I did one earlier post likening writing to completing a puzzle and since I do enjoy puzzles (especially dragon puzzles) I mentally keep coming back to the idea. I like to buy puzzles at second hand stores because they’re usually only one to three dollars and most of them end up a good buy. If there’s one or two pieces missing I might keep it if I rather like the picture, but if it’s only so-so, I recycle the puzzle and spare other people the frustration of finding it incomplete. I’m not sure why more people don’t do this with incomplete puzzle, honestly. They’re cardboard after all and who really wants a puzzle with missing pieces?
I recently bought one that had thirteen pieces missing! What person thought, gee, I bet someone would like to buy this for two dollars and have the frustration of putting it together and miss thirteen pieces! I can’t think of anyone who would enjoy missing that many with a free puzzle, let alone one you buy! Which is when it occurred to me exactly what a puzzle missing pieces is like: a novel that ends on a cliffhanger.
You can see most of the picture, even with thirteen pieces missing, you can extrapolate what goes in the missing spots, but it’s just so unsatisfying. And depending on where those pieces are, extremely aggravating. Once a useless puzzle I bought had only one piece missing, but it was the horse’s face. Talk about a way to ruin a picture! And that’s exactly what a cliffhanger is like. Missing the face or some other essential part of the picture.
I can put up with a few loose ends in a novel, if I enjoy the story it’s making. Some missing sky, or even, while irritating, pieces of the main figure if the rest is really awesome. But it’s really hard to forgive a book that ends with a major plot point unfinished, especially on a cliffhanger. And while part of the game with second hand puzzles is wondering if you’re going to have all the pieces or not, if I paid more than a dollar or two for it, I’d be mad. If it was a new puzzle, I’d return it to the store.
Most people feel the same way I do. In all the writers and readers I’ve talked to in various groups, online, or at conventions, I’ve only met two people out of hundreds who expressly said, “I like a cliffhanger at the end of a novel.” Most people will feel cheated, frustrated, and ready to dump your book in the recycling bin.
Now, I’m not saying you have to tie up everything in a book, particularly if its a series. But a novel should offer a complete picture of some kind, an interconnected whole that is intriguing and satisfying. Sometimes I see novels in critique where the conflict is mostly wrapped up, the characters all reconcile and then the author adds a final chapter that puts them all back in conflict. This is particularly irksome. It’s like an ad for book two. Trust your reader. If they like book one, they’ll come back for book two.
Unfortunately, unfinished and cliffhanger ending books have gotten more popular with publishers as well lately, moving me to often not buy or read a series until it’d done, to make sure I get an end. For example, after hearing book 2 ended on a terrible cliffhanger, I decided not to read Hunger Games until the whole thing was published, and borrowed the book from a friend rather than buying it to see if I’d even care for it. While I did enjoy it, I found it irritating how deliberate cliffhangers were placed at the end of the first two when the first one especially could have easily ended with a focus on winning vs an unfinished dilemma of who to fall in love with, sigh. It definitely made me think less of the author.
But that was more like missing a couple pieces, not thirteen! What was worse was once a Piers Anthony book I read where the main character were traveling through a series of parallel worlds and got caught up in a conflict in one and thus stuck in it. Now, I was fine with the book ending before they got free of the whole parallel world problem, it seemed like it was going to wrap up with them ending the conflict, escaping the world they got caught in, and traveling on to try to reach their ultimate destination that would happen in future books. I would have been fine with that. Instead the book had a final chapter after they finally wrapped it all up, where they traveled into the next parallel world and promptly got caught. I was so angry at the cheap trick, I’ve sworn off all the author’s future work. While I liked the characters, I no longer trusted the author could tell a story that I could enjoy ultimately.
I know that this sort of stupidity has become allowable in the publishing world these days, but do you really want your novel to read like a second hand puzzle?