Cliff-Hangers and Open Endings

Open-ended stories and cliff-hangers are not necessarily the same things.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about story endings lately. When I was a younger writer, I usually fell straight into the gloss and glory of a new story far too fast to think about the ending. This often resulted in a ‘Mystery Box’ style of writing (that’s a fancy way of saying I was making it up as I went along).

For years I never got to the end of a story I was writing. I had a hundred projects up in the air at once, and the moment it felt like things were getting serious, I backed out. I have commitment issues. See, I love the start of novels like a teenager loves the start of a relationship. There’s that sweet spot, the honeymoon period, where everything feels fresh and new and exciting, and I am addicted to that bit of story writing.

Unfortunately, this means I have plenty of practice with the start of the novels, but none with the end. I have written exactly two endings for novels. One I wrote over ten years ago, and one I wrote last year as part of my dissertation. This has left me rather lacking when it comes to confidence and sticking the landing.

My only consistent practice with endings comes from short stories, flash fiction, and some novellas I ghost-wrote for someone (that wasn’t my story though, so I’ve always felt rather unsure about those). While I’m loathe to bang on about the benefits of writing short stories, I will say they have a gift of allowing you to have a glimpse into the style you naturally acquire from writing regularly.

Something I have noticed is that I really, really enjoy writing open endings. These endings are, for me, endings that result when the main plot threads have been handled and resolved, but the audience gets a sense that the story could continue and the world is still existing even after they’ve finished reading. Sometimes they can be ambiguous, but these seem to be the most risky to pull off.

In the acknowledgements of A Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen, she apologises to the audience for leaving on a cliff-hanger. Funnily enough, I did not see this as a cliff-hanger, and so did not feel the usual taxation I feel when I realise the story has ended in such a way. It ends with (Spoiler alert!) the main character literally hanging off a cliff after defeating the antagonist and concluding the other plot points, and to get down she decides to take a leap of faith. The story ends. I enjoyed this ending because we could guess how Nettie survives, and it didn’t mean I had to wait for another book to find out how the big bad gets got.

Open endings are brilliant for a number of reasons, but they are most utilised by debut authors. Publishers need a sacrificial lamb to show whether an author, a trilogy, a series, is worth investing in, and so the first novel will have such an ending should it flop or should it garner interest. A neat bow does the trick. Not only does it appear to be a contained package, it can be easily unravelled to reveal more.

This is wonderfully done in A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. The enemy has been vanquished, the realms are safe, and the protagonists go their separate ways but with a touch of this-isn’t-the-last-they’ve-seen-of-each-other vibes. Should the novel have flopped, the audience wouldn’t have felt ripped off. As it happened, the novel was a success, which led to a sequel: A Gathering of Shadows. That ends on a cliff-hanger, but on this occasion it felt incredibly draining for me to read it. A hundred pages from the end of the book I realised it was going to end on a cliff-hanger, at a point where I thought threads would start to fold together and make sense. Instead, the second and third book felt like one novel, simply split in the middle. The issue here is the rising action of the novel. There is a build-up of tension that is not relieved until well into the third book, and that lack of pay-off for audiences results in taxation on the reader. The third book, I’d say, is open-ended. This particular journey of the characters has come to an end, but they’re forward thinking and, I imagine, it leaves many readers excited and satisfied.

The difference between cliff-hangers and open endings can be quite subjective, and the enjoyment of them also is. Cliff-hangers usually work for chapters, for me. If done well, they can have me reading into the night. Ending on one, however, is not quite my appetite. Meanwhile, open endings need to be done really well if you’re hoping for an ambiguous ending. These endings include the likes of Inception, which, though open, is not a cliff-hanger, as it is designed to be the end, not a leading point to another film or the rest of the story.

It should be safe to say here that cliff-hangers are best not served as the final ending. They are designed to have the audience come back for more, and so there would be no point in dishing one out if there is no ‘more’ to come back to. One wouldn’t like a reputation of never actually finishing stories. While authors do try to finish with open-ended novels, that grey line between the two—the revealing and solution of plot points—is the key. Sometimes it can be quite easy to miss the mark and land in cliff-hanger territory due to twists and spins in the writing, while some may land in that murky area of open-ended that zaps the audience of satisfaction. This normally results in the aforementioned twists too. Writing a twist simply to fool the audience (rather than for plot purposes) and trying to leave a ‘dun dun durrr’ feeling in the reader’s gut is a sure sign you may be missing the valuable bigger picture.

For some readers, an open ending can be the same as ‘it was all a dream.’ Metaphors can run flat here, as the reader wants something tangible. Closed endings are the most favoured for this reason. There are no questions left remaining and the story has finished.

For one of my assessments at university I was asked to write a 3,000-word fantasy story. This short story was my eye-opener for ambiguous endings, as mine missed the mark entirely on beta-readers who kept asking me whether the main character was dead. I wanted to tell them it didn’t matter because that wasn’t the point of the short story and the lesson she had learned, but I realised this was not going to go well, so instead I replied, “No, she’s saying she is effectively dead to the people she is leaving behind.” There were mixed feelings about this, which I took to mean I hadn’t communicated the ending properly, however I was told the issue was that I had written an open ending. Working out that sweet spot is something that I am still getting used to over a year later.

The final chapter for my dissertation was received more favourably, despite also being open-ended. Both endings have a sense of finality to them, like a full stop to a sentence, and yet also designed to demonstrate that another sentence could follow.

As with most writing rules, there is no merit in telling people how to end their stories. My only advice would be to write what comes naturally and do not try to force something. Avoid writing cliff-hangers because you got stuck and need time to work your way out of a plot hole. Try to avoid contrived endings. Not everything has to be in a neat bow. Some audiences love having everything finished off while others enjoy letting their imaginations run wild.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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