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?


With my birthday approaching, I am thinking about change. I will be another year older – a date I do not anticipate. However, as my late mother said, it is better than the alternative.

And, alternates come in many colors, such as the change in book distribution. Borders will close Friday. Here is a link to that story:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303661904576454353768550280.html?mod=WSJ_hp_LEFTTopStories

The sad thing is I bought books two weeks ago there for my youngest autistic son. Going to Shadow Lake Towne Center in Papillion, Neb., will seem quite empty without the store anchoring the edge of the shopping center. What happened is apparent. They were too late in adapting with the times and the onslaught of e-books.

What about you? A friend of mine found e-books a couple of years ago and is making significant money through this avenue. I still have not purchased an e-reader. It scares me a little. But with my birthday almost here I plan to buy a Nook (especially since my husband is paying for it and since I got familiar with the device the other day), I now feel comfortable with its use.

Take a breath and move on, I say. Change always is difficult. A video showed how many young adults even think e-mail is passe. It is for me somewhat. I seldom forward e-mails as I did even a year ago. Instead, I interact on Facebook, Twitter and recently joined Read the Shorts and several Goodreads online groups. I lag behind. Is it too late for this dinosaur?

I hope not this is why I am writing an e-book to publish before my early-twentieth-century romance, Sustaining Love:  A Time Remembered, is out in April of 2012.  Wish me luck and pray for all Borders employees as they seek new positions in today’s economy.