Cliffhangers annoy me. When I read a book, I expect a full story. If I reach the end, and it stops with the hero in mortal danger, I feel cheated. I feel that either the writer hasn’t figured out the ending yet, or they’re using a very cynical marketing ploy to encourage me to buy more books.
This makes me less likely to continue. Unless the story really grabbed me, I won’t get any more in the series.
But open loops are different. If I reach the end of a complete story, but there’s an odd niggling question that hasn’t been answered, I’m intrigued. I’m satisfied that the story is finished, but I still want to know more. And with books like this, I’m far more likely to continue with the rest of the series.
Star Wars did this. The Death Star was destroyed, but Darth Vader still lived—the villain had been defeated, but not vanquished. The Empire Strikes Back had a more sombre ending, with more loops left open, but (apart from Han Solo, encased in carbonite), the characters all survived, ready for the next part of their fight against the Empire.
Sean Platt and David Wright’s Jumper series (at least, over the first few books) is another great example of open loops to drive a series. It begins with Jumper, the story of someone who wakes up each day in someone else’s body. They do what they can to minimise harming the people whose bodies they inhabit. But these hosts are all connected, and the main character is forced to make difficult choices to protect his hosts.
It’s an intriguing premise, reminiscent of Quantum Leap without feeling derivative. The book’s an enjoyable read, and tells a complete story—and then, we get the epilogue.
It feels like it’s going to tie up a few loose ends. But instead, the writers drop their bombshell. [Spoiler alert] There is more than one jumper.
This great little twist immediately builds interest in the second book, Karma Police.
The second book follows a similar pattern—the main character waking in different host bodies, being forced to solve a particular problem. But again, the writers open another loop. The main character talks to another jumper, and learns things that give rise to more questions than they answer.
It’s only once we’re through the first half of the series that the pattern breaks, and the final three books are more of a continuation of the same story rather than individual stories with hints of a larger overall arc. But by this time, the reader is hooked (at least, I was), invested enough in the overarching story that the individual tales don’t matter as much.
This is a hard trick to pull off, and I’m not convinced that Platt and Wright fully succeed—the last book felt too rushed, and I would’ve liked them to explore some of the ideas a little more. It was still good, but didn’t quite live up to the promise of earlier books. But, in the authors’ defence, they do push themselves with their writing, and even if the story isn’t totally successful there’s still a great deal to be enjoyed in these books.
And at least this series feels like it was planned out fully, something that unfortunately can’t be said all series.
I used to love watching The X-Files. The stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes were fun, but the development of the larger story (the ‘mythology’) was what kept me watching—at least, over the first few series. But by about series four, this larger story became more ridiculous. Rules that had been set up in earlier episodes were ignored, and it felt like the story was being changed as it went along. No, it was worse than that—it felt like the larger story hadn’t been thought through properly. It felt as if the writers were making it up as they went along.
You might argue that this is what writers do anyway. Fiction is make-believe, so all stories are made up. There are many popular authors, including Stephen King, who start writing with only a vague idea where the story will end up, discovering the details as they write.
But however a story is first written, it is always edited. Things are changed so that the story has a more satisfying arc.
And this is where I feel some series, such as The X-Files, fall down.
Planning a story take time and effort, a good story even more so. To develop a satisfying series, each book has to be planned, but so too does the overall story.
Of course, most series aren’t written in one go (although it is becoming more common, in independent publishing, to hold off releasing books until at least the first three in a series are completed). George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire is still unfinished, and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time, initially only conceived as a six-book series, eventually stretched to fourteen, with the final few being written by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death. It’s hard to see how these series could have been planned out in their entirety in any detail.
This can make writing later books in a series harder—all those open loops have to be closed, and done so in a way that feels natural. Also, stuff in later books shouldn’t contradict what happened earlier. Yes, it is possible to change earlier books and produce new editions (which Tolkien did with The Hobbit, once he understood how it complemented the larger story of The Lord Of The Rings), but this is time-consuming, and disappoints readers of the original versions.
Writing a series is hard—which makes ones that work even more impressive. So maybe I should be a bit more forgiving about cliff-hangers. After all, I enjoyed Platt & Wright’s first foray into fiction, the serialised Tomorrow’s Gone, where every ‘episode’ ended on a cliffhanger.
But Tomorrow’s Gone was structurally based on old TV shows, with episodes that formed seasons, and the complete story told over six seasons. They started with a very ‘throw everything out there’ idea, trusting themselves to bring the story together later. But (I believe) the final three seasons were planned in advance, so even though each episode ended on a cliffhanger, the writers knew exactly where the story was going.
I didn’t read Tomorrow’s Gone until it was finished, until I could devour the whole thing. I think reading it episode by episode, having to wait to find out what happened next, would’ve frustrated me. And maybe that’s why binge-watching is becoming so popular, and why some people hold off watching a series until at least a couple of seasons are available.
Cliffhangers can work, but the resolution can’t be held off too long. The excitement wears thin, and then we forget what happened, and instead remain with the dissatisfaction of having an unfinished story. I’m wary of reading a first book in any series now, and I’ll often check reviews to discover if it’s a complete story.
So don’t give me cliffhangers. Give me a story that keeps me reading. Show me that you can tell a satisfying tale. But sprinkle in a few open loops. Make me question some of the stuff happening just off the page. That way, you’ll keep me reading and buying more books.