On Fulfilling Obligations to Readers: my mistake and a dilemma

I watched Breaking Dawn, Part 2 this weekend. Without going into too much detail (for those of you who haven’t seen it and want to, you might want to skip to the next paragraph), suffice it to say that it contains a climactic scene that wasn’t in the book. The entire audience was riveted, gasping in a mixture of intrigue and horror, as the Twi-world changed before our eyes. Major characters died; the storyline careened way off-track. How could they do this? Where would they go from here? And then… it all turned out to just be a dream. A collective you’ve-got-to-be-kidding groan rose from the seats. We’d all just been cinematically sucker-punched.

And we did not appreciate it.

That got me thinking about similar responsibilities that writers have to their readers—to not sucker-punch them, and to properly fulfill their expectations—and a mistake that I’ve recently made.

I wrote a draft that turned out to be 750 pages. Because of the multiple climaxes, I knew I had at least two stories on my hands. When I initially cut it, at around 350 pages, the first book had a happy ending (even though there was still enough unresolved suspense to justify the next book).

But Rewrite Land gets confusing. You get feedback from agents and beta readers, you add, you subtract. You try to find the best way to hit the sweet spot for readers but still tell your own tale. Many incarnations later, the first 350 pages had mushroomed. As Stephen King says, “I’m a putter-inner.”

I’d added so much that I decided to chop it off at a cliffhanger (around what was now page 360) and flesh-out the remaining hundred pages into another book. But then an agent who’d read the synopsis of the first book said that it wouldn’t work for romance readers, “because your MC dies in the end.” I explained to her that she isn’t dead, just badly injured—which is where the second book begins. The agent then wrote back to me, saying that it was still too much of a thriller for her to try to sell, but that many readers, at least of the romance genre, would be ticked off to find out they’d just read an incomplete story, regardless of a follow-up sequel.

In fact, I’d just had that experience with two new beta readers who’d told me they didn’t like the cliffhanger ending; they wanted resolution. It was a good lesson for me: if you alienate your readers, you won’t be a very successful author.

So now I face a dilemma: I have a full of this MS out with another agent, but it has the cliffhanger ending. Do I (a) do the rewrite that I now think I should do, adding the last hundred pages back in, and nudge the agent with what will be a 450-500 page thrillerized romance? (I prefer that term to “romantic suspense.”) Or (b) just sit on it and hope the agent realizes I’m a new author, but my story has potential?

In the meantime, I’ve been working on other things, not this particular story. But I’m still in love with it, and I wish there was a way to get it off the ground!

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6 thoughts on “On Fulfilling Obligations to Readers: my mistake and a dilemma

  1. The series I’ve had published–‘The Last Watcher‘: shameless plug…;) –is in four parts, each having a sorta cliffhanger ending. But though the first episode did have that feature, it was written as a stand-alone short story. After accepting it, the publisher asked if I’d thought about doing a sequel. I did have half a notion of one follow-up story, but to my surprise, it took three more episodes to reach a conclusion.

    The second novel I finished–as yet unpublished; a small press publisher is currently looking at the first three chapters–purposely concludes with an epilogue that feeds directly into a sequel. I did that as a way to whet the readers appetite for more, and thus bring along an established audience on future works. I thought a publisher would appreciate that.

    I say all that to support your initial idea of breaking the complete story at a suspenseful point in the narrative. Yes, if it’s too abrupt–as I’ve always thought was the case with the second episode in my series–I can see how that might upset a reader. SOME resolution of something like a secondary plot line at the end of a first volume may be needed to soften that, while keeping the main, overall story line up in the air and hanging by an unraveling thread.

    Of course, the agent should know the business, and you should be able to trust their advice. But at the same time, trust your instincts. Maybe do a little tinkering with the ‘cliffhanger’ ending to ameliorate the tension … but only a bit. You want them wanting more. The publisher could make it plain that it’s a multi-part story TOO BIG FOR JUST ONE NOVEL! Trust the reader. If they go into it knowing that, they won’t mind waiting for the rest of the story.

    Best of luck! If you have someone actually looking at it, that’s half the battle…:)

    • Thanks, Doug (*link added in your post*). 😉 Your advice/encouragement means a lot; I admire your writing so much! It’s so hard to know what’s the right thing to do, when I’m not writing to a specific genre, but am touching a few. Thanks for helping support my initial ideas on this. I waffle back and forth between going back to fix that story and plowing forward with my new (unrelated) MS. I’ve had so many rejections that I’m not holding my breath anymore.

      Okay, who am I kidding? Yes I am. *sigh!*

  2. As a reader, if I come to a cliffhanger ending, as long as its well done, I’ll rush out to buy the next because I need resolution. I have had the experience of reading a story where the MC dies and I was devastated. There was no sequel, no happily ever after, and I tossed the book across the room. I was angry and unsatisfied. It was like watching Cold Mountian, getting all the way to the end, and Jude Law’s character dies. I was pissed.

    It sounds like your story is going in the direction of a ultimate HEA so what you’re doing seems necessary (is that the right word). If you can get a decent sequel out of the other part of the story you took off, the I say stick to your guns and wait it out.

  3. Thanks, CC! 🙂 I It’s so hard to know sometimes. And I wonder what the right thing to do is. But I absolutely love this story line. It completely consumed me for a year, and I STILL love it! I just wish I could get it off the ground. But, yeah, it is building to an ultimate Happily Ever After. Or, as Tolkien would put it, to a eucatastrophe. (I love that term!) 🙂

  4. If it has a good cliffhanger, I run right out to get the next one, or stress until it comes out. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a cliffhanger to get the same reaction though. You know I’m a big SK fan. Stephen Kings Green Mile series came out in 6 novelettes and I went nuts waiting for each one to be released. That was when the “internet” was still young, but Bulletin boards were busting with everyone’s thoughts of what was next. Each didn’t end with a cliffhanger, but because we knew there was more coming, it kept everyone chomping at the bit. Great way to release it and I’m sure they made more $ selling it in the bits and pieces than they would have from one book. The Stand would have been another he should have done that with. The publishing company made him cut 400-600 pages from it (yes, he gets windy sometimes, but I never mind because I fall in love with his characters) and its still one of my favorite books of all time. He re-released it at a later date in its “uncut” state and I loved it all over again and then some. He stated in the forward the re-release was primarily because he was pissed at the publisher for making him cut it to pieces and for the fans who wanted more. If he’d have broken it up into pieces (like the Green Mile) I’d been perfectly fine with that the first time around too, It was a long read and I couldn’t put it down.
    For me, it boils down to my love of the characters first and of course their story.
    Just reading your “For Love” and “For Country”, they leave me wanting more..there’s no cliffhanger so to speak, but you peak the interest in just the right way (character and story) to keep it interesting (and I know/hope there’s more coming)!
    Just your average “reader” comments …I’ve gotten quite diverse in my choices since books on cd…read some Steinway, Piccoult, Austen and others, but my favorites seem to be the “series” stories. I’ve wiped out Sookie, Harry Potter, Tolkein, Rice and now I’m on the 3rd and final book of the Hunger Games Trilogy. All of these writers are so different in style and the stories are all so different, but each one managed to keep me wanting the next book. Most were primarily due to my love of the characters and the want to know what’s going on next in their lives. ..I don’t know though, when I had a “closure/happy ending” with a first book. In the past, if I started a series that “ended” at each book and something else came out that peaked my interest I’d usually go to the new book (Rice’s LeStat Series). Eventually though I’d come back for the next installment. Granted I am not the populus though. Just because this is what I like, doesn’t mean everyone does it this way.
    Hope you find your way on this book. I know you’ve worked so hard on this! I look forward to reading it however you finally publish it! Hang in there Dawn!

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Kelly! (And for following my blog and story!) 🙂 You are very well-read — glad to hear you’ve been able to find time for non-audio-books lately. 😉 And you read very similarly to how I do. (I’m totally dying, waiting for the third “Discovery of Witches” book, by Deborah Harkness.) I just finished the 3rd Hunger Games book, too. It wasn’t my favorite series ever, but, you’re right: it totally kept me reading, and I had to ask myself, “Why do I care about these characters?” It’s something I’ve been working hard on trying to infuse into my own stories. I want to write the ones people can’t put down. I just keep second-guessing myself on what I’ve already written, and I need to stop doing that. Thanks for weighing in on this, Kell. You’re the best!

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