 <— check out Robert M. Yelverton's free read!

    • robertyel July 24, 2011 / 2:45 pm

      Thank You Joleene for putting in that link.
      So maybe a free book at the series start in my case was a mistake? But then again a 300+:1 ratio is pretty dismal. LOL!
      I have made up my mind though that I will still write. Yes, it is stinging. But, I have already started on another children’s bedtime story book called “A Firefly Dream.”

      • Joleene Naylor July 25, 2011 / 5:12 am

        Well, I’ve added it to my TBR list 😉 It looks good!

        Are you listed on Amazon, too? I’ve sold practically nothing on Smashwords (some through the affiliates) but more through Amazon.

        • robertyel July 25, 2011 / 3:38 pm

          Yup, I got it up on Amazon, did the kdp thing. I blog about it, I am on kindleboards, nookboards, I have tweeted, posted about it on other boards, even paid $5 to join a new author site where you get to list your books. (sigh)

          For me Amazon is a hard nut to crack. My best selling book believe it or not is my children’s bedtime story. It has now sold a whopping 32 copies since it came out. LOL! Out of that number only 2 on Amazon. What I find odd is that most of my sales have come from Apple, of course Smashwords submitted it to the Apple venue.

          Maybe people do not like my name? LOL!

          • Joleene Naylor July 26, 2011 / 9:44 pm

            heh-heh, I won’t say I’m doing an amazing job, myself 😉

            through smashwords my best numbers are Barnes & Noble, though I suspect 99% are the freebie stories. i don’t think series really take off until the third book, though. I know that most series I get into are usually on book 3 by the time I hear about them. So I say do not lament until after book 3 is out! 😀 That’s my plan anyway (why do you think that release date keeps getting pushed back? ha! Joking – maybe 😉 )

            • robertyel July 27, 2011 / 2:54 pm

              Well, in sheer numbers for me it is also B&N. But yes, it is the freebies that draw in that crowd. I have very few sales. I keep a spreadsheet of my sales minus the freebies so I can get a closer look at things. On that spreadsheet I have just the basic info.
              Book name, Venue sold at, Country to, Book Price, My cut, date sold.

              Although Book 2 does end the Kantura World series in all the important aspects of the plot there is still a Book 3 that can be written. But Book 3 will not be written unless people call for it. I know that Jack, Phillip, and Tracy has been whispering to me that they have more to tell. But what good is telling a story to an empty room? (sigh) So I have not even started on Book 3.

              On pushing back release dates. That is one thing an author can do to drive me bonkers. LOL!

              • Ruth Ann Nordin July 30, 2011 / 7:52 pm

                This is why I’m dropping contemporaries and ending the Native American Romance series after the next book. Few people are buying those books. People are buying the historical westerns, so I am going to focus on those in the rest of this year. I don’t blame you for putting the Kantura World on hold. What else can you do if it hasn’t picked up on sales?

                I’ve also noticed more luck with Apple. Maybe Apple does more to promote Smashwords authors than the other channels. Amazon fluctuates, so I never know if it’ll be a good month there or not. Smashwords itself doesn’t reap in much of anything.

                As for the free books, I have many more downloads than I do sales. My free book on Amazon at the US site has about 5600 copies, but I average 275 sales for each book. This is counting 20 titles I have (but excluding the three titles that have sold less than 10 copies). On Smashwords, I’ve given away 27,000 copies of my highest downloaded ebook and 10,000 copies of two other free reads, but I sold 226 copies of the highest paid book (and that was priced at $0.99 until last monh). It takes a lot of free copies to make sales.

  8. Ruth Ann Nordin July 30, 2011 / 7:56 pm

    I thought of the Star Wars Episode V when I read this post. That was a huge cliffhanger. Fortunately, I watched the movies a decade ago, so I was spared the waiting. I had a harder time waiting for the first three Star Wars episodes and lost interest. I don’t know if I’d call the first three a real cliffhanger, though. I think the key is to make each book short in wait times or you run the risk of people not caring anymore. 🙂

    As for me, I love the overall theme twining through the books, but I prefer stand alones. I also write romance, so that plays a big role in why I like stand alones as much as I do. I do, however, love it when the characters keep popping up in other books.

  9. Barb June 7, 2012 / 5:57 pm

    I enjoy any book series that keeps building the world and developing the characters even more deeply from book to book. I suppose it makes me feel like I’m on the inside when book 3 references something in Book 1 and I know all about it. I also appreciate a glossary in a long series, it helps me go back and find info/events more easily.

    For me, I need some sort of wrap up of at least the sub-plots or I’m ticked. I’ve invested a lot of time in reading a work; I want some closure.

  10. Morgan Curtis June 7, 2012 / 6:19 pm

    I don’t like cliffhangers that much even in fantasy, which is what I read most. I think the best approach is to leave a couple of loose threads untied. That way the reader is motivated to read the next book without feeling cheated by the ending or forced to buy the next one.

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