But What Happens Next?! (A.K.A. Cliffhangers and Story)

Oh, BBC’s Musketeers…how you have made my week agonizing…

(spoilers ahead!)

In case you missed the recent episode before the series 2 finale, life was becoming a tad complicated for our beloved French soldiers and their friends.  Constance’s fate is in the balance and Aramis’ affair with the queen is about to throw him in loads of trouble.  The queen is imprisoned in her own home with Rochefort’s schemes about to tear everything apart.  And then, once the credits role, we find we have to wait another week until everything is concluded.  Will our heroes save the day?  Will some characters be like Cardinal Richelieu and not show up in series 3?  Will the king ever stop listening to bad advice?

Honestly…if I wasn’t a Sherlock fan, the wait really would be terrible.  Thankfully I have practice in being patient.  (*cough* waiting two years for Sherlock Series 4 *cough*)

Anyways, last Saturday’s episode got me thinking about cliffhangers.  As readers or viewers, many of us tend to hate them.  We want to know what happens now and being left in suspense is about as fun as being stuck in an elevator with someone who ate way too many beans for lunch.  These are the characters we’ve invested time and emotion in, after all.  Having to wait and learn their fates later just doesn’t seem right.

But being a writer, I do have a confession to make.  As much as I hate being the victim of a cliffhanger, I can’t help but love writing them.  And here’s why:

  • A cliffhanger leaves you wanting more.

When Sherlock Series 2 ended some years ago, fans were left speculating as to how on earth Sherlock Holmes survived that fall.  Now, with Series 3, we’re left speculating how Moriarty did the same thing (or did he?????)  Regardless, even though we were left in suspense, the ending of both series got fans wanting more.  We couldn’t wait to find out how Sherlock did it (I’m still believing Anderson’s Sherlolly theory.  Don’t judge.  Ha ha!)  Instead of forgetting about what we just watched, it replayed in our minds and made us count down the days to when we could find out the answer to our questions.  Which leads me to my next point…

  • A cliffhanger can unite the fans.

I don’t know how many theories came up after Series 2 ended, but I know it was a lot.  And these weren’t just simple theories, either.  Some went as far as using knowledge of physics and all sorts of science to explain how their theory would work.  I’m sure even the easily-displeased Mr. Holmes would be impressed with their work.  But what made it so interesting was that fans were together talking.  They were united in a common love for a story.  If Series 2 had ended with a resolved plot, would the fans have talked as much?  I’m not sure, but I doubt they’d still be discussing some things months (and even a year) after the finale aired.

  • A cliffhanger can show how invested you are in a story.

If we didn’t care about the characters, we wouldn’t care what happens next for them.  Cliffhangers that leave us with emotions flying prove to us that the characters, and their story, mean something to us.  I’d like to think that if we care that much about what happens to someone who isn’t even real, the author is doing his or her job and doing it well.  To me, an author’s job isn’t just to write a story.  It’s to write an experience for the readers.

I’ll admit that when I wrote “The Ripple Affair”, I had planned on ending it with a cliffhanger.  Bad, mean author (I know.)  But even though my readers weren’t too happy with it (I can’t say I blame them), it still served its purpose.  It left them wanting more.  It gave them something to talk about.  It showed me that they really did care about what I was writing about.  Thankfully, the sequel to “The Ripple Affair” didn’t have a cliffhanger ending (uhm…sort of…), but it did teach me something about endings and how we are to approach them in story.  Are cliffhangers a good way to always end a story?  To repeat many of my fellow readers and viewers, no way!  But they aren’t always bad, either.  Sometimes they can serve their purpose, and depending on how its written, serve it well.