Cliffhanger or happy ending?

PJ Sharon, here to hang with you on a rainy Tuesday morning. And speaking of hanging…I thought I would pose a question to you, my faithful readers, writers, and book connoisseurs.

When reading a trilogy, do you like the second book to end on a happy note, satisfying our endless appetite for romance, or do you prefer the cliffhanger ending that leaves you breathlessly awaiting the next book?

For me, a good cliffhanger gets me every time. Don’t get me wrong. I love romance and I live for the HEA endings that are a hallmark of all my favorite books. With a trilogy, however, I expect my HEA to make its appearance in the final installment. In books one and two, I want to be led on the merry chase. I want suspense! Will they get together, or won’t they? Will everyone survive, or will someone be killed off? I think there can be–and should be–a complete story arc in each book, but the over arcing theme of the trilogy requires phases that bring your characters one step closer to their happy ending–just not too soon. Each book in a trilogy needs its own goal, motivation, and conflict, and we expect some resolution to come at the end of each book, but how much resolution is enough to be satisfying, and how much should be left open for book three? These questions are for professional research, of course. I’ve rewritten the ending of WESTERN DESERT, book two in The Chronicles of Lily Carmichael, four times! I so want to get it just right before I release it on the 24th of this month and dive into book three.

How do you all feel about it?


36 thoughts on “Cliffhanger or happy ending?”

  1. Good post Paula. Although I can’t stand a good book to end, so a cliffhanger just pulls me into the next one of the series. In these days of reading on a cloud, the next one could be hanging around waiting for me to press the button. Sure, I am for cliffhangers.

  2. Thank you, Gail. I feel that way, too. The hard part is when it takes nine months or a year before the next book comes out. If only we could write faster:-)

  3. Hi, I’m afraid I don’t buy books any more that have cliffhangers, which is a shame because some i’ve been told are good books. I have to have a HEA. When I published the first book in my new series as Lexi Buchanan, I had so many messages on facebook, goodreads of people checking that there was a HEA and no cliffhanger before they bought it. I think people are starting to get fed-up with the whole cliffhanger deal.

    1. Good to know, Alison. Thanks for sharing. I’ll see what my beta readers think and i may be re-writing that ending one more time this week, LOL.

  4. Yes, Paula! Having to wait too long for the next book generally kills my interest in the series. And I definitely need a good solid resolution for each book, even if that big overarching plot hasn’t been solved yet. Otherwise, I feel like the book just stopped, rather than ended.

    1. Interesting comment, Kristan. “Otherwise, I feel like the book just stopped, rather than ended.” I can see how it would feel that way. I tend to write toward the happy ending, but when my editor told me i was being “too nice” to Lily, and gave me an alternate ending idea, I went with it, thinking it ramps up tension for the next book and leaves you wondering whether things will work out okay in the end–which of course, we know it will. Am now nail-biting over my current ending…will contemplate another re-write. Oh, how I love indie-publishing:-)

      “author revises mystery ending two weeks before release…news at ten.”

  5. In a romance novel I don’t like a cliff hanger. I don’t like serialized romances either. In other genres it’s fine, but when I sit down to read a romance I want an HEA. I want the formula.

    1. Jane, I never underestimate your brilliance. I may have to run some alternate endings by you. If nothing else, it will all be great fodder for a “members only” section on my website someday…”read alternate endings here, or build your own story.”

  6. I’m fine with loose ends, not resolving the main issue for a character, but I usually don’t like a true cliffhanger. The plot of any particular book should resolve in some way, or I feel cheated for having been dragged along for all those pages and then just left with “Read my next book to find out!” Even in one of my favorite movies, The Empire Strikes Back, there’s a total cliffhanger at the end, but really the main issues for that particular story resolved during the movie itself. So I was okay with it.

    Hope that makes sense! Great question.

    1. Hey, Julie. What you said makes perfect sense. There are definite nuances in knowing how much to leave open and what loopholes to close at the end of a book two. In the Hunger Games trilogy, i wasn’t thrilled with the ending of book one, despite the appearance of a happy ending. Collins left us with this outward appearance of resolution, but we knew Katniss wasn’t really genuine in her feelings, which left things open for book two. At the end of book two, which I enjoyed much more, there seemed to be more of a cliffhanger, but the story pacing, action, and character development was so good, i couldn’t wait to read book three. I guess it comes down to taste and what readers want from their reading experience.

  7. I’m fine with a cliffhanger as long as there is some resolution. I’ve read some books where the first and second just end. Period. One actually closed in the middle of a scene. That felt so gimmicky that I refused to read any more of that series, even though the writing was good.

  8. When I’m reading a series (especially in YA), I expect and LOVE cliffhangers. If everything was resolved and tied into a neat, happy bow, why in the world would I want to read the next book? In my opinion, it’s only a cliffhanger until that next book is written and the story continues. I don’t know why anyone would be against the idea of an author leading you to buy the next book when the whole point was to write a trilogy or a six book series. Who goes into a series expecting to only buy book one and two? As long as the reader knows there’s more coming, I think it’s great to end with something that will leave the reader dying to see what happens next. In my series, I end almost every book with some kind of cliffhanger. Usually, though, I resolve the main plot or conflict of that book but then give a big twist or revelation that pulls you into the next book at the end. Save the happy ending for the real end. πŸ™‚

    1. I’m with you, Sarra. When I’m reading a trilogy (especially a YA trilogy), I’m almost disappointed when things get wrapped up too neatly at the end of book one or two. I like the suspense of wondering whether the H/H are going to be all right, and how they will find their way back to each other’s hearts in the next book. I think the end of each book in a trilogy should raise the stakes and leave you with a dangling question to be answered in the next installment. It sounds like the general consensus is to make sure I’ve covered my bases for wrapping up the main conflict of the current story line, while still leaving some room for the characters to fall into danger and mayhem in the next book.

  9. I think there are two different concepts here. Romance vs. trilogy/serials. By definition, a true (traditional) romance is when the main story is the romance and there is a HEA (and this mostly occurs in a single book with a single couple). Anything else, really falls into with romantic elements (or no romance at all depending on the genre).

    When writing a trilogy or a series, the most successful and satisfying ones have a story problem that is resolved within that book while leaving a trail for resolution of the overall story arc at a later time. Think Harry Potter. The first few books were contained stories with hints of a more ominous showdown to come. With the later books, there was still a story problem (win the Tri-wizard tournament, find a horcrux) but the overall story (Harry vs. Voldemort) started taking more screen time. Then with book 7 the main plot is the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort.

    I agree that if the reader understands that they are buying into a series, you must solve the story problem for each book, and it’s fine to introduce a cliffhanger leading into the next book. I think where this concept clashes the most is with romance because of the built in expectation that there will be a HEA (as stated above) and a cliffhanger (i.e. unresolved HEA) clashes with the very nature of a romance.

  10. Just had a fascinating experience in this realm. I finished the fourth book in a series I loved. It ended on a major cliffhanger and… the author died. I’d known the author had died before I read the series. I did not know about the cliffhanger. As the book ended, I was actually yelling, “No. No.” The author’s daughter has now written a book — but not in the series. Did the author leave notes? A plan? Grrrrr.

    1. So sad and unfortunate on so many levels. I plan on sticking around for a while…and if the universe has another plan, I’ll get to watch from heaven as my books live on in infamy:-)

  11. I’m in the loves-cliffhangers camp. When I invest in a world and fall in love with the characters, I want to keep spending time with them. And there’s nothing better to make me ravenous for the next book in the series than a cliffhanger. I’m writing a YA romantic fantasy series and wrapped up some things in the first book while leaving some hanging threads. We’ll see if it works!

  12. If it’s a series, I want the cliffhanger ending. That way I’m chomping at the bit for the next release date. There needs to be some satisfaction in the form of a small goal being achieved, but if a book wraps up nice and tidy at the end, I won’t feel compelled to buy the next one.

    Chris Cannon

  13. I like cliff hangers. Like you said “a trilogy needs its own goal, motivation, and conflict, and we expect some resolution to come at the end of each book”. That’s true but to keep the reader wanting to read the third installment I feel there has to be some kind of major unanswered question or situation.

    1. I agree with the “major unanswered question” idea, Donna. It is what drives me to buy the next book every time! I have to know if everything will work out in the final book–even thought I know it will.

  14. I’m afraid you hit on one of my pet peeves, PJ. I don’t mind an arc to the series that goes unresolved until the last book, but like you, I think each book should have an ending – wrapping up the main plot of that book. I really hate to get to the end of a book and have it be a “to be continued” – especially with no notice that there isn’t one. In fact, if there’s no notice prior to buying and I get a TBC, I more than likely won’t ever purchase that author again. If on the other hand, I know when I buy the book there won’t be a conclusion, then I’m okay with it. It’s just rare that I will. It would have to be someone I already love to read and an author I trust to deliver the next book. If it’s a series, some will have arcs that aren’t resolved, some won’t. But it’s not unexpected so it doesn’t bother me.

    But, like others have said – if the next book isn’t already available or ready soon, chances are I won’t remember to go looking for it later. And I have read books that ended in a TBC where I’m still waiting two years later for the next installment. I only remember this one because it really was a great book and I was so into it. And then it just stopped with a TBC. I was so ticked off and felt so cheated. He could have had a faithful reader instead.

    1. Oh – as for the HEA – I don’t expect it to come until the last book in a trilogy. If it’s a longer running series, I expect to get it somewhere in there, of course I’m sure there will be rocky points. After all, what relationship doesn’t have them?

      But if you’re an author writing about a love triangle — do us all a favor and make a decision between two men long before Book NINETEEN. Not mentioning any names here. *cough* Janet Evanovich *cough*

      1. Thanks for your input, Rhonda. I usually can’t stick with a series for more than five or six books when there is a love triangle. I get tired of it after a while and irritated with the characters more than intrigued.,,cough…LKH…cough. LOL

  15. I don’t mind some things unresolved and having to buy the next book and the next to wrap it up. But when I’m left right smack in the middle of a big, fat cliffhanger, with zero resolution or anything, I’m too pissed off to buy the next book in the series. To date, I’ve never bought the next in the series when I’m left hanging that way — no matter how great the writing or how much I enjoyed the story. After 300 to 400 pages, I want some satisfaction, even if it’s not the resolution of the overall story arc.

    LOL Rhonda. I hear you on all of the above!! πŸ™‚

  16. What Julie Glover said. πŸ™‚ I’m fine with an HEA in each of the three books, but the overall story arc must be a cliffhanger until that final book–at least for me.

    1. Hey, Jolyse. Thanks for stopping by for a visit:-) The best you can hope for in a trilogy is to get a happily for now ending. Otherwise, the story would be over in book one. But if everything between your main characters is hunky dory at the end of each book, there isn’t much excitement to read the next one. I’m leaning toward ending book two with a resolution to her goal for this book, not necessarily giving her what she thinks she wants. There will be a bit of a cliffhanger, but I’m satisfied that the characters are where they need to be at this point in their journey. I think there are enough story questions left to make readers look forward to seeing what happens next. Here’s hoping!

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