Young Adult Fiction and the Cliffhanger…
Lately, I’ve been hearing lots of complaints about “cliffhangers” in young adult series–you know, where a book ends seemingly in the middle of some sort of crisis, and you have to wait for the next book for the resolution. From a marketing perspective, a cliffhanger can be a good thing. It leaves readers desperate for the next book in the series, dying to know how the crisis is resolved. The problem is, YA books (especially those that come out in hardcover format) are usually spaced at least a year apart, meaning a long wait for readers. Authors have to hope that their readers don’t forget, or lose enthusiasm during that time.
I admit, the second book in my Winterhaven series (MIRAGE), ended with a big cliffhanger–and a fifteen-month wait for the next book in the series. It wasn’t the ending I’d originally envisioned (or outlined!) but it just happened to be the way the story unfolded. And I felt badly about leaving readers hanging for such a lengthy period of time, but…I just hope that the anticipation has continued to build and that my readers haven’t lost interest.
So I’ve done a lot of thinking about what makes a cliffhanger a good one–we discussed it a lot in the classes I taught this summer. I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it out. When you write a series (vs. a stand-alone novel), it’s very important that you have multiple story arcs. You have one, big over-arching story arc for the complete series. Threads of this arc run throughout the series, with a beginning, middle, crisis, and resolution. Think Harry Potter–the over-arching theme is Harry’s “battle” with Voldemort. Both can’t live–we basically learn that as the main story arc’s “black moment” in book 5 (when the prophecy is revealed to Harry). This story arc is resolved in the final book of the series.
But each book in a series must have its own story arc, as well, with the same crucial parts–beginning, middle, crisis, resolution. It’s pretty easy to identify the story arcs in the individual Harry Potter books–just look at the titles.
And here’s what makes a good cliffhanger work: You resolve the shorter, book-only story arc at the end of the novel, and then move quickly into the opening of the next story arc, and leave off there. Think of it as revealing the next book in the series’ inciting event, and then stopping, leaving the reader to wonder how the protagonist will solve the next problem as they move toward the ultimate over-arching story resolution.
What doesn’t work? Something I’ve seen happen all too often in YA series, and it always annoys me: When there is an over-arching story arc for the entire series, but no individual story arcs for each book–and then each book basically ends at a crisis moment, somewhere along that main arc. It’s like the story just stops, with nothing really resolved. Like the author really had one big, epic 900-page book planned, and then simply divided it up into three parts.
So, thinking back to my own egregious cliffhanger, I decided that it wasn’t so bad, after all. I did resolve MIRAGE’s individual story arc–basically the “Vampire Stalker” arc–while moving the over-arching story arc forward, a little closer to the ultimate resolution/conclusion. The cliffhanger was basically just the fall-out from that resolution, and the event that launches the third book in the series into action.
As a reader, I love a good cliffhanger. I enjoy the anticipation as I wait for the next book in the series. I like to try and figure out the “what next?” When done well, cliffhangers serve as the ultimate “hook.” But when done poorly, I simply feel like I’ve been cheated–as if I’ve been robbed of an ending–or manipulated into needing to buy the next book.
So don’t shy away from the cliffhanger in your young adult novel–just do it right!