The Allure of the Cliffhanger

~ By Katie McCoach

Note: This post originally appeared here defines “cliffhanger” as:

— n

1. A melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.

As well as:

— n

1. A situation of imminent disaster usually occurring at the end of each episode of a serialized film
2. A situation that is dramatic or uncertain

We are all familiar with cliffhangers in TV shows and books; they sometimes excite us or enrage us…or both.

As a writer it is easy to end a novel (that has plans to be a series or continue) with cliffhangers. Like the definition above says, “in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.”

However, there is an allure of ending a novel with a cliffhanger, so I encourage a writer to tread carefully with these tips:

Try not to intentionally end your novel with a cliffhanger – Cliffhangers, though they may encourage a reader to continue on to the next novel or chapter can also be deterrence. Have you ever finished watching a TV series or read a book and been mad about the way things were left off?

If you (the writer) choose to intentionally end the book with a cliffhanger the readers will know and they will (likely) not enjoy it. It’s trying too hard and doesn’t serve the ultimate goal: entice a reader and keep the suspense alive.

Bring resolution while also showing there is life beyond – The well-done cliffhangers are the subtle ones. If you end your book, resolve everything, and then suddenly say “Oh wait now THIS thing is suddenly happening, but you won’t get to find out anything until the next book,” it’s kind of throwing the book in a reader’s face. Or if you just don’t resolve anything at all – that’s kind of a major no, no too. The key is to resolve the important stuff, but show that there is life beyond these chapters.

Think about Harry Potter as for example – there are seven novels and each book ends with a resolution to the main situation in that book, however you know there is still this impending “doom” – everyone is still in danger, it’s not gone forever, but the immediate situation is resolved. That is a cliffhanger that a reader can hold on to. They feel the resolution, but also continued suspense. You may choose to argue me on the Harry Potter reference, that’s fine – it’s just a basic example, but you get the idea, right?

Have the readers come back on their own agenda, don’t try to force them – If you force a cliffhanger at a reader with the intention of it being impossible for them to “not” come back for more, it may have the opposite effect.

There are numerous books or TV shows I’ve watched that have ended on such a blatant cliffhanger that I’ve given up right then and there because I am so frustrated, and now I believe that the writer will continue to put me this situation in over and over, book after book.No thanks.

Let the story be the guide– I’ve written about this before in a previous post – Writing Fiction That Is Believable – you should let the story and characters lead the next steps, not the writing. If the story is not ready to go in a certain direction, then don’t take it there yet.

Have you ever been deterred by a cliffhanger? When you do think cliffhangers work, and when do they not?

KATIE McCOACH is a freelance developmental book editor at KM Editorial working with authors of all levels to help them create their best story possible. Katie is a member of Romance Writers of America and the Editorial Freelancers Association. She has had essays published in TrainWrite and Kalliope and is currently writing a contemporary romance novel. For advice on editing, writing, and publishing visit her blog at and be sure to also follow her on Twitter @KatieMcCoach.

7 thoughts on “The Allure of the Cliffhanger”

  1. It boggles my mind that in the romance genre writers think a cliffhanger is okay! We want resolution of our HEA & the major plot point!! I think your example of Harry Potter is a brilliant one. 🙂 Great post.

  2. Great post, Katie! I have given up on so many TV series when they ended the season with a cliffhanger, mainly because by the time it starts up again I just don’t care. Same thing with books. I love an overall series arc, like the Harry Potter example, but I also want each book to be complete in itself.

    1. I totally agree, Jane! I think it was season 3 or 4 of Downton Abbey ended and gave a SERIOUS uncool cliffhanger for the next season I threw my hands up and said, “That’s it! I’m done.”

  3. Thanks for your comments, Tanya and Stephanie! It’s great to hear what others think on this topic. I get so frustrated when I finish a book and a bomb was dropped on the last page. I guess the goal is to keep me going into the next book in the series, but I don’t think it’s fair to suddenly introduce a new big storyline or not finish a previous storyline just to trick readers into reading the next one. It feels like a trick, right? Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. I’m not a fan of cliffhangers in romances. It’s one thing for an epilogue to feature a supporting character and bring him or her to the forefront so a reader can get a hint of who will be “starring” in the next book. It’s another thing to end a book on a cliffhanger with the hero and heroine in the middle of their journey. I always feel gypped, like the author wanted me to pay twice.

    Cliffhangers are great for television and some movies, and they had a great place in the serialization novels of the nineteenth century, but I don’t feel they work well in romance.

    Thank you for writing an interesting post, Katie.

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