Writing: Cliffhanger vs Hook and Responsibility

I had vague plans of talking about something else this week. And then Ginny went poking around and discovered that Sly Cooper 5 wasn’t even being worked on and…nerd rage happened, and this post suddenly became a whole lot more necessary for my sanity.

Most readers, movie and anime watchers, and video gamers know what the universal consensus of a cliffhanger is. It’s where there is a completely unresolved ending to a chapter/episode/game, usually a very obvious sequel plug. Readers/watchers/players hate them, because they are driven to move on to the next whatever it may be, even if they may not have the time to put down the book/watch another episode/play another hour. Fanfiction readers in particular hate them because, unless the fic is completed, you may be waiting months for the next chapter. And everyone hates them at the ending, because then you have to cross your fingers and pray the developers/writer get to do the sequel or else you have unresolved questions.

But there is actually a tool that writers use called a hook that is commonly misconstrued as being a cliffhanger. The difference is where exactly the two are placed. If it’s at the end of a chapter or an episode that is not the last one, it is actually a hook, meant to keep you reading or watching. This is an important tool, actually, because writers are dependent on getting you through the entire book/movie/TV series without growing bored. If you get bored, you won’t have anything better than “eh” feelings about it, and then you may not read/watch another. Game developers have less of this problem because most gamers are A-personalities who will want to get all of it anyway unless it’s a really bad game, but it’s still a factor.

Hooks are necessary. If you don’t have a hook after almost every chapter/episode, you aren’t going to keep your reader/watcher interested, and you are sunk. But cliffhangers, which are the unresolved endings, are another story. I had a professor who said she always ended her books with an unresolved question, which made me just cringe. It was sequel bait, she admitted to it being sequel bait, but unless I had the contract for the next book, I would not be doing it. It isn’t fair to those who love the book if you never think up enough ideas for a sequel or can’t get it to sell. There’s also the factor that at minimum, a new book in a series will come out once a year, sometimes more, especially if you weren’t contracted for it to begin with. That’s a hard wait on fans.

I’m not saying cliffhangers don’t have their places or uses. If you have the contract and you know the book will be out in a year, I say go for it. It will jack up your sales as fans are desperate to know what happened. This worked for Garth Nix and John Flanagan, who got me to rather hurriedly buy the next books in The Seventh Tower and Ranger’s Apprentice series (respectively) as soon as they came out. It makes churning up publicity for the next book bigger, which means more sales. Sadly, publishing houses have gotten savvy and actually check to see how your last book sold before they will buy your next book or decide how big of an advance to give you. The first month or so will be your biggest sales on a new release, and then they will go down fast, meaning you need to sell as many as possible that first month for the sake of future books. Also, you don’t make royalties until you pay back that advance (which, given the percentage you get of sales, can take a while).

This is a double-edged sword. It won’t take long for word to get out that the book/movie ends on a cliffhanger in this day and age (unless you are like me, I tend to pick up books and forget to fact check). However, if I do fact check and know there’s a cliffhanger, I will wait until the next book or until the series is finished before I will touch it, since I don’t want to waste my emotional investment in something that might not see completion. (Which is why I have not read or watched Game of Thrones, btw.) So you cut some of your sales off at the knee until the next book comes out and resolves the cliffhanger, when you’ll probably see a higher spike in sales of both books. It’s a long-term game rather than a short-term, which some publishers can’t see.

Now, why am I nerd-raging over the Sly Cooper games? Because they have become the perfect example of how not to do a cliffhanger ending. When Sucker Punch finished the first three, they were fairly resolved and self-contained. While there were openings that could be fun to play with, fans could also be fairly content with where it had left off, so if nothing else ever happened, we’d be okay. Then Sony and Sanzaru Games got a hold of the property. It took eight years (I think) for Sly Cooper 4: Thieves in Time to come out. And it seemed to be worth the wait. Cut scenes were now animated, there was a lot more depth to the 3-D renderings. Story-wise, it was sort of lacking and when it came to game play, a lot of old moves/gadgets had gotten left behind, but it was a good first start for a series.

(Okay, I was disappointed that all the ancestors were basically skins for Sly, and had all the same moves with a specialty one or two. Because chronologically, some of the characters shouldn’t have had access to moves that had been invented by other ancestors yet! Okay, and they can’t decide which eye Henrietta “One-Eye” Cooper lost. That’s annoying.)

The problem was, there was a “secret” ending that showed that Sly had gotten lost in Ancient Egypt when the time machine exploded. Which is where the original enemy of the series, Clockwerk, and the Cooper line’s rivalry started, and the Cooper line started period. One of the villains, Penelope, had escaped from prison in the epilogue. And even if you hadn’t unlocked the secret ending, Sly was lost in time and space! It’s a giant, giant sequel hook…and they aren’t going to do a thing with it, supposedly at this time, which means it might be another eight years and another developer switch before we see it. If we see it, since they are set on rehashing the first games in movies now (with awful character designs, don’t get me started).

If you use cliffhangers, please understand the responsibility that you are getting into with your readers/watchers/players. You are leaving them with huge unresolved questions and feelings. It can help your sales considerably…until you fail to follow through. And then it ruins your credibility with them, and you will never get that back. They will start waiting until something is completely finished before investing their time and energy, which means while you’ll see huge spikes at the end of a project, you’re early sales will be bad and this will make your publisher/developer be leery of giving you green lights on new projects in the future. So be careful with your evilness. It could be your career’s downfall.

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About Rebecca M. Horner

A spinner of yarns (of the story sort, though I do crochet...and sew, and learning to make armor...) View all posts by Rebecca M. Horner

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