Friday, April 10, 2015

Twists and cliffhangers

Reading this thread at kboards reminded me of a pet peeve that I have and which many other readers share.  It's the frustration with books that end on cliffhangers.

I hate them.  If a review says that a book ends on a cliffhanger, then I won't download that book.  I don't want to read half a story.  I expect the whole thing--introduction, rising action, climax, falling action.  I expect the main conflict to be resolved.  I don't think this is too much to ask.

Twists, of course, are another matter entirely.  I'll read a story that ends on a twist.  I'll write one, too.  (Buddy ends with a twist.)  That's because a twist doesn't prevent the main conflict from being resolved.  It's a little something extra, not a major something missing.

And that's the important difference.  With a cliffhanger, an essential part of the story is missing.  With a twist, all of the essential parts are there, and then you have this extra piece of misdirection on top of it.  It's a bonus, assuming it's pulled off correctly.

Hugh Howey's Wool is an example of a great story that ends on a twist.  It's not a cliffhanger, though, because the main conflict is resolved: Holston leaves the silo and learns the truth.  A cliffhanger would have been if the story had ended right before the airlock's outer door opened.  Whatever lay outside the silo would have remained a mystery.  If Howey had done that, the story would have failed.

My advice to authors would be to avoid cliffhangers unless you make it clear that you're writing a serial.  Even then, I'd avoid them.  They're just not worth it.  Foreshadow the sequel if you must, but give the story a satisfying conclusion.  Your readers will appreciate it.

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