Ready! Aim!......cluegun!

Dear Ms. Snark,

What is the proper way to query a book that ends on a cliffhanger? Would an agent prefer any sort of progress made on the other novels in the series, or is a first installment, if it's interesting and well done, enough to get represenation?

You're joking right?
Ending a book on a cliffhanger?
Are you NUTS?

Just don't.

The closest you can come is something like Janet Evanovich did with one of her books when she didn't name the guy who said "take it off", but that was a little teaser, and it was SEVERAL books into a successful series.

You query me with something like this and I can end the suspense really quickly about whether it's right for me.


Dave said...

Just in case you didn't understand Miss Snark's simple - NO!

Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes and his fans nearly lynched him.

A more modern example is the SOUTH PARK guys who never revealed who Cartman's Father was and their fans nearly destroyed Comedy Central. They actually got death threats.

Don't do it.

Kit Whitfield said...

The issue is basically that a first novel needs to be able to stand alone. If it's popular enough to build up some reader loyalty, then readers might be prepared to accept a cliffhanger ending for your next book, or the one after. But with a first novel, I think readers would find it irritating, because of the way suspense and resolution are consumed.

The assumption of a cliffhanger is that the audience can reliably be expected to buy/watch the next installment - otherwise they're just being cheated of a satisfactory ending. But you can't assume that with a first novel. You've got to win their support, and the way to do that is to prove you can provide a good story with a beginning, middle and end. A cliffhanger leaves the story in the middle, and if they've never seen you end a story, they've got no proof that you give good ending. Hence, the motivation to buy the next book to find out how it ends is lessened: they don't have any proof that the ending will be worth the price of two books rather than one. They may well just think, 'Ah, to heck with it, I'll keep my money and spend it on a book that ends properly.'

Cliffhangers strain the audience's patience - that's how they work, by making them impatient for the next installment. But their patience with you will be more and more extendable the more books of yours they've read. Janet Evanovich has entertained her readers so well and so consistently that they'll put up with some demands on their patience, because all her previous books have created a big stockpile of trust and good will. A first novel is the beginning of building that stockpile, but it won't heap up enough to get away with an unresolved ending.

Readers, in short, will feel presumed upon, because you're treating them as if you can rely on their continued custom as a matter of course, rather than something you've got to win with lots of good books. Would you read a first novel, by an unknown author, knowing that it was going to leave you hanging?

If you can do good cliffhangers, that's a fine thing, because it means you can handle suspense. So make your first book suspenseful. Keep the readers on the edge of their seats, desperate to find out what's going to happen next. And then settle it with a great, satisfying ending, that makes them feel it was worth the wait. Do that a few times, and you'll have yourself an audience willing to accept riskier strategies like cliffhanging endings. But not yet. Start building up that audience first.

Good luck.

kitty said...

Which Evanovich book was that? It sounds like something Ranger would say -- or Morelli.

BuffySquirrel said...

While I was getting close to the end of Garth Nix's Lirael, which I believe was the second book of his to be published, I started wondering how the heck he was going to wrap up the story in the number of pages left. The answer? He wasn't. The book turned out to be part one of a duology, and just left me hanging. I wouldn't have minded so much had I known in advance. But there was nothing on the cover to indicate the story was incomplete.

Personally I think that a risky strategy. Yes, I did go out and buy Book Two to find out what happened, but I wasn't very pleased about it.

The second time this happened was more recently. I was reading a first novel I'd purchased after being friended by the author on MySpace, and it just...stopped. Apparently, it's the first in a trilogy. There was no satisfactory resolution. Book, meet wall. And no, I'm not going to buy the next one. I have lost faith in the author. Endings are important, damnit!

writtenwyrdd said...

Thank you MS! I have run across a couple of cliff hangar endings lately-- real cliff hangars with someone in dread peril-- and it turned me off getting the sequel. Publishers who do that to a reader should be taken out and shot. It's bad enough when in a long series major plot elements or subplots are left dangling for the next volume; but at least these make sense in a long-running series.

word veri: sxnolid. Sex no lid?

Brenda Bradshaw said...

It's at the end of HIGH FIVE. Morelli said it, but you didn't find out until several, several pages into the next book. I know this because I was so angry that she didn't say that I started the next book (HOT SIX) immediately to find it, realized the lack of details (as usual for Evanovich - ugh) and then stayed up rest of the night to finish that book, because once you start an Evanovich, you have to finish an Evanovich.

Evanovich is Satan.

Beth said...

I agree with Miss Snark, but nonetheless, books ending on cliffhangers do make it into print. Most notably, I remember a new book by Stephen R. Donaldson (appearing after he wrapped up the successful Thomas Covenant series), called The Mirror of Her Dreams. Terrific story, unusual premise--and it ended on an absolute cliffhanger. The second (and concluding) volume was not published until a year later.

It was a long year.

However, I seriously doubt an unknown author would be allowed to get away with that.

P.S. Anyone here having trouble posting comments? I have to word-verify over and over sometimes.

KT said...

I wish more writers would listen to Miss Snark. I used to be a big Anne Rice fan (look, being 14 was hard on all of us, ok?) until I read "Lasher" which ends... oh, wait, it doesn't end at all, it just peters out in the middle of the story and expects me to wait for the next book. It made me so angry that I threw out all of her books and never read another one.
Now, a lack of Anne Rice is probably an improvement in a reader's life, but a pissed-off ex-readership is generally not what you're looking for as an author.

Jean said...

I've come across the cliffhanger ending too and hated it.

Sure, I know the author wants to sell the next book too but gee, give the reader the satisfaction of knowing if the main characters live or die. This was the sixth or seventh in a major series with at least a year until the next book came out(hardback at that). I was so mad at the author I swore never to buy another of their books and haven't.

But, this taught me a valuable lesson as a writer. Endings are darn important so do them just as well as the beginning.

Ellen said...

Elizabeth George.

I won't read her again.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think you can leave threads hanging with secondary characters and plotlines (these are proven methods to get people to grab up the next book without their getting so mad they write you off entirely), but settle the main story problem.

There are exceptions in genre series, but a well done series completes story arcs for each book and leaves the series arc open-ended. That proves to the reader that the author can finish a story and it's worth it to read to the end of the series to see the final resolution.

Every book is a contract between a reader and a writer, and it's our job to let them know what will be solved--and what won't be--early on. It's part of the fine print of writing, and it can be the hardest bit to nail.

Sam said...

LOL - Stephen King, anyone?

I was going to swim across the ocean and tie him to his typewriter until he finished his series!

Let's just say that great writers can get away with cliffhangers. The rest of us have to wrap up the loose ends.

Anonymous said...

Author Deborah Donnelly wrote several books in her Wedding Planner Mystery Series with cliffhangers at the end. I don't know if this was her idea or her editor's idea. I enjoyed them, but I think some of her other fans got annoyed. Later in the series, she dropped the cliffhangers.

Robin L. said...

I read that book (Janet's) - it totally killed me!

Anonymous said...

Out of Time by Lynn Abbey. She ran out of time to finish the story.

Ellen said...

As someone mentioned, I like to be forewarned that the story isn't complete in the one book. I don't mind investing both time and money in buying sequels and trilogies. Heck, in a lot of cases where I KNOW it's a trilogy, I won't start reading until I have all the books. (Novik & Roberts, etc.)

I don't like feeling manipulated by an author. I don't think it's kosher to keep readers hanging without warning. Let us make the choice.

Anonymous said...

Yep, and sometimes the choice is to never read the author again, especially if he's a serial cliff-hangerer (Terry Brooks, I am looking at you. Three--THREE--books of a quartet were cliff-hangers. I don't have the patience for that sort of nonsense).

GJR said...

buffysquirrell: That Garth Nix series now has 3 books, and a short story in a 4th (or maybe 5th?)!
I thought Lirael stood on its own pretty well, but did then go buy the book before it, Sabriel, and the others when they came out.

Edyta said...

I believe that in Victorian times, Charles Dickens, among others, serialized novels in newspapers. That was then, this is now. Today, instant gratification is easy to come by. Who is going to wait, what, a year (minimum) for your next book? Give the readers resolution now, not later.

nitwitness said...

Didn't Tolkien do this before he was well known?

Anonymous said...

Tolkien - and a lot of fantasy authors - write/wrote the entire trilogy first. It's understood there'll be an ending, in a set number of books. One story that just doesn't fit neatly into one volume. Doing it in an open ended series...? Not a good idea unless you're already BIG. If you're pitching a trilogy - have the rest finished. Pitch the triloy. It's just one story.

On a related note, I read George R. R. Martin on a recomendation, finished book three, expecting a trilogy, and went "waaahhh?". Some plotlines resolved and the rest either cliffhangered or petering off. Okay. It's gonna be five books. Woulda been nice to know before I went in.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Tolkien do this before he was well known?

Can we all please get over Tolkien? Tolkien wasn't trying to sell LOTR in 2007. The industry has changed. Change with it.

If you're pitching a trilogy - have the rest finished. Pitch the triloy. It's just one story.

True enough, BUT--if you're previously unpublished, set the trilogy aside. Write, query, and sell a standalone. Then tell your agent, "By the way, I have this trilogy...."

Rei said...

I like Limyaael's comments on the subject. Basically, leaving unresolved issues in a series is fine, and should be encouraged. Leaving an immediate plot point unresolved is not okay. The most annoying example is the "Did person A live or die? Buy the next book!" type of cliffhanger. So, while it's fine to, say, have War for Rabbitania unresolved with the Dark Lord Fluffy's troops ever-advancing toward the last sanctuary of Floppy-Tail the White, you shouldn't end in the middle of the Battle of Bedrock Warren.

Anonymous said...

I can see this working just fine, as long as the cliffhanger is a bounce into Book 2 rather than a leftover from Book 1. Say the heroine has just solved the mystery and caught the bad guy and everything looks rosy, and she's thinking about how she's gonna head off to somewhere involving elaborate cocktails and a cabana boy, and then a new case comes galloping over the horizon...

Didn't Patricia Cornwell do this once? Just when Scarpetta had everything neatly tied up, she saw Gault (the bad guy who carries across several books) standing there looking Deeply Sinister, and it became clear that something nasty was about to happen, The End.

I also had trouble with the word verification when I first tried to post on this thread a couple of days ago - no image came up.

Anonymous said...

Ending on a cliffhanger reminds me of the book The Far Edge of Darkness. I wonderful, exciting book that ended with the main characters about to, almost certainly, be killed. There was supposed to be a sequel right? Guess what? She went on to co-write a slew of books in a different series and after about 8 years there's still no way to find out if those characters lived or died.

I wish the editor had just said NO, end it a few pages earlier.


Anonymous said...

There's an assumption in a lot of these comments that the cliffhanger ending is the author's choice. But of late a log of bigger books have been split in half by their publishers because they've decided the price point is too high on a large single book or because the chains have said they won't take large numbers of an expensive hardcover by a non-big name author. This is especially true in sf and fantasy.