Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Dana Cameron and the Cliffhanger Ending

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Writer Dana Cameron is one of our favorite guests on JRW. She's as funny, interesting, and multi-talented as her heroines. (She is, like two of her heroines, an archeologist, but she is NOT a werewolf. Or so she says...) She is also the mistress of the cliffhanger ending, a subject dear to my heart.

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...)



  1. As a reader, I'm of two minds about cliffhangers. Waiting for the next book to be published to find out how the author resolved the cliffhanger is so hard, but if the book is written by an author whose work I really enjoy, then there's also a good feeling to know there will be another book to enjoy.
    Julia writes the most amazing cliffhangers so I am always waiting with bated breath to find out what's happening with Clare and Russ and the Millers Kill gang.

  2. Good Morning, Dana - Always fun to run into you.

    Cliffhangers. Oooooh - you are mean, mean, mean to do that to us! Actually, I feel the same way Joan does, " if the book is written by an author whose work I really enjoy, then there's also a good feeling to know there will be another book to enjoy."

  3. Hey Dana! The scary dental hygienist is chilling…I can't help but think of Marathon Man, and I don;t really want to.

    Ah, cliffhangers? Well, have to say I ma not a fan unless it's SO clear that the rest is coming, and other parts of the story are wrapped up. I recently read a book--which will remain un-named--which was fascinating, riveting, brilliant--and I kept thinking--how's the author going to come up wit absolution for this?

    And in the end, the author didn't.


    I was reading about it someplace, and the answer was-well, that was the way the world was, in this books world. and part of the deal was that the people didn't ever understand it. Well, I thought, good for them. But not for my $26.95, sister.

    I suppose, I suppose, that this sort of existential thing could be--compelling. But my real thought was that the author couldn't figure out a plausible explanation. So I was--and am--still disappointed.

    But--thinking about it, way too long now--there's a difference between a cliffhanger in the action of a story that's clearly on-going--and a cliffhanger in the explanation of a story that's over.

    I guess the key--as in so many things!--is disclosure. Just tell me--book two of seven. Okay, then,

    Cannot wait to read this! Hurray!

  4. Hi, Dana! Always a pleasure to read about a new book from Ms. Cameron who always pushes the envelope. I can get behind a cliffhanger ending as long as it comes after some major part of the of the story IS resolved, revealed. But to just leave the story hanging seems manipulative ... but then I guess that's what we do when we plot mysteries, manipulate the reader. I just like it to be subtle.

    Didn't book 2 of Girl w/ the Dragon Tattoo end with a sort of cliffhanger? That worked for me. But then those 3 books always felt like 1 big book that the publisher broke up into 3.

  5. Joan and Kaye, I'm right there with you. As long as it really suits the story, I try to enjoy how engaged I got. But it's not easy!

  6. Hank, I went to the same place with the dental tools--eek! And I thoroughly agree: the end of the series has to be significantly resolved, with no major threads left dangling.

    Hallie, yes: enough has to be resolved and cliffhanging just for the sake of it isn't playing fair, as far as I'm concerned. I want the writer to be able to move me, but I don't want to feel baldly manipulated.

    Thank you both!

  7. Debs, thank you so much for having me! And LOL, funny how much overlap there is in our tastes! We need to compare notes on how you feel about "Sherlock" and Edith Wharton, next. xoxo

  8. I love a good cliffhanger. More on TV than in books, but only because if I am reading in real time (as they are released), it can be too long a wait for the next part of the story. With as much as I read, it can be hard to remember where we were.

    That said, some authors do it very successfully - I point you to Diana Gabaldon, George RR Martin, JRW's own Julia, and yes, Dana Cameron.

    I love the Fangborn, so I really think of them as one very long book, but leaving a character in jeopardy can be very effective. Now we'll just have to see if Zoe is in the midst of another crisis at the end of Hellbender.

  9. Kristopher, thank you! That's wonderful company to be in.

    I also admire how Stephen King uses his multiple POV style to good, suspenseful effect within one book.

    And...I'll always leave the door open for Zoe to be in trouble! ;-)

  10. I'm kinda with Hank. If it's in a multi-book series, sure, end on a (reasonable) cliffhanger. The key is "reasonable." Take, for example, Harry Potter. The major narrative question - will he defeat Voldemort? - wasn't answered until the end of book 7 and there was a cliffhanger of sorts at the end of every book. Or at least another path opens.

    But the major story question OF THAT BOOK was always answered.

    I don't need everything tied up in a neat little package - there can be room for a question of "what happened to them next"? - but yes, all major story threads should be answered. I might not like the answer - but it should be there. And I suppose that's what you mean by "playing fair."

    And I feel that way as a reader AND a writer.

  11. I forgot to mention, that I do think that internal cliffhangers (ie. chapters that end in the middle of the action) are also very effective.

    I think this is one of the reasons I love Hank's Jane Ryland series so much.

  12. Okay, first I have to say that as I read the blog this morning, SEVEN KINDS OF HELL, the first book in Dana's Fangborn series, was on the kitchen table. Really. My teenage daughter just finished it! Fortunately, she still has PACK OF STRAYS to get through, so I'll get first crack at reading HELLBENDER.

    Second, as anyone who reads me knows, I LOVE cliffhangers. Not to be manipulative of readers - although I think cliffhanger endings can create a terrific sense of involvement with the characters - but because when writing an ongoing series with multiple point-of-view characters and several intertwining stories, it's impossible to wrap everything up in 400 pages or less! (And even in genres where 800 page books are customary, authors have trouble tying off all the plot threads in one volume. George R.R. Martin, I'm looking at you.)

    The payoff of cliffhangers, when done right, is experiencing a much bigger, more emotionally compelling story than can be told in one book. Of course we all know the downside - waiting for the next book to come out! Thank heavens Dana writes faster than I do...

  13. I have to admit, I almost stopped reading when I got to "angry dental hygienist" - yikes!

    I'm pretty much open to any ending except one that ties every little thing with a pretty little bow. That's too neat for my personal taste, so if the set-up is good, I'm perfectly willing to be set up for an open ending or one that requires me to read the next installment--if I care enough. There's a difference between a teaser and being a tease.

    I [heart] Elizabeth Gaskell! I recently read about her butting heads with Charles Dickens and refusing to allow him to change her work. Go Elizabeth!

  14. I was lucky in reading The Hunger Games -- I picked it up right after the third book was released. Whew. I read them in four days.

    Speaking of Sherlock (Cumberbatch/Freeman) -- the creators loved to toy with us and then wait a couple years for resolution. And we WAITED for them. Argh.

    Cliffhangers are nice when you have the next one handy, be it book, TV, or film. Sometimes, cliffhangers can backfire, imho, when being toyed with turns into annoyance and I walk away.

    One of the best unresolved cliffhangers (literally) was The Italian Job (1969) with Michael Caine: the gang's getaway bus slides halfway off a mountain road on its way to Switzerland. The bus seesaws precariously, with the men gathered at the front and the gold weighing down the back, which is hanging over the cliff. A wrong move could send the bus tumbling into the chasm below, but Croker says: "Hang on a minute lads — I've got a great idea." Then the credits roll.

  15. PK, yes, that was a great ending. But the whole movie was a caper, so you figured they would get out of it, somehow.

    Dana, Sherlock, yes. But, alas, I have never read Edith Wharton. Maybe I will remedy some day.

    As for cliffhangers, I think some of the key for me is what Hallie said--that some part of the story be resolved. I think in a mystery series, you have to resolve the primary story in that book. Other continuing plot lines, or emotional arcs, can be left to carry over. At least that was my working theory in my last book:-)

  16. I'm okay with week to week cliffhangers and even season ending cliffhangers on TV shows (although I appreciate it when not every show ends with a life and death cliffhanger in the same two weeks).

    However I get bugged when it constantly happens in a series of books. It's a year between books, so that's a long time to wait. And if it happens in book after book after book, it actually wears on me.

    This is especially true if I felt the book was leading up to something and then gave me a cliffhanger instead of a climax.

    I guess it comes down to what I expect of the genre. In books I expect almost everything wrapped up in that book with maybe room for a cliffhanger while on TV I almost expect it.

  17. My favorite cliffhangers are in series that I've come to late and can immediately pick up the next book. Hehehe! Seriously, it really depends on how the author handles it. Sometimes there are issues running through the whole book which I feel deserve some resolution, and I feel cheated if I don't receive that. However, creating a cliffhanger where a new problem is presented to be addressed in the next book seems perfectly reasonable. For example, our fantastic Julia does cliffhangers just the way I like them. Julia, you resolve the mystery around which the book's plot revolves, but you leave us with the most delicious development that has to be dealt with or addressed in the next book, like Clare's pregnancy.

    Dana, you are on my top five most wanted list to read before next fall's Bouchercon. All the people whom I've come to know and respect in the book world associated with Bouchercon and reading are enthusiastic about your books, so it's a no-brainer that I will be, too. I am so far behind in my reading right now that I feel as if I am clawing my way out of a hole with little hope of actually getting out. I had no idea that the renovations I'm having done in my house would consume my time so much. How many little details do I have to decide or pick out? Way too many. However, I will have started my journey into your books by next September. Of that I am certain.

    Your story about the dental hygienist brought up memories of Marathon Man for me, too. So glad that you could pacify her before she picked up any of those sharp instruments. I try to always tell my dental hygienist how pretty her hair is or what a great pair of earrings or something so she won't go postal on me.

    I've already mentioned one of my favorite cliffhanger authors in Julia. I also think that all the Jungle Reds with series do a great job of leaving the emotional cliffhangers in relationships open. Diana Gabaldon is another favorite author of the cliffhanger for me, and I will be seeing her in about ten days. Yay!

  18. I am not really a fan of cliffhangers. There are few things I find more annoying than getting to the end of a book and only then learning that it ends with one. If I go in knowing it is part of a trilogy, or some such construct, that's different. (Though that is sometimes enough to motivate me to wait to read the first one until I know they are all published.)

    What I far prefer is the structure Deborah brings to her series -- there are lots of unresolved threads in the back story that make me eager to come back and pick up the next one, but the major plot arc is resolved by the end of each book. I can walk away with some sense of satisfaction and closure.

  19. Mary, Harry Potter is a great example of that balancing act!

    Julia, thank you! And as a reader, I do love the feeling of being swept long as the sequel is close at hand.

    Ramona, the DH is a LOVELY person, and I shall bring her a copy of the book next visit. Go, Mrs. Gaskell!

    PK, there's also the opportunity for great arguments over whether they made it or not...and how!

    Debs, oooh, we'll have to talk some Wharton next we meet! I'm a FAN!

    Mark, yes, it's a bit like using a seasoning. A little is great, too much is yuck! As Ramona said, there's a difference between a teaser and a tease in writing.

    Kathy, wow, thank you! That's high praise! I hope you enjoy my work. The TBR pile is a constant challenge!

  20. Susan, I get that. I know a lot of folks who prefer to wait until a series is completed.

  21. Cliffhangers? It really depends on the author and the series. If it's something I'm expecting or is a hint to the direction of the next in a series, it's okay.

    It's less okay when I'm blindsided. Just last night I got hit by one I wasn't expecting - something I'd thought of as an impossible-to-deal-with storyline, perhaps only background to explain why one character was so damaged - came to the forefront in the last few paragraphs of the book. And it ended.

    I am irritated 1) with myself (stupid!) for having lacked the imagination to see this coming and 2)that I will have to wait until December 8 (according to Amazon) to see what follows that last one-word question. But there will be more of these characters ... so that's good, right?

    Right now I'm thinking it's also good that I never read Wives and Daughters. I've always meant to because the TV dramatization is one of my very favorites - wonderful cast and great extras in the box set.

    It was a story I didn't want to end in any case. So even if the scenes of Molly and Roger on the ship and striding off hand-in-hand across an African-looking landscape always felt tacked on, I was glad they were there. Some people deserve that sort of happy ending. (Characters, not people, but they are such favorites of mine.)

  22. Sharon and Cliff, thanks for stopping by!

    Sharon, yeah, there has to be some warning that life is unpredictable enough in the book to warrant a last minute change.

  23. I definitely want resolution of major plot points. Trust me to come back without the agony of an unfinished book. Minor threads, subtly placed, are fine, but don't build suspense toward a climax and ask people to wait years to find out what happens.
    Mary Sutton's example is perfect. We knew there was more to come, but Harry and friends were safely facing summer vacation, as it should be . . .
    Now off to post my H entry for the A-Z Challenge ;-)

  24. That's the trick, Storyteller Mary: to give just enough resolution AND leave some tension to pick up with the next book. My agent said he loved the cliffhanger but gave me points to resolve that would support it. It's a balancing act!