Ask The Writer: Ending on a cliffhanger

We answer a reader's question about the best way to end each book in a series.

What’s the best way to end a series installment? Photo by memedozaslanphotography/Shutterstock

I’ve written a trilogy (three book-length manuscripts), but I’m not sure where to end each book. Is it okay to end on a cliffhanger that’s resolved in the first chapter of the next book?

When you write a book that’s part of a larger arc of conflict, you want to end in a way that creates closure but also spurs the reader on to the next book. A cliffhanger can certainly do this, but that approach can feel heavy-handed, particularly if the cliffhanger’s only role is to get you to the next book.

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Instead, you might think of how each book functions as an individual entity, in addition to its role in the larger storyline. To that end, create meaningful closure for each individual book. Bring resolution – in whatever form that takes – to the main thrust of conflict in that particular book, so the reader feels they have come to an end. At the same time, leave compelling questions that encourage the reader to read the next book. These questions might have to do with an aspect of the main conflict that was resolved, or they might emphasize a strain of conflict or a question that runs through the book but is not yet resolved. Your negotiation of these aspects will influence whether the reader feels mild intrigue or significant urgency to get started on the next book.

Individual books in trilogies – or larger works – need to function on their own while contributing to the larger story at the same time. It’s a duality that complicates the author’s choices but strengthens the reading experience for the reader of an individual book and the reader of the whole series.

 

—Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers Workshop.