So Monday I talked about beginnings, today I’m going to talk about endings. With the popularity of book series, especially, endings are really important. With a series, not only do you have the over reaching series arc, but you have the story arc for each book.
I often see authors who want to leave a cliffhanger ending but they don’t have a clue what this means. They leave the reader dangling with no sense of closure whatsoever. It’s like they stopped writing mid-thought and said, “I’m done!”
Endings like this make me want to scream. Then I want to slam my head into my desk, but I don’t, because frankly, I have too much stuff on my desk and I’d probably injure myself. When I’ve brought it up that readers need some closure, at least on the individual book’s story arc, I’m told, “No, it’s supposed to be a cliffhanger.”
They’ve been watching too much TV but they weren’t paying attention. Sure, when you watched Castle a few seasons ago and they left you hanging wondering if Beckett was going to live all summer, that was a cliffhanger. How many of you were angry at the end of The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo was sealed in carbonite and you wouldn’t know what happened to him for another whole year or two? These are cliffhangers that worked. Sure, you had major questions that went unanswered, but you did have questions answered.
In Castle, Beckett lay seriously injured, possibly dying, but it got Castle to say those three magic words… I love you. Out loud. We’d all been waiting for him to say them. So it took a bullet to pry them out of him, but he said them. Out loud.
In The Empire Strikes Back, sure, we lost Han (much to the chagrin of most of us female fans), but we found out that Han and Leia loved each other and that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. OMG! These were two big reveals that kept fans talking until the next movie came out.
So back to book endings. If you’re going to leave the reader hanging with something big, you’ve also got to give them something big. Something they can feel satisfied with so they don’t feel they wasted all those pages for nothing. It’s like you’ve spent hours preparing a meal, then you dig in and it doesn’t fill you up. You’re still hungry.
Let’s get technical for a moment. Story arcs. These are those pesky little plans that tell a story. You have your giant story arc that is the book (or series). Since we’re talking cliffhangers, let’s say it’s for a series. This is the story arc that pulls us through 3, 6, 9, or more books. Harry Potter’s giant arc was the tale of an orphan boy who finds out he’s a wizard who has to save his world from the evil Voldemort. That’s a tall order for a kid. Then there are the smaller arcs that are each book. These smaller adventures kept us spellbound, but each one helped Harry get closer to his destiny. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban… you get the picture. Each of those books had their own tale, their own challenge for Harry, but he still had that giant arc over his life that prepared him for the final confrontation in the last book. Then, each scene had an even smaller arc with its own goals as he had to make it through Potions class, or catch the Snitch, or face Fluffy, but they all still got him one step closer to meeting the goal of that book’s story arc, and one step closer to meeting the goal of the series’ story arc. Even the angst he went through in book five that some readers complained about fit in there, because he had to doubt himself. He had to doubt his friends.
So, if you want to leave a cliffhanger, fine, but do it right. Give your readers some closure in other ways. Finish the story arc for that book and leave them hanging for something in the greater arc. If you don’t know what a story arc is, I suggest you read the following books:
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld
They’re two of my favorites. And if you want to write, learn the craft, my friends. You wouldn’t trust your car to someone who didn’t know how to fix it, would you? Learn the craft.