DANA CAMERON: Recently, I encountered something I'd always hoped to avoid: an angry dental hygienist.
I had showed up, early, for my regular checkup, and she, the DH, came out to the waiting room, not quite swinging, but definitely riled.
“You get in there, and you sit down!” DH said. “I'm so mad at you!”
She's usually really pleasant and, like I said, I visit the dentist twice a year and get there early, so I couldn't imagine what I'd done that was so bad. I got very nervous when I saw the tray of sharp, shiny tools next to the dental chair; they looked even more sinister than usual. I didn't like to think what the DH was capable of doing with them.
“What's up?” I started to say, but she laid into me before I got the second syllable out.
“How could you do that? How could you leave Zoe hanging like that? At the end?”
This slowed me down, because I have a cat named Zoe (for the character in “Firefly”), and as far as I knew, hadn't left her hanging anywhere. It took me a minute to realize the DH meant my character Zoe Miller, the archaeologist (and occasional werewolf) in my first two urban fantasy novels, Seven Kinds of Hell and Pack of Strays . At the end of Strays, I'd left Zoe in the middle of a very bad spot, surrounded by enemies who want to destroy her Fangborn Family, and then suddenly, threw a monkey wrench into the works. I finished that book with a cliffhanger.
I didn't undertake a cliffhanger intentionally, and certainly didn't decide to keep it lightly. I once stood up in bed and screamed, having reached the end of Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, not realizing the book is unfinished. I knew there had to be a HEA, but to read all that and not have a wedding? It wasn't even a matter of waiting for a sequel, because Gaskell had died before finishing the book, a century before I was born. So I understand Narrative Interruptus. My husband, Mr. G, still regularly asks me if the book I'm enjoying is finished, and whether the author is still alive. He was traumatized by that book too, mostly because my screaming woke him up.
As a reader, I remember how I felt when I reached the end of Tolkien's The Two Towers and couldn't get to the library fast enough to find out what happened to Sam and Frodo. I was lucky, coming to the Hunger Games books late, just before the third one, so I didn't have too long to wait. I remembering wondering what could be right with the world when The Empire Strikes Back ended the way it did. With the third episode of every season of Sherlock, I'm left wondering how I'll make it another year (or two or three!) I won't be able to bear it. And yet, there is a deliciousness in being so involved in a story, and then so surprised by an ending that isn't exactly...complete.
But as a writer, I want that kind of engagement. I want a reader to be involved and be going through, at some level, what my protagonist is experiencing. I also know that there has to be an end to a book. As I was finishing Strays, I'd written what ended up being the first chapter of Hellbender before I realized I'd started a whole new book. I had to leave some of the ending's resolution for the next book. If I could have found a way to end with less drama, would I? I don't think so. The second book in an arc has to have tension in it. You need that suspense.
Finally, I was able to reassure the DH that Hellbender was being written and that she would have her answers. And with the launch of Hellbender last week, I hope she is pleased with how I got Zoe out of the bind and initiated the chaos of I-Day, or the “identification” of the Fangborn to the rest of the world, which is probably not ready to learn that vampires, werewolves, and oracles walk among them.
So readers, do you have a favorite cliffhanger? Or do you simply hate them, craving immediate closure? Writers, to you avoid them or embrace them in a series?
Whether writing colonial noir, thriller, urban fantasy, or traditional mystery, Dana Cameron draws from her expertise in archaeology. Her fiction has earned multiple Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards and an Edgar Award nomination. Hellbender, the third Fangborn urban fantasy novel, is available now from 47North, and her Sherlockian pastiche, "The Curious Case of Miss Amelia Vernet," was published in 2014. Dana lives in Massachusetts with her husband and benevolent feline overlords.
DEBS: Dana, we are obviously kindred souls! Firefly AND Elizabeth Gaskill? AND The Lord of the Rings?? (And yes, I do like cliffhangers. You might have guessed...)