The first time I came across a cliffhanger ending was when I read The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margret Atwood. I was still learning the language and it was the first book I’ve read in English. I thought that the ending was brilliant to a dystopian novel. The protagonist gets into a car and the question is left whether she played into her enemy’s hands or gained her freedom. I completely fell in love with a cliffhanger ending with my first book. Since then, I’ve learned, however, that not everyone is crazy about such ending. So, why is a cliffhanger ending a good ending?
First, I have to mention that not every book ending can and should be a cliffhanger. For example, most detective novels would not have value with an ending where the story is open to interpretation. The detective should reveal what happened at the end, for the most part. Having read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) by Stieg Larsson, I cannot imagine the story not being solved after all the effort that goes into investigating the disappearance of the sixteen year old girl, Harriet Vanger.
Second, it takes a certain personality to appreciate an ending that does not have a fixed answer to the problem. My personal experience shows that the more scientific-minded people do not enjoy not having all the answers to a story. This is the reason they also do not necessarily like studying philosophy. They like a precise and elegant solution to a problem that allows them to see all the pieces fall into place. A good example is mathematics where X has to equal to a specific number, so that the equation can be properly solved. Therefore, scientific-minded people do not usually enjoy open-ended mysterious solution left to the human imagination.
Having pointed out the drawbacks, a cliffhanger ending is extremely valuable at times. It works very well for people who are artistic, philosophical and/or flexible, in general, in their mindset. A cliffhanger story allows the person to fill in the blanks and give a personalized interpretation to the events. The interpretation chosen further allows for the person to learn about his or her thinking, personality and character. It is a kind of self-reflection. For example, a pessimistic person would pick a dark ending for the protagonist in The Handmaid’s Tale, while an optimist would let the woman have her freedom. One can learn a lot about the self this way and a self-exploration can improve one’s life. Finding too much pessimism or skepticism can alert the person to learn to have hope and faith, while the opposite can help the person come down from the clouds and sober one up from blind faith. Therefore, it is a great tool to use for self-improvement.
A cliffhanger is also beneficial to remind the reader that life is not black and white and, it often does not have right or wrong answers. Life tolerates ambiguity where mysterious events take place and a complex web of intricate actions, born out of reflections of unique characters, collide and search for a harmonious coming together to continue on the human path forward. The cliffhanger ending is the symbol of this ambiguity. It holds onto the mystery. It invites the person to the world of the artistic, philosophical and flexible mindset where it is alright to have shades of grey and undetermined moral choices. It frees the person from strict constrains to encourage to let go off the anxiety of having made wrong interpretations and choices in well-defined worlds. Instead, it teaches that life is a great experiment where one has to have faith that one’s interpretation made and the path taken is alright despite the ambiguity. Basically, it teaches that life is open-ended, just like the story.
I use cliffhanger endings frequently to make my audience debate philosophical questions in the story. I use this tool especially where the nature of reality is the main struggle the character has to be engaged with and come to terms with. Since reality is an unfinished story that may never be finished, the story has to be left open to each person’s interpretation. It inspires one to enter the world of real life mystery and think about humanity’s place in existence.
I hope that given all this information, everyone will learn to appreciate a good cliffhanger. It is worth being brave enough to finish a story and give a unique interpretation to it, instead of demanding that the writer spoon-feed it to his or her audience.
M. J. Mandoki