Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Publisher: Random House
Released: Sept 11, 2012
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Publisher: Random House
Released: Sept 11, 2012
Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met... a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend, runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.
But all that changes when the Lynburns return.
The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined to find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him?
I Shot The Sheriff (But I Did Not Throw The Deputy Over A Cliff) by Sarah Rees Brennan
Cliffhangers, What They Are, Why I Like Them… & Why I Don’t Think I Wrote One…
Cliffhangers. What is a cliffhanger, when it’s at home? (If you are at home on the very edge of a cliff, my suggestion is: Move.)
It’s not someone actually hanging from a cliff. Okay, it is someone actually hanging from a cliff when it was Charles Dickens, and that’s where we get the word cliffhanger from.
It was also someone hanging from a cliff in Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes. A lady has to strip off to her underwear and fashion a rope out of her dress and petticoats to haul the poor guy up. Then they embrace while the lady is shockingly unclothed! Word is that Thomas Hardy wrote this book on a bet.
But mostly, a cliffhanger means that the audience is left in suspense, and the characters are left in danger.
Dickens wrote in a time of serial fiction, when you would end on a cliffhanger and be super excited to get the next bit in a few months (if it was a quarterly magazine, say, you’d get a chunk of a book four times a year). Fiction doesn’t work that way anymore… unless you’re talking TV shows. Or, to a lesser degree, a book series.
A girl I know said recently ‘I’m into some super hardcore no safe word stuff… when it comes to fiction.’ She wasn’t talking about Fifty Shades of Grey (I mean I don’t think… no harm if she was!) she meant that she liked to have her heart hurt when she was watching or reading something.
I think a lot of people do. Books are about terrible things happening to people: the Hunger Games is called, well, the Hunger Games, not Katniss and Prim’s Fun Day Out At the Park Kept Safe By A Benevolent But Not Intrusive Government And Featuring No Death-Defying Situations At All. And that’s okay—bad things happening are exciting, they’re not happening to real people, and they keep us turning the pages. But then the last page comes.
Endings are tricky, and so are people’s responses to them.
So I wrote this book called Unspoken, and some people have some very strong feelings about the ending! But I’ll get back to me…
Look at the Hunger Games: the first book ends with, well, one bad situation resolved, but the main threat still looming, and the main characters in a bad emotional place with each other. Is it a cliffhanger? Well, I didn’t think so… but we could always have a vote!
Notably, in the movie the bad emotional place the characters are in is downplayed enormously, because people like a ‘win’ at the end of a movie.
Wanting a ‘win’ is no bad thing, but it can turn bad if it doesn’t make emotional sense. I would say the ending of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is a cliffhanger: the book ends on the heroine doing something dangerous, and someone innocent has just been murdered by someone we didn’t expect to start doing murders of the innocent! We are all very upset! However, in the movie of the book, The Golden Compass, in order to get the ‘win’, the story cuts off just before the murder of the innocent. Which left the story in a weird place, and all those who had read the book feeling disoriented: left the murderer-to-be-in-five-minutes frozen in time, for all time, as a hero.
Movies are big business, and I totally understand that they have to make the commercial decision of the happier ending. But I always think it’s cool, and brave, to end in the place that’s right.
But how can you tell which place is right? Some endings aren’t cliffhangers, but they’re still terribly sad endings, and that’s okay (I mean, I think, this is all personal opinion)… if it’s the right ending for the book.
But obviously, some kinds of endings aren’t OK—some endings break the unspoken compact between reader and writer. We’ve all read books and felt righteously angry about the ending.
So let’s discuss what kinds of unresolved endings are OK, in my opinion (and obviously, my word is not law, I am not the queen of cliffhangerlandia, unless someone wants to present me with a sparkly tiara shaped like a cliff edge… anyone? No? No, that’s cool…)
It’s not OK to write a book that says: well, not that much happened in this book, we cut off right where things were getting interesting, hope you enjoyed this book-long trailer for book two! A book should tell a story complete in itself, a book should always have fun and interesting stuff in it, and a book should obey its rules: should fulfill the promise it makes to the reader.
For instance, Unspoken is a Gothic mystery. The mystery in this novel is twofold: a) what the hell is the spooky family in the sinister manor’s DEAL, and b) who is doing all these murders?
I felt like I would be cheating my readers if I did not tell them what was up, and who dunnit. And I did.
I did not, however, feel like I had to remove the danger from my characters’ lives, or feel like I had to leave them in a good place emotionally. This is a trilogy, after all… if everything is wrapped up in book one, what are we doing with the next two books?
There are rules for this sort of thing. In a mystery novel, you find out who dunnit. In a romance novel, the main couple have to get together. In a literary novel, you come to some realisation about the meaning of life. (Possibly that life is meaningless.)
I also feel that you can’t have a fake-out cliffhanger: whatever you have put out there to horrify your readers, you can’t go ‘lol sorry takesies backsies.’ It’s not OK to end with ‘WHO COULD BE OUTSIDE THE DOOR?! WHAT DREAD EVIL AWAITED?!’ and start the next book with ‘Hello chaps,’ said Freddie. ‘I wondered if I could borrow a cup of sugar?’
If you make the reader expect something, you have to pay it off. You can’t put the cliffhanger on the mantelpiece and not use it. There have to be real consequences for something you made your readers really care about. (And in Untold, I promise there will be. ;))
And of course, in every book, the characters have to make emotional sense. Which doesn’t mean the characters can never surprise you. But it has to be the kind of surprise when you look back on who they are and what they have done previously, and go: yes, actually that does make sense. The writer has to play fair.
So, I said I like cliffhangers—I like bad things to happen, I like a brave choice, I like my heart to hurt over fictional people, for a bit! Let’s have an example of a real cliffhanger.
Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning ends on a cliffhanger: the heroine vilely imprisoned, one of her comrades dead, the others in imminent peril she cannot warn them about! And then the book just ends! You want to shake it until more story falls out. Readers, among them myself, were horrified and stricken. I personally basically assaulted a bookseller with an advance copy. Yep, I stole the sequel. Not sorry!
Notably, when the second book in the series, the Awakening, came out, it hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. I’m just saying, obviously some people like cliffhangers OK. And I am among them.
As I mentioned above, books are about torment, and dreadful things happening to people. You sit there going ‘Augh, my BABY! Oh no, what will happen next? I am so embarrassed I want to DIE! Oh no please don’t! Oh yes please do! Kiss, kiss, kiss! OH NO SAVE MY BABIES!’ (Oh, um, you guys don’t do that? It’s just me? Excuse me, I’ve, uh, just remembered that I have an appointment…)
I remember being at a party with Cassandra Clare and Holly Black: Cassie was thinking about reader response to the end of her book that had just come out, Clockwork Prince.
CASSIE: They’re all really upset!
HOLLY: Of course they’re upset! You made them upset. You did it on purpose. You took their hearts, and you turned them into ice, and you CRUSHED them, and you poured the crushed ice into a martini glass, and then you MADE THEM DRINK IT!!!!!SARAH: Would that be called a heartini…?
Everybody threw napkins at me, as I recall.
But I also recall thinking, gosh, what an amazing compliment all those people being really upset is! Over a story, over people you made up in your head. I thought to myself, it would be great if I got to upset people that much someday.
I did it to myself, you see…
I didn’t think Clockwork Prince, the second book of a trilogy, ended on a cliffhanger either. Danger is lurking but not imminent, and nobody has a big decision to make or anything: but at least one character is Very Upset, and the readers are upset for them. And that, to me, is wonderful.
I did something… a bit like that. In that nobody is in immediate danger, but at least one person is very, very sad. How to explain this without spoiling it? I wanted to have a situation that was untenable, in which something had to break, and in which people, being who they were, could do nothing else in this situation than what they do. The whole book shows the situation spiralling out of control, until something had to give, and showed that things would not go well once it did. It felt like the only right ending.
A lot of people reacted very strongly to the book. And I have to say, I really liked that! The opposite of love is not hatred, it is apathy and indifference: you never, ever want to write the book that makes people go ‘Eh. It was… whatsface… it was okay, I guess. *yawn*’
And many people seem to have, not to be toot my own pain-causing horn, quite enjoyed themselves. Just today I was vouchsafed this kind tribute via my twitter:
@sarahreesbrenna is a brilliant evil reader torturer extraordinaire. She makes me scream in delight and crushes my heart simultaneously.
I have also been called evil, and asked ‘what is wrong with you!... in a good way.’ I’ve never had this kind of reaction before and I SUPER appreciate it! People have even made warning posters.
I have taken to representing myself on tumblr as a succession of Disney’s evil queens. It’s fun, the shared pain for characters but also the knowledge that, well, it’s cool to have so many feelings about fiction, and to have other people share it with you. (Even if what my beauteous readers are sharing is… how I have tormented them…)
Unspoken is not a fairytale romance. There’s a lot of potential romance, and the book was written because I was thinking about ideas and ideals of romance, and how characters fit together, but they’re mostly seventeen, messed up and still at the beginning of their emotional journey. Some people are going to want to travel the long road with them and see where they end up, some people aren’t, and that’s okay! Some people, when upset by a book, are going to just go ‘NO, BAD, TERRIBLE, AWFUL, NO GOOD!’ They’re mad because, wow, you UPSET them… and that’s a great compliment! (Even though sometimes it makes you sit and fret about your book!)
Here’s the thing: you can’t write your book to please people, you can’t write it to be commercial. (I mean I guess you can do both those things but I think it’s a bad idea personally. Everyone else: YOU’RE a bad idea personally, Sarah Rees Brennan.) You have to write the story you feel called to tell, be as true to it as you can be, and try to make people feel like it’s true.
Seeing people have feeeeeelings about the end of Unspoken makes me feel like I did something right.
What we all want, we think as we read books, is for everything to work out and for everyone to be happy. But we’re lying to ourselves: if that happened, the story would be over. (Not that I don’t believe in characters being happy and having fun sometimes, because as you can perhaps tell at this point, I would make jokes at a funeral, and until characters make me laugh they can never make me cry.) You can end in a happy place. You can end in a sad place. You should end with some answers. But everything being neatly tied up shouldn’t happen in book one, unless it’s the only book there will ever be. Even then, while there are some things you need to tie up, not everything has to be tied up: you want the sense that life will keep happening.
The sense of danger must not disappear.
The suspense is terrible, I think in the words of Oscar Wilde, as I hang from my cliff. I hope it will last.
Whether you like cliffhangers or not, and what you think is a cliffhanger, is up to you. Whether you think the ending of Unspoken is a cliffhanger, and if you like it… well, you’ll have to read it and let me know.
A huge thank you to Sarah for her time! I hope you all enjoyed reading this post as much as I did. What are your thoughts on cliffhangers? And if you've read Unspoken, what did think about the ending? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below - just keep them spoiler-free!