I had a conversation the other day about when it is – and isn’t – appropriate in a book series to have a cliffhanger. Common rule of thumb is that each book in a series should be a stand alone book so that a reader need not buy the entire series, but only read one book and know what’s going on.
At the same time, many authors, both traditional and self published, employ the cliffhanger ending. The Morganville Vampires is a good example of this. The first book drops off in the middle of a “battle”, like the old serials with the main characters in deathly perril.
That seems to have worked for Rachel Caine since she’s ready to publish book 11 in the series.
So, when should an author leave an open ending and when should they be sure that each book can stand alone?
I think genre may be an important factor. Thrillers and mysteries are more likely to draw in readers who will not go back and read earlier books, or who may not read the series in order. On the other hand, a fantasy epic will likely attract readers who want a huge story arc that spans several novels.
I believe another factor is how much time passes between one book and the next. If an author takes two years to finish that dramatic fight, readers will likely lose interest. If you followed the Rachel Caine link above you can see a list of her novels with publication dates, and see how close together the books are. Even if she drops off at the end of her book, fans only have to wait a few months before they can have the conclusion; and the set up for a new cliffhanger.
At the core I’m a fantasy reader, so I find that I prefer books that have a long story arc. I want to “have” to buy the next book, and I want to “have” to read them in the correct order. I want characters and situations to pop up five books down the line that make me have to scramble back to the first book in an effort to remember what the heck the author is talking about; I want a whole world. However, I don’t like it when a book drops off in the middle of a scene. If there’s a fight, then I think that fight needs to end, or else the next book should open with the fight in it’s entirety.
What about you? How do you feel about cliffhangers or stories that arc from one book to the next? Do they make you want the next book or do you prefer a book that can stand alone, even if it’s part of an ongoing series? What genres do you think lend themselves to long story arcs? What genres don’t?