The Curse of the Cliffhanger

Somehow, this week I managed to carve out some personal reading time between madly planning for a magazine fair and even more madly trying to find a summer job. Luckily school hasn’t taken away my ability to bust through 500 pages in an evening, so I finished Peter V. Brett’s The Skull Throne in short order. It was a great book, the fourth in his Demon Cycle series, but it highlighted for me one of my biggest pet peeves about serial fiction: cliffhangers.

I’m not trying to pick on him, but Mr. Brett seems especially fond of the device: at the end of the third Demon Cycle book, two characters were literally flung off the edge of a cliff, their fates not to be revealed until the next instalment. The Skull Throne did not have quite so literal an example, but it still ended with a shocking revelation that will keep readers (me included) champing at the bit to find out what happens next.

But when readers have to wait multiples of years to have that curiosity satisfied, it is very easy to have that anticipation turned into frustration. Now, it’s not that I object to cliffhangers as a narrative device, but I think the medium where they’re used makes a big difference in their effectiveness. In television, for example, I think it works quite well. Viewers often only have to wait a week between episodes, and using a cliffhanger is a good way to keep them coming back for more. Even at the end of a season, the wait is much more often months long rather than years.

But when the wait times are longer, this highly serialized style becomes less effective. As much as it pains me to say, in this instance I think movies are better at long form storytelling. Even though some movies may be part of a larger series, each film is its own self-contained narrative. With a beginning, middle, and end, it can stand alone as its own work and provide a satisfying conclusion, though it may hint at further conflict down the road.

There are, of course, book series that do this too, and I think they hold up better in the long run than series that try to run together seamlessly. Take the Harry Potter books, for example. Their structure of tackling one school year at a time was an excellent way of telling self-contained stories within a larger overarching narrative. And, while the books were still being released, having a satisfying, conclusive ending made it easier to wait out the long year(s) until the next release.

Of course, the use of cliffhangers (or not) is the author’s prerogative, and there’s no denying it’s an effective tool for building suspense. I just wish more authors would see their multi-book series’ as just that, rather than a single story broken up into books for ease of publishing.

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