New Question: Cliffhangers between books (not just chapters)

All the feedback I got on my earlier question about web serials was really helpful, I have another question for what people have people have done, or just opinions on how to handle a different issue on the same situation:


I have two stories to serialize. The one I'm doing now, I'm writing as I go. I have another drafted book which is really suited toward serialization. I asked last time about frequency of posting and whether I could do two stories on one blog at the same time (since the blog is not JUST the serial anyway). I considered doing a separate blog for the second story....


But I've decided that I'd rather do one at a time on the same blog. When the current story is over, I'll switch to the other series. Both of these series have several stories -- about novella length -- to them. And at the pace I am publishing, a novella fits into a 5-6 month arc. Perfect for doing a summer series and a winter series.


This suits my plans for the coming year... but further down the line, I see a potential problem. The book I've already written (TEST OF FREEDOM) doesn't have a clean break between the second and third parts. It's kind of an "Empire Strikes Back" kind of thing. It's great if the audience has an opportunity to go straight on to the next story, but not as great if they have to wait six months.


I know people routinely wait longer between installments of trilogies or series. But a web serial is a different medium, and I do plan to do book versions too. So....


For those of you who divide your serials into "books" -- do you have experience with how the audience feels about cliffhangers between books? Do you ever have enough of a gap between books for it to matter? Do you have an opinion as a reader?


Camille


As I reader I mostly really hate that. It's mostly because as a reader whenever a book ends I fear that the following book will never be written. Also I really want at least one important thing tied up in a book. When I reach the end of a book and it leaves me hanging I question why I put all the effort I did reading through it when there wasn't a payoff.


That said, more often than not, I keep reading anyway. :D


LOL - yeah, and I notice a lot of books these days (and TV shows) are more and more blatant about this. My instinct says you're right, but it's also hard to argue with success.


The advantage here is that I've already gotten a draft written, so the story would be guaranteed to continue. And since the later parts of the story will need the most work I may spend this year mulling revisions that might help.


I also think that, at the break point I have in mind, there are a couple of really good major payoffs, and the major effort is pretty much a success: it's just that the major characters find themselves forced off in another direction (one gets lost fleeing danger, and others go after that one), and the secondary characters are left cleaning up the mission and wondering how they can get their heroes back.


But I have a couple of options that I'm still mulling. And I might ask for beta readers once the first is done.


Camille


Unfortunately, I completely know what you mean. There isn't a very clean division between book 1 and 2 of Super, either, and there will be a massive cliffhanger. : ( I am planning to publish all of the parts as eBooks, however, once I've published the arcs serially. So, I was thinking that I'd add a link to the serial website, perhaps after "The End" in the story, so that if people can't stand the suspense that they can come visit and find out what happened sooner than having to wait until the next eBook comes out. XD


Admittedly, I'd mostly be doing that because I hate it when books cliffhanger me like that, so I have some sympathy for my potential audience in that respect.


Super: sci-fi/suspense/adventure, with superheroes


I think sympathy for that sort of thing is waning in readers, most of whom never wanted to wait a year before reading the next installment of their book anyway, but were forced to because of a combination of publisher book schedules (which had nothing to do with the book they wanted and everything to do with the publisher not inundating the distributor with so many titles from their stable that they cannibalized each other's sales); and the speed at which the author was writing. These days, if you are the publisher of your own work, waiting to release your sequel doesn't get you anything except delayed sales and annoyed fans. They might be willing to wait if they trust you to release book 2, but you'll have had to prove your faithfulness to them first to earn that trust.


My personal recommendation for indie authors is not to wait between sequels. You have a trilogy done? Release the whole thing at once. Capitalize on that flush of excitement and energy readers have when they finish book 1 and want more--instant gratification? That gets you more sales and more reader happiness.


I have a finished novel that I like rather a lot that I'm sitting on because it ends on a cliffhanger. I've released cliffhanger novels before and not liked the results (and not blamed my fans for it either). My small press has chopped one of my serials in half and is releasing it in two parts, and while I understand why they've done it--the resulting paperback is huge, even when cut in half--it's irritating to my fans, who didn't like the cliffhanger and are disgruntled that the e-book has to be split in half too, thanks to meta-data/database/sales issues.


So, yeah. I wouldn't do cliffhangers without having the follow-up ready.


I was talking about the serial schedule, not the ebook publication schedule (although that is relevant too). If I'm only doing one serial at a time, on my blog, there are scheduling issues.


But M.C.A.'s point brings up something else that came up on my blog:


I posted about my decision to do Test Of Freedom as the winter serial instead of the sequel to Misplaced Hero, and talked about the pros and cons (one being that, since it's done, it would give me more time for pre-writing the others). One of the readers commented that if Misplaced Hero had been available as an ebook from episode one, he'd have bought it a long time ago.


So one option is to have the whole trilogy of novellas available in ebook form before I get to the cliffhanger bit. (Which is doable, but that third book is going to need work, so it won't be available from the start.)


But there's another perspective... well, two other perspectives.


One is the simple writing perspective. Lawrence Block did a great post on his blog a while back in reply to fans who were asking when the next Bernie Rhodenbarr book will be out. He said he doesn't know, and will never know. They're done when they're done. Even if he had one 3/4 of the way done, he'd have no idea if he'd ever finish it.


A book is what it is, and a writing/publishing schedule is what it is, and the readers, ultimately, get what they get. As ubersoft pointed out, if the story is engaging enough they keep reading.


And one of the realities, for me, is that writing on deadline is good for me, so getting things done too far ahead is not the perfect solution. For some things it will work, but it's not something I can just say "Okay, I'll publish the ebook before starting the serial!" as a standard practice.


The other perspective is more cynical: You can say that readers are becoming less sympathetic toward cliffhangers between books, but sales numbers say otherwise -- or, perhaps I should say -- sales numbers show that perhaps disgruntled readers are not such a bad thing. I mean, there is a reason why TV shows and movies and yes, book series, are doing this more and more -- it works.


I am not comfortable with intentionally annoying the readers. But there is a difference between manipulating the readers and giving them what they enjoy complaining about. That is, while I hear all sorts of things on the internet, but in person I mainly hear people gleefully saying "... it was just awful, they left us dangling. It was so mean!" and they are excited and enthusiastic about it.


Me... I don't like manipulative cliff-hangers -- but I'm okay with satisfying ones. I'll give you an example with TV shows/series.


CASTLE is a show I love, but they've nearly driven me off several times with their constant manipulation of cliffhangers and the romantic tension. The previous season one of the characters got shot by a sniper at the end of the season. That's the kind of cliff-hanger that makes me lose interest completely. It's over the top, and blatant -- and it doesn't resolve anything. And when I came back to the next season, I was really unhappy with how they handled the pay off. (Basically they didn't pay off on the promise.) But oddly enough, I still watched, just not as eagerly.


But I know people who hate the manipulation even more than I do, and watch it even more eagerly. It's like the manipulation is necessary to get what they want out of the show.


On the other hand WHITE COLLAR ended last season with one character making an irrevocable decision which would seem to bring an end to the premise of the show. But he did it as a solution to a problem, and it was fitting to the premise and the characters and everything. It was a payoff to tension they had been raising throughout the series. And on coming back to the series, even though the return wasn't exactly a strong episode, it continued the payoff. All of the characters have grown and changed, and this change in premise works with that. (And I'll still be satisfied if they manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat and make the situation more revocable -- there is no taking back what the character did, everybody is moving forward from there.)


BURN NOTICE goes both ways with me, and CHUCK mostly did a better job, imho, ending with teasers rather than cliffhangers.


But that goes back to M.C.A.s point -- with television (and I think with serials) people are more forgiving because a schedule is a part of the process. I know that I, as a reader, don't start a book series until there are several books available. It doesn't matter whether there are cliffhangers or not: I like to be able to follow up one book with another if I'm in the mood.


As a writer, I don't necessarily want to sit on the book until more are done, I just don't promote the book until then.


Anyway, I'm still mulling the way I will handle that break in the story. (And also, now, the publication schedule of the related ebooks.) I think I've got it within range of what I would consider tolerable, but I've also got a year to think on it.


Oh, and one of the things I'm going to consider doing for Misplaced hero is a "credit cookie" teaser. That is, I'll finish the story, but have one more episode -- labeled as a "credit cookie" or "teaser" -- which sets up the next season. That's different than a cliffhanger, though.


Camille


The key to set-up, rising tension, cliffhanger and payoff is reliability. Viewers know that, barring disasters, their show will come back next season. Most book series that are that closely connected follow up pretty fast, and serials lead into one another. I don't know anyone online that writes one book in a series, goes off to do something else, and then returns to the first series -- mostly they end a book in a series and then immediately start the next: the "book 1, book 2" sequence is to delineate a change in theme or conflict.


(There are exceptions to published books -- for instance J. Auel's "Earth's Children" series has like a decade between the last two books, but they don't end on cliffhangers, they're very open-ended. Stephen King took 30 years to finish the Dark Tower, but you could argue every book he writes is connected to it so the "series" never really stopped.)


Reliability is still key because such established writers have proven that their books are worth it. Starting out first time writers who have a series in mind I would bet have to have the second book at least started, if not finished, before publishers send out the first one. I highly doubt Stephanie Meyer got Twilight published without having the sequels ready to go -- but now that fans know her, she could take her time with something. And there's considerable pressure from publishers to get writers to finish books and keep deadlines, look at the way Harry Potter got churned out.


This touches on my personal pet peeve with online writing and WFG -- tons and tons of writers who start a project, list it for readers and review, and then stop. If it's not nearing completion on your own time, why would you want to share it with someone else? I posted No Man an Island almost daily for a year, but it was finished before I started posting so I knew readers wouldn't be let down. I would hate for them to start something that never finished.


When I finished NMAI I started posting "The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin" but I had been writing it while posting the other story, so I built a backlog. At first I had a three day a week posting schedule, and as my schedule changed I became nearly daily. It started in 2008 so for more than 3 years it had constant updates, so I could put cliffhangers at the end of chapters and books and readers knew they could come back for more.


Because I had time on my hands back then (off work with an injury) I started a third story, "The Samaritan Project" and I never listed it on WFG because I never built enough momentum to have a backlog. I knew that it wasn't worth reviewing, and that there was no point exposing a lot of readers to it because there was a higher risk they'd be disappointed by its schedule. Whenever life events (babies, illnesses, death in the family) affected my posts, "Diggory" came first as the established, reviewed story, and "Samaritan" fell behind.


I had it online because I hoped the fans that came for my other stuff would be interested and help me build some momentum, as I feed off comments. But it never hit critical mass and took off in my schedule. But I have some sort of relationship with readers so they know about it, because I blog and answer comments and have been around since 2007.


Now, because we had twins and I got promoted, I have less time for even "Diggory," and I have eaten my backlog. But it's been around for 4 years so I think I can recover -- but I still have to work at it. People who start stories, write five chapters and list on WFG, write five more chapters and stop annoy the heck out of me because they started a story world, engaged readers, and then cut them off. I personally would want one "book" of a series completed if I was starting a serial, as a writer, just so I would know readers had something they could work with. Cliffhangers keep people coming back for more -- so you have to have more to give them or you shouldn't use cliffhangers.


I think Gavin's hit it on the nose, and that's the reason that I went back to my first serial, which I'd left lagging for a couple of years while other things drew my attention (and paid me)...and finished it. Because one or two fans said, "I hate it when authors do that," (talking mostly about web comics, but also about books) and I said, "You know, I hate that too. And I made a commitment by starting this thing, to the people reading it, that I would finish it."


That's where I am about sequels, anyway.


It's funny, but one of the issues that pops up in my mind as I read what everybody says is the age old issue: other writers have screwed up. This has happened enough that many people hate the whole concept of a "serial" because of the writers who have let them down. (What is a serial but a story where you have to wait for the next part, anyway?)


When there is no trust, it's easy to get caught up in the mindset of trying to preemptively prove you are different -- but that doesn't really help. The only way you can really prove you'll follow through is to follow through.


The interesting side note on what Gavin had to say: when I was working publishing, I had the opposite experience. (This was particularly in mystery, where series were always ongoing, as opposed to closed trilogies.) The standard advice we got and gave was NEVER write more than one book to a series. Sure, have outlines, write something if it's hot, but you can only shop the first book, so you need lots of first books. If an editor liked it but didn't buy it, they want to see a different first book.


This was good advice for selling in that market, but it's horrible advice for building a career. Many writers of my generation have dozens of series we want to get written before we die and not enough time to do it.


Camille


Hm. This is an interesting situation. I read plenty of "series" fiction in the deadtree form.


As of late, I"ve noticed that some authors who used to write series and give provisional endings in each book (with major points tied up but other dangling items) shifted to what I call the abrupt "trail off/cliffhanger" ending. This is aggravating because it's clear that the book's end is designed to drive you to buy the next one. (Examples: Terry Broks as of late, as well as Preston Child.)


Because of this behavior I no longer buy the books until the entire story arc completes (usually a trilogy). I have many books to choose from at any time (including free ones), so I'd rather just find something that gives me a balanced experience.


Ultimately I want enough of a payoff with a book's end. My suspicion is that for many folks that the payoff that has to happen must tie in to the thing the readers care most about within that book.


...


In a similar dilemma in that I am trying to sort through how to end the serial I'm working on. I always said I wouldn't resolve everything, but I do want to resolve enough to allow readers to feel a payoff.


Question back to the OP. What is your genre?


I think this is a trap of not having a suitable endpoint for a 'book' is one that most web serial writers fall into. I know Jim mentioned difficulties on this front in another thread months ago. I'm sort of facing it myself.


We'll fall into this trap because we're writing something continuous, and the very nature of a web serial demands that one include cliffhangers and loose threads that pull in reader attention, because we're fighting every step of the way to hold the interest of an audience that has the whole rest of the internet to amuse themselves with. If we lose their interest, if we give them any slack with which to say, "That was satisfying, I'm done." then they might never come back. A book can at least afford to take its time, to have slow periods that stretch for 8,000 words that build to something more meaningful, and to end things on a satisfying note. The reader has bought the book and it takes that much more for them to shrug off the actual purchase and investment (though one could make an argument for the investment of time for longer running serials).


Honestly not sure how I'll handle the breakpoints of the various 'books' of the Worm series, when I get around to trying to release it as an ebook/printbook.


SGL:


I guess the closest thing I could call my genre (taking both stories into mind) would be "old-time pot-boiler." The current series is more specifically "cloak and sword" which is basically a cloak and dagger mystery with a more swashbuckler. I kinda like to call it "flickerpunk" because it's a world driven mainly by silent movie serial tropes.


The second book -- the one I have to break up -- is a melodrama/pot-boiler, though still on the swashbuckling end as it is build on the tropes of stage costume melodramas. (The first book was in a world kind of like the American Revolutionary War, as seen through popular culture. The one I'm going to serialize begins with one of the characters from the first book being captured, and transported for treason to one of those hopeless tropical islands where they work prisoners to death on plantations. And the main character is not the kind of person to let a little thing like impossibility stop her from getting him out of there.)


Wildbow:


Yeah, I think it's more than fighting to hold interest, though: it's the nature of the medium. Each episode has to be interesting in and of itself, the way a TV show episode is. It's beads on a string -- and the audience is going to experience it as beads on a string. And when we package it up for "offline" use, we've got to think of it more as a "season" than a book.


In the end, I think we have to go with what the story demands. Don't worry so much about marketing aspects. Having a huge cliffhanger to force the reader to the next book isn't necessary. I was just writing about this a couple weeks ago on my blog:


"The biggest cliffhanger of all is for the reader to have such a good time that they want to do it again."


If people like your work, they're going to complain about not getting the next episode fast enough, even if you tie everything up perfectly. So give 'em the best you've got, regardless of whether it's what they demand.


Which isn't to say you shouldn't consider what effect your choices have on the reader, just that after thinking it through, you have to make your choice and settle for what you can do.


Camille