The End! ...or is it? HEA vs HFN vs Cliffhanger vs Full Stop Writing

January 22, 2016

This particular topic has been bugging me for months, and not just because I review. While my review list is five books a month, I read voraciously on top of that...especially when I'm stressed and want to hide from the world. Me and curling up in the proverbial closet sometimes come close to being reality when things get tough. Since the start of the school year, it's been insanely difficult...all due to finances (of course) and helplessness, because I can't control when someone is going to hire my husband (who's been unemployed since May).

I've probably read...on average...5-10 books a week. Some are long. Some are short. The only ones I refuse to read are YA and NA; all five of my children fall into those two categories, I have enough teenage angst and college age growing-into-functional-adults in my real life, I have no desire to read about it.

Because of that amount of reading, and the fact that reviews, editing and writing books myself are also a thing, I'm pretty qualified to talk about this particular pet peeve authors do. **

Remember when we read books that wrapped up and had happy endings? When the words THE END actually meant it was over. Done. Finished. Ahhh, the good old days. Even if it was a series, like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, or even C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles...each book had a beginning, middle and end. Period. Characters continued throughout the stories, sometimes aging, sometimes not, but every book guaranteed not only that it would end, but end happy. And the sheer number of standalones, like nearly every Michael Crichton book ever, with every book ending the story by the hero triumphing and the bad guys losing.

 

The vast majority of readers like a conclusion at the end of the story.

 

That's a HEA. When the book ends the story and it's done. A Happily Ever After. Good guys win, bad guys lose, hero gets the girl. All that. Whether a standalone, or a continuing series with the same characters, a Happily Ever After stops that plotline. That story is done. But, Nancy Drew just kept finding things to investigate...how can that be a HEA? Easy, because each story was completely self-contained, she didn't investigate anything over the course of three, four, five books. Think about it this way, using one of my favorite TV series, NCIS. Each week there is a new episode involving a new murder. Gibbs has new reasons to hit DiNozzo's head, Ducky has more opportunities to wax poetic on some new topic...but by the end of the episode, it's all solved, done, finished. (No, not every episode, bear with me, it'll all make sense.)

So, if you're writing a continuing series (like Anne Perry does) with the same characters but different plots, your books better end with a HEA. Does it matter that the characters will get into some new trouble in the next book? No. That one story, plotline, arc is done in one book. Therefore, one plotline in one book equals a Happily Ever After ending.

With me so far? Onto the next.

A HFN/HEAFN is now how "Solomon Aleph" ends. It means Happy For Now/Happily Ever After For Now. In books, this means that the main plotline, story, arc is NOT done by the end of the book. While small issues may be solved, and things may be paused in the action, the overall reason the story exists is not done. The bad guys haven't been punished, the hero hasn't won, nothing definitive is settled. BUT...the main characters are together. There is a moment of breathing room in the story's action. Using a movie trilogy...by the end of the original Star Wars, Vader still lives, so does the Emperor and the Empire. What makes it a HFN is that you KNOW it isn't over, but everyone is alive, together, celebrating...being awarded medals for bravery. The main characters are all together, can take a breather, and are Happy. For Now. Even in The Empire Strikes Back, as Luke and Leia stand on a ship at the edge of the galaxy wondering where Han is...that is still a Happy For Now. They are alive and together...and Han is...well, at least he's alive, right?

What makes this so hard to do, is that you (as an author) have to create a reason for the main characters to be together and have a "calm in the middle of the storm" moment. If there is a pause in your story, but no one is in the same physical location...that's not a HFN/HEAFN, that's a Cliffhanger. And readers HATE Cliffhangers. They are rabid about wanting some kind of happy at the end of the book they're reading. I certainly got a massive earful of that over Solomon and his story. And I probably lost a few readers who loved the characters, but hated how I ended things. (I know I did cuz a few of them sent really hateful emails to me about it.)

So, the hated Cliffhanger.

But, why is it so hated by readers who adore it in TV shows? TV shows do not activate the same parts of your brain as reading, that's why. The wiring inside our little gray machines makes the physical act of reading words process through different neural pathways than watching things. Example: you see an ad about a love note a husband gives to his wife, and you think "Awww, how sweet" vs your beloved handing you a love note and you read it. Different depth of emotion, right? Right. Reading a Cliffhanger and seeing one on a TV show is the same concept. It also has to do with the fact that someone has paid for your book, and they want to feel emotions, but they want to be happy at the end of it too. No one reads to get more depressed. They read to feel better...to hide for a time, but know that happiness is just around the corner, if only for a moment.

A Cliffhanger is like nearly every TV show when Christmas rolls around, or occasionally when the season ends. Something horrible has happened, a main character might be dead, injured, walk away...whatever. And that episode ends at the climax of the action. Just recently, Team Arrow sent their fans into a frenzy by having Felicity shot and on life support in a hospital...and then they took a break for weeks. That, my fellow authors, is a Cliffhanger. And readers HATE them in books. There is a caveat to that statement, lest someone yells at me, if readers KNOW ahead of time that it is a Cliffhanger, and they still buy it, then obviously, they are OK with that.

But the real reason readers HATE Cliffhangers is because, dear authors, THEY ARE NOT TOLD UPFRONT! I cannot tell you how many books...ones for review and ones I pick up...that are Cliffhangers and I did NOT know ahead of time. I don't like Cliffhangers. I don't want to read Cliffhangers. I have never, not once, been enticed by ANY author to continue buying the series because it ended on a Cliffhanger. (And I know from personal experience with my Aleph Series that I am the norm in this dislike of Cliffhangers.) And if I know upfront that it ends on a Cliffhanger, I NEVER get that book. The only -- ONLY -- time a Cliffhanger would be an appropriate way to end a book is if you are writing a serial...basically a TV show. (Serials are another topic for a later date.) However, even in a serial, Cliffhangers are NOT written properly. To make one work, your readers have to care. They've invested time into reading this, you better have the emotional gravitas weaved perfectly into your characters, or no one will follow you to the next story. Most authors of serial think they have Cliffhangers, when in all reality, what they have is...

Full Stop.

This is even more hated than Cliffhangers, because a good Cliffhanger has some kind of natural stopping point in the action, like Kate getting shot in the head at the end of an NCIS season. (And note, good ones are insanely rare, many authors really don't know how to write decent ones.) A Full Stop literally just ENDS. Like you're reading a paragraph and go to turn the page and...nothing. Basically, what you have done is taken a book, decided to pick some random chapter...maybe a third or fourth of the book...chopped it, uploaded and called it a book. This isn't even a serial. It's lying. It's dishonest. It's false advertising. You can't call it Book 1, because it isn't a story. A story has a beginning, middle and end. Even a Cliffhanger has that, because it "ends" in the middle, and readers can see the set up of the ending. Same with a serial...good serials end with Cliffhangers.

But SO many serials end with a Full Stop, and lately actual books in a series are ending with a Full Stop too. That isn't a serial and that most Certainly is NOT a series. It's a marketing tactic that will turn around and bite you in the ass. If you're lucky enough to have loyal readers who will follow you into hell, then you may get sales on a book that ends with a Full Stop. But I can guarantee you, it will NOT win you any new readers. No one, and I mean NO ONE, likes a book that just ENDS.

Let me put it into perspective...you bought a DVD, and halfway through a really intense action scene, it freezes. Permanently, so your only option is to go out and buy a new one so you can finish the story because you have no idea how it ends. Or, you are watching your most favorite TV show in the world...and the power goes out halfway through. And, to make things worse, they don't put that episode up online for a week, so you're going to have to wait to see what happened, but that episode is in their "exclusive" members only subscription part of their online community, so you're going to have to pay to get in and finish the episode. Either of those scenarios would piss you off beyond belief, wouldn't it? Having to pay extra to see something you should have gotten the first time around?

So why are you doing that to readers? They pay for whole books. Cliffhangers and Full Stop stories are cheating them out of what they paid for. They want a story. A full story. A whole story. Some readers don't even like HFN stories. I applaud the authors who tell you, in the blurb, "This ends with a cliffhanger"-thank you for being honest. But for every book I see that warns of being a cliffhanger, or a serial, I end up with three or four that I've downloaded that are cliffhangers or serials, and didn't tell me up front. And lately--and even worse--I've gotten books that end with a Full Stop, without warning. I don't post reviews anywhere, except the ones I do for InD'tale magazine, but THOSE...tempt me so much.

I got a PM last night from a friend. She's an author, though insanely busy in her personal life so she doesn't have a ton of books...she vented about having purchased a book from another author we both know. It was a Full Stop. She was livid. She really liked the story, but because it ended, literally in the middle of the story...just STOPPED...like a thought that isn't finished...she has no desire to get the second book and finish because she felt cheated and lied to. Nowhere inside the blurb did it say it was Book 1...but even if it had, she still would be livid because it isn't a book...remember, a book has a beginning, middle and end. Even in a continuing series, you HAVE to have that HFN moment. And you sure as hell need to warn readers up front what your intentions are. My friends plans to return the book, and is kicking around leaving a bad review...being an author, she knows how hurtful bad reviews can be, but she honestly feels lied to. And I don't blame her.

So, the take away...IF you are writing a series that will continue, and you plan on using Cliffhangers... you MUST let readers know. Readers buy books thinking it's a whole book, and full story, if you haven't indicated otherwise. They get pissed about being deceived and lied to...and like my friend, will talk...and that friend will talk...and so on. And if you are doing a Cliffhanger, for the love of books PLEASE write it correctly, don't just END.

Once I learned why readers were pissed about "Solomon Aleph" - I wrote to each one individually who had emailed to complain, and apologized, and tried to fix it. It wasn't until early last year that I finally got an answer to WHY and HOW, but I can promise that NO book I released in the meantime fell into a Cliffhanger or Full Stop without a warning. ("This book ends and picks up immediately after in Book 2.")

And if you plan on chopping a book into pieces using some random chapter to end it, and calling it a series or a serial...

Don't.

:) Julie



**I will totally fess up to doing a No-No and admit that the first time I released "Solomon Aleph", it was a Cliffhanger...only I was soooo new to the publishing world, I didn't know it was called that, and didn't realized I would be blasted by readers for it. (It was REALLY early 2012...as in, I had my accounts made in 2011.) And once I found that readers HATED it, it still took me quite a while to find someone to explain how to fix it, because, while I am intelligent and have learned a TON about publishing, it's...difficult...to find someone willing to answer WHY and include the HOW at the same time. "Solomon Aleph" is now a HFN/HEAFN.

 

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