It’s a concept more familiar from TV soapies than from the world of books. In the final minutes of the final episode of the season, there’s an explosion…the voiceover informs us someone will die…and those dreaded words, “To Be Continued” hang on the screen. The term “cliffhanger” is believed to have originated in relation to a work by Thomas Hardy, where the main character was left literally hanging from a cliff at the end of the book.
But a cliffhanger is a tricky device. I’ve recently been reading Kylie Chan’s fantasy series set in Hong Kong (beginning with The White Tiger), and Chan strategically withholds quite a lot of relevant information. As a matter of fact, I’ve finished the second, related trilogy, and I’m still waiting to find out the answer to questions raised back in the first and second books. And quite honestly, it’s now becoming annoying.
Cliffhangers can work in some contexts, there’s no doubt about it. It’s not the hanging off the cliff that’s important though, it’s how the questions are resolved. That thrill of anticipation sitting down to the first TV show of the season can only exist because of the certainty that you’re going to find out who died, or whodunit, or who was the secret lovechild of whom. Otherwise, it would be quickly overtaken by frustration. We can tolerate a certain amount of deliberate obstruction, but it can easily become ridiculous, almost patronising towards the audience. Those writers who use cliffhangers successfully tend to resolve the questions in the first chapter, and move on. Rachel Caine springs to mind as an example.
And then there’s the obvious point that it would usually take more than a few months for a writer to finish and publish a book. Fans of TV soapies might be waiting months, but fans of books could be waiting years. They’ll probably still buy the book, but it does take some of the fun out of it if you have to go and re-read the other books because you’ve forgotten what happened. And a cliffhanger that has been forgotten is a sad thing, without any purpose at all. After all, there’s only so long that someone can hang from a cliff without falling off.