Sunday, 6 April 2014

In defence of the cliffhanger

Quite often my series will get torn apart by reviewers for containing cliffhangers. Some people just don't like them, which is fair enough. I don't like unresolved discrimination (e.g. racism or sexism) in the books I read, or the advocation of rape-y relationships. They make me angry, and for some people, cliffhangers are an equally heinous crime. When I'm looking at reviews of my own work, it's tough to read the accusations of being a manipulator, of 'resorting to a low level of authorial behaviour' (I've paraphrased here) or of participating in 'cheap tricks' to get readers to buy more books. It all feels a bit personal.

I would invite reviewers and readers, who think these things about me, to consider my defence.

My love of the cliffhanger:

I've always loved cliffhangers. To me, the anticipation to read the next book is half of the thrill and forms part of the climax of reading it. True, the cliffhanger thing cannot go on forever (Robert Jordan, anyone?), but for me it's like waiting for a present in the post. Looking forward to Christmas and birthdays is part of the fun of them, I say, especially in a world where so much is now granted to us instantly. The phenomenon known as 'instant gratification' is one many of us will have grown used to. No longer do you have to wait for a book to arrive in the post, or even go to a library to check it out. Just one click on the website of your choice, and it's in your hands.

While instant gratification is useful and efficient in the case of book-buying, I think it has a limited return in terms of satisfaction. It's not long-term, and it's never memorable. With a lot of standalone fiction books, I'll finish them and think, "That's done; now onto the next," and promptly forget about it. That's not so much of an experience as it is a box on a list that can be ticked. For me, the best books I've read have been part of a series. Those have been the ones that have spread the enjoyment over a longer period than just a few hours, and have left the impressions of their characters upon me for years afterward. These books comprise the epics. They are a world you can become lost inside for a long while, and they are particularly prevalent in the fantasy genre.

Epic series:

I set out to write an epic; not a standard novel. When I'm finished with The Fireblade Array, I reckon it'll come to about one million words. Maybe slightly more, maybe slightly less. That works out as about 2,500-4,000 printed pages, depending on font size. In terms of the physical constraints, it's really very, very difficult to print a single book that thick! In terms of time, I would be writing for four-to-six years without any publications to my name, or any feedback from readers. I would stand no chance of getting a book that large published in one go, and I imagine that such a large tome would put people off rather than entice them if I'm self-published. No one would know me, and no one would be able to download/buy such a large first section separately in order to try my writings out. My visibility on Amazon and elsewhere would be nil.

Another thing about epic series is that they are pretty common in fantasy. Okay, I do realise that the 'everyone else does it, so it's alright' is a poor argument, but someone out there obviously likes it other than just me. Sometimes I wonder if the epic approach is not as common in romance, and I might be getting a somewhat irate audience from the romantic section because they're simply not exposed to it as a standard format  (do you think this is true?), but my book is a bit of a genre crossover. Just a quick browse on Tor's website will reveal a vast pile of series, each linked by a cliffhanger, which leads me on to....

Why link up the parts of your epic with cliffhangers?

Two reasons: the alternative would be to just cut off the story mid-flow. I've read series that do this, and I feel that they are a bit lazy in terms of approach. Often, it reads like the author has just taken a hacksaw to their own writing for the sake of dividing the books up, and no more thought has gone into it than that. My cliffhangers, on the other hand, are carefully planned and outlined well in advance of the books even being written. If you've read my books, you'll note that the cliffhangers all follow a certain pattern: this is the second reason -SPOILER- someone always dies in one way or another. Perhaps they're changing state, or moving between worlds, but it's The Fireblade Array. It begins with death and ends with a death of some sort, and I wanted each book to comprise a life, giving the reader an array of lives that form the whole series.

I'm manipulative.

Yes! That is my job as an author. I'm here to make you happy, miserable, furious and everything in between. If I fail to do that, then I've failed at writing. Yes, of course I want you to buy more books from me. All authors want that. Why would any of us deny it? We hope you'll enjoy our books and all of the emotions they bring so that we can continue to share our ideas with you, entertain you (because entertaining you makes us feel popular) and share something of the human experience (etc.). I write for the love of my stories first and foremost, but these are nothing if they are not read by someone. Also, I need to pay the bills, and though that comes second in my list of motivations, it is important that I can pay for my home if I'm to write more.

And here's something else to consider: ALL things that are sold to you are done so by forms of manipulation. Think of the adverts you see on TV - they guilt-trip you, they sell you the idea of a lifestyle you'll get by buying X, or they come in pretty designs that make you go, "Oooh." Even if you walk into a shop with no intention of buying something, sometimes its attractive packaging will make you want it, an assistant will recommend it, or sometimes just the atmosphere and layout of the shop will sell it to you. There is no such thing as an objective purchase. We're guided by our eyes, our preconceptions, immediate needs and our character. Therefore, accusing me of manipulating my readers into buying more is the same as saying I have something for sale.

I've been trying to think of a situation where I'd sell a book with no forms of manipulation. I came to this: it would have to have a blank cover (pretty covers manipulate the reader into wanting the book), no title (might be too exciting), not be in any shop/online store (reader might have the book advertised to them, be locked to a specific reading device and might already enjoy shopping there) and not have any content (a particular language might manipulate them into reading the first few words if they happen to be fluent in it). It would be a nothing, to be read by no one.

Sidenote: If someone gets annoyed at a cliffhanger, I sometimes wonder if it's because they actually got very into the story and came to care for the characters. If they had reached the cliffhanger and just thought, "Meh," then it's possibly because they didn't care either way. As a barometer of engagement, I kinda like it.

Am I trying to *force* you into buying more books? No, I can't do that without stealing your credit card. It's absolutely up to the reader if they want to buy or not buy. My first book is free, and I invite readers to invest their time in it to see if I'm worth  more. That book, however, has probably taken me a thousand hours of work to complete and make various alterations to over the years, maybe more. It was not an easy decision to make it free (or very cheap - even with the POD paperbacks I make about $0.20 per sale), but I respect that a reader's time is not something they can get back, so it seems a fair deal.

Cheap Trick

I hope I've made clear here that my cliffhangers are not 'tricks' in the slightest, or that they're 'cheap' (certainly not in terms of time - they cost me a lot of effort to write!). I certainly have not 'resorted' to them over anything else. It's just part of the structure of an epic series, and it's something I have always enjoyed immensely in my own reading. "Write the book you want to read," is what people say to new writers, and I think it's fair to say I've done that :-)


  1. Hi, I read your first book (City) mainly 'cos it was free! :P but then bough6t the 4 book set from Amazon because I really enjoyed it & have finishe all four now in the space of a week - the missus was NOT impressed! A great series & don't listen to the 'lumpers' who complain about cliff hangers! Looking forward to the next 3! Best regards, Llew

  2. Thanks Llew. Good to hear you enjoyed them so much - makes it all worthwhile to hear that from readers!

  3. oh for blazed sakes. Thank the blazes that you are writing more. I just finished reading the 4 book set and loved it immensely. and now to see Artemi not going home OMG I was in shock and was like wait thats it. no it cant be. came here just now and seen there will be more. Thank you thank you thank you.

  4. Yep, more coming very soon! :D

  5. I think you defended yours and everyone else's cliffhangers wonderfully!! Anyone who has a complaint about them is not a true fan of the written word!!

  6. Dear commenters/commentatorscommenteers who haven't already heard,

    Volume 5 is now available for pre-order at several outlets. Hooray! Please check out the "Where to Buy" links here:

    (Apols Lori, you've probably seen this message 10000 times now!)