Endings: How Much Can You Leave Hanging?

As I’m working on revisions for my current WIP, I’ve been musing over a question that’s occurred to me before:

As an unagented, unpublished author, how much can I leave hanging at the end of my manuscript if I have ideas for a series?

Unfortunately, I think the answer is: not much. When I wrote CAVEBOY, I intended for it to be a series. In fact, I originally planned it out with a three-book story arc. The more I learned about the industry, the more I realized that even though the bookstore shelves are covered with series and those are the books you hear everyone talking about, you can’t sell your book that way as a querying writer. The most common suggestion I see from agents is to say: “It’s a standalone book with series potential.”

What does that mean? My understanding is that you have to complete the main story. There can be some questions left unanswered, but nothing that’s going to drive a reader crazy if a sequel never comes. Once I learned this important lesson, I completely rewrote CAVEBOY into a complete story. I still had ideas for another story that could come after it, but no one reading CAVEBOY would feel like I’d left them hanging.

I didn’t have this issue with DUET because there’s nowhere else to go with that story after it ends. However, when I wrote the ending to my current WIP, it just begged for a cliffhanger. I know I’ll have to change it, but I wrote it that way in the first draft because I wanted to see how it played out.

I wonder how agents and editors know that a novel will be big enough they can go with the unfinished story in the first book. As I considered this point, I thought through some of the books I’ve read that are the first in a series and how much they left hanging. It’s been a while since I’ve read a few of these, so if I’m off on the ending, let me know.

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling – I think this book would have fit the “standalone with series potential” mold. He seems to vanquish Voldemort at the end, and most of the loose ends seem to be tied up. I highlight the word seem because obviously once you read the other books you know there was much more left hanging than you realized. I haven’t looked into Harry Potter’s publishing journey enough to know if it was bought as a series from the start. If anyone does know, please share!

TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyer – Here again I think the first book is fairly complete. Although it’s left with Bella still human, I assumed from the beginning that she’d eventually become a vampire. It’s the only thing that made sense if they stayed together. And while Harry Potter has more of the same theme throughout all the books, this series takes each book in a new direction. Each one had something I never anticipated from the previous books (vampire babies, anyone?).

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins – I felt like this one was much more of a cliffhanger. I actually have a funny story about this book. My husband’s coworker read the first book because his daughter had read it. He liked it but didn’t read on. Here’s the basic conversation I had with my husband:

Me: How could he not read the next one? It was a total cliffhanger!

Husband, after conferring with his coworker: He said it’s just about which guy she’ll end up with.

Me: What?! This book is so much more than a love story. You have to read it and then tell me what you think.

Husband, after reading: I see your point, but it’s still a love story.

Me, rolling eyes: Whatever.

I will say that my husband got totally into the books and read all of them. Going back to the story, though, I had to read CATCHING FIRE right away because I wanted to know what the consequences would be for the actions Katniss actions took to get them out of the Games. I never doubted which boy she’d end up with, so that was not the cliffhanger from my viewpoint. Moving on…

THE ACCIDENTAL HERO by Matt Myklusch – I’ll throw in one that everyone hasn’t read yet. I just picked up the third book in this series. I highly recommend the Jack Blank series and will do so more thoroughly in a couple of weeks with an MMGM review. I don’t know if this author sold more than one book from the beginning, but I did feel like the first book wrapped up pretty well. I had some questions I still wanted answered, but the story for that book was complete. That being said, I’m so glad there were more books and can’t wait to dive into this new one!

CINDER (THE LUNAR CHRONICLES) by Marissa Meyer – This book interests me because it’s by a debut author and yet she sold it as a series. That’s clear from the way the book ends. I’m not going to give anything away, but despite the novel’s basis in the classic Cinderella story, it’s no fairy tale, and Cinder’s story definitely isn’t over. I wonder what made it clear to the agent and editor that this story had the legs to carry multiple books. I’d like to tap into that :). The MATCHED trilogy by Ally Condie strikes me the same way. That first book had a major cliffhanger. For both of these, I almost wish I hadn’t read them before I could get the next one.

What are your thoughts on endings? How do you decide what you should wrap up and what you can leave hanging?

Responses to “Endings: How Much Can You Leave Hanging?”

  1. Jamie K

    This is a great post! It’s a tough topic. I’ve heard your book needs to have a definitive ending with most the loose ends tied up, but I’ve also seen quite a few debut authors sell series if is 2-3 books because publishers know series make money. From what I’ve seen it’s not impossible to sell a series as a debut author especially if it’s 2-3 books but your book should be able to stand on it’s own for the most part. And of course don’t assume you are the exception to the rule because you probably aren’t.

    • Michelle Mason

      I think that’s the trick. Write it so it does stand alone to start with. You could always change the ending in edits if a publisher sees the potential and buys it as a series.

  2. rinellegrey

    Interesting topic. As a self published author, I’m not so into what publishers are looking for, but as a reader and writer, I just have this urge to have most things tied up in some way. My current novel has a sequel (not sure if there will be more than one yet), but at the end of the book, things appear to be going well for my characters, but there is still a big event that they are leading into. The characters aren’t hanging so to speak, as the assumption is that everything is going to work out for them, but the hint is that there is still more to come.

    • Michelle Mason

      Thanks for sharing your perspective as a self-published author. I imagine that affects what you can do as far as endings go. I know what you mean about wanting most things tied up. You want people to be satisfied but still wanting more. It’s a tough balance.


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