Cliffhanger or Drop Off?

by Neeks

I’ll say once again, I haven’t written a book, not even close.  I’ve read about a gazillion of them though, and mystery is my favorite genre.  I love trying to guess who did it, how it happened and why they did it.  The problem with reading so many is that you inevitably come across those that end with a drop off instead of a cliffhanger.

What do I mean?  To me, a good mystery involves a daring cliffhanger.   Someone puts themselves in danger to expose the bad guy or to save someone.  In the end, they work themselves down the cliff in some way you hadn’t expected, or back up the cliff to double around behind the bad guy. I can get all kinds of involved with books like that.

The problem with some of them is that they end with a drop off instead.  It’s as though the author got tired of writing and simply decided to end the book right there.

“What’s that dear, supper is ready?  Okay, let me kill my main character and I’ll be right there!”

They put the protagonist up on the cliff face, the odds are entirely against him.  Instead of letting him use the ingenuity they’ve spent the past what, 400 pages, giving him; they have the bad guy stumble and fall off the cliff above.   The problem is solved and everyone else just melts away into a murky bad-ending-mist.

You can tell when an author got tired of writing.  Hopefully beta readers and lots of editing will help us to see these mistakes before we let them loose on the unsuspecting public, but even the biggies are guilty of it.  I quit reading John Grisham because it seemed that for the last five years his novels ended that way – wrapping up the problem they’ve spent the whole book laying out – in just a few pages.  I want more than a neat little ending.  If the book was that good, the ending should be too.

Another I’ve read lately that I’ve decided to quit reading is Nicholas Sparks.  His books are great, he’s a very gifted author.  But every book he does ends with someone central to the story getting killed!  He waits until you are emotionally involved, the story is almost over, the emotional hurdles have been laid waste too – everything’s going to be okay and BAM!  He kills a main character.  Example: Nights in Rodanthe.  The movie was fantastic, but the ending killed it for me.  Just killed it.  Dear John didn’t end satisfactorily either.  He killed two people in that one.  That’s a different kind of drop off, the emotional one. I just don’t need a total catharsis in every movie/book.  Life is hard enough these days, I read to escape!

I should look back over my body of short stories, being what they are (short) I’m probably more guilty of this than most and the last thing I want to do is to alienate readers.

What books or movies have you seen that remind you of the drop off?

31 Comments to “Cliffhanger or Drop Off?”

  1. Captain America with Chris Evans. He goes through all that and doesn’t GET THE GIRL???!!! Or any kind of plot resolution???!!! But I understand. Captain America, Thor and the other movies were prequels to another, bigger movie (The Avengers) so the plot line had to be the way it was. But I thought the ending of Captain America was unsatisfying. Maybe The Avengers will make up for it. I hope so.

  2. Oo, intriguing post. I can’t think of any examples right now, but I completely know what you mean. Sometimes writers try to be a bit too clever with giving us a ‘realistic’ end as if they don’t want to end up being corny, when actually we need the happy ending for the plot resolution – and it does have to be much more clever than the bad guy slips and falls off the cliff! I often mention a particularly terrible indie book I read where amongst the many, many terrible abuses of narrative, plot, dialogue, characterisation etc. she ended her mystery by bringing in a character who hadn’t even been mentioned previously and was, oh, look completely insane, which was why he murdered those people and was obsessed with killing the protagonist. No rationale and a very flimsy back-story he was simply ‘mad.’ That’s right up there with ‘it was all a dream,’ in plot crimes!

    I think Suzanne Collins did it a bit in the final book of the Hunger Games trilogy – I don’t think it was necessarily a case of rushing the end, but more she was so engrossed in the point of view of her protagonist who would have needed to detach herself from the story to cope with it that she forgot that the reader needed to remain completely in the action. Sorry, I’ve gone a bit off topic with my comment, haven’t I! Have a great weekend.

    • Not at all, your comments are right on target. I realize that no one ending can satisfy all readers, but that indie example you gave must have been maddening! I haven’t read the Hunger Games. Funny you mention the “it was all a dream,” plot crimes – how about this one:
      The last Indiana Jones movie. Great story, good action, fast pace, they’ve reached the end…the bad guys are chasing…running out of room…and a UFO bursts out of the ground and races away… gah! I hated that ending. It just takes care of all the plot lines in one fell swoop. Gah!

  3. I was about to say the last book of the Hunger Games, and then I saw Sally beat me to it! All the action just stopped suddenly, with a few pages of “and then this is what happened…the end”. I know the book could have gone on for another 300 pages, but I just felt like we had three books of go – go – go then BLAMO stop! I didn’t hate it, I just wish there had been more to it.

    • When you want the story to keep going it’s very aggravating isn’t it? Sometimes you can tell the author is setting up for a sequel and that can be maddening too.

  4. Oh I’ll get flak for this, but “Where Angels Fear to Tread” by E.M. Forster–I was livid! I slammed my book shut! Oh! How could he!!

  5. Hi Neeks,

    I agree with you about the drop-off ending. I feel the same way about John Grisham. I stopped reading him. I felt his books grew more and more rushed, and were scanty on substantial plotlines and good writing. My theory had been (and still is) that he probably was pressured to fulfill a contract and write x number of books a year. I fear that writing suffers under those circumstances, hence the drop-off ending that you’re talking about.

    • Unique perspective and you’re right, of course. Under a heavy book deadline I’m not sure I would be able to function. It would take so little to get you off track and behind schedule. The stress really shows in the final result.

  6. Grisham is the same for me. It’s like a band getting to the end of a song, and instead of a solid end, they just fall apart. The best bands I have ever heard are the ones who know how to end songs!

  7. Nothing worse than a limp ending, that’s for sure. Makes me feel let down and a little cheated. And yes, I’m referring to a weak book ending here. 🙂

  8. As a lover of the mystery genre, I do so agree with you.

    • Thank you Pat! It makes me wonder about the editing system someone like Grisham is using, to be so famous and not be catching something like this.

  9. I don’t think there’s much that’s easy about writing, but I’d have to say that an opening line that lures the reader in and a closing line that satisfies the reader have to be two of the more daunting tasks. If your can master those, you’ve got real talent. I know a lot has to happen in between, but getting the reader hooked and leaving them wanting to read more are critical to a writer’s success. Or so it would seem…

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  11. Oh Neeks. You’re so much kinder than I. I can’t stand Nicholas Sparks. And this sloppy writing of which you speak is the reason why I don’t read more than I should.

    I love the phrase “just melts away into a murky bad-ending-mist”. I wish I had a bad-ending-mist wand to use against evildoers.

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