A hypothetical question for fiction lovers

My post rebutting Neil Gaiman spawned a lot of comments and a lot of good debate. It’s always eye opening when issues you feel are self-evident wind up being very much open to different interpretations with other people.

So I’ve devised a little test to peer into your minds to see how you tick. 🙂

Let’s imagine a hypothetical situation.

Assume a writer self-publishes (just to take the publisher out of the equation and make the example cleaner). He writes Book 1 of a new fantasy series. You pay your $25 for it, and you find that he’s a good writer, his characters feel really alive, his world is interesting and he poses a lot of intriguing questions. The end of the book is a classic cliffhanger with no resolutions…

Two years pass, and the next book he publishes is Book 1 of a different new fantasy series. You pay your $25 and find that once again, his writing is technically very good, his characters are well written, this new world is interesting and he poses a lot of intriguing questions. And again, a huge cliffhanger ending, no resolutions, no closure.

Two years go by, and he self-publishes a third book and it is Book 1 of a third new fantasy series. You know the drill — you pay your $25 and find the writing is good, characters are good, world is interesting, no closure, cliffhanger ending.

Another two years goes by and he self-publishes his 4th book, and it is book 1 of a fourth new fantasy series.

My question is: would you buy it?

And it is only fair that I be the first one to answer. And I absolutely would not buy it (in fact I probably would’ve stopped after book 2). An unfinished story gnaws at my soul — that’s just the way I’m wired. It’s like an itch that I just can’t scratch, and if an author indicates to me that he isn’t going to be finishing his stories, I won’t put myself through the self-inflicted torment I’d endure, no matter how great the author is. It just isn’t worth it to me.

There are more great books out there than I have life enough left to read, and more are being published every day. I literally don’t have time to read everything I’d like to read, so I’m always looking for reasons to filter out a particular author, and this is an easy filter for me.

If you’re in the same boat, you *probably* could at least see my point in my Gaiman post (even if you didn’t agree with it). If you think my answer is bizarre, then you probably thought my Gaiman post was off the wall. But maybe this’ll give you a glimpse into how I come to the conclusions that I did?

Anyway, I’d love comments on this. Am I just part of the lunatic fringe on this, or do most people like the closure of having cliffhanger endings followed up on?

17 thoughts on “A hypothetical question for fiction lovers

  1. I suppose it depends. If I know what I’m getting into, and know the writing for what I get is going to be great, then probably I would. A cliff hanger is a little annoying the moment the book ends, but then it leaves the story open to me to finish, which I am entirely capable of.

    On the other hand I would certainly understand if a large group of other people were simply frustrated with the author.

    I know how hard it is to get creative energy flowing in the direction you want it to flow, so I tend to give the creators of artistic endeavors a great deal of latitude. Of course, they have to prove that they were creative in the first place, but your example does fit that bill.

  2. Someone famous once said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, uh…” elect the first black President. Or, something like that. Obviously, I’m a tattered tassel on the lunatic fringe.

    Kudos to no longer allowing Gaiman to define the argument.

  3. I probably wouldn’t. Waiting for the next in a series is always frustrating. My favorite thing to do is wait until the whole series is out, then read them.

  4. No, I wouldn’t buy the fourth introductory novel. I am not adventurous enough to start a new series on the first book. I’d have to know that the author has written at least two or more books in the series, that the series is still being worked on (if it’s not completed, meaning it’s not an abandoned series), and I’d have to seriously evaluate whether the book is right for me. So maybe I’m not quite the target audience for this hypothetical question.

  5. I’m often, but not always, in Werit’s camp. I waited to read the Harry Potter books until they were all out; although I’ve fallen by the wayside and still haven’t read the final two books. I remember jumping on board… was it Ed Greenwood? who started a new series so I snagged Book 1 and… I still to this day don’t know if he ever continued it or not. If Book 2 ever (or already has) comes out, I would have to go back and read Book 1 just to remember what the hell it’s all about. I picked up Book 1 of C. L. Wilson’s “Tairen Soul” series and was so enthralled with it that I was counting the days until each book in the trilogy came out so I could continue the story. On a whim a few days ago, I checked her material on Amazon to learn she has a fourth book in the series coming next month, so I made my first-ever book pre-order.

    Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series is another headache. The first book was excellent then the second book took forever. At least he told us it would be delayed because it turns out he works best alone rather than in direct collaboration. According to Amazon, the third book has in fact been written but it’s import-only currently, and unavailable. Aggravating. On the other hand, to go back to the first post, I don’t feel Mr. Koontz “owes” me that third novel, whether or not it already exists.

    Without having been on the professional side myself, I can’t help but think that fiction-writing is similar to blogging. At some point we feel we “owe” another article, either to ourselves or to our readers. But is that quite the same as a social contract? Or more of a self-imposed moral obligation to continue what we’ve started, be it solely for our own sake or for the sake of others who’ve invested their hearts and minds into our creation?

  6. @Sara Pickell : “A cliff hanger is a little annoying the moment the book ends, but then it leaves the story open to me to finish, which I am entirely capable of.”

    Well, in that case, why spend the money on a book at all? Why not just imagine the entire tale?

    @Scott et al: See, I often wait until a series is complete, too, because if it never gets completed, I’m not going to buy into it.

    So when I *do* invest early, I do think the author owes me at least the intent of finishing. I guess that part is where I stand alone. Honestly I find it unseemly to start selling part of a work unless you’re very confident you can finish it.

    I wouldn’t actually put Harry Potter in this class of books because (well, I’m extrapolating, I only read the first one) each volume stands alone. When I finished the first Harry Potter novel I felt like I’d been told a complete story. I didn’t feel like I *needed* the next book for closure.

    When I finished the last Song of Fire & Ice volume I read (#3) I about felt like flinging it out the window because it felt so incomplete and I knew the 4th (and at the time, final) volume wasn’t nearly ready. Then when Martin finally said “OK the good news is #4 is done, the bad news is it isn’t the last one any more, there’s going to be a #5” it kind of chaffed. I’d learned my lesson though, and didn’t buy #4, and at this point it’s been so long that I can’t even remember what was going on, so I’d have to start back at #1 again if he ever completes the series.

    Scott, when you say:

    “Or more of a self-imposed moral obligation to continue what we’ve started, be it solely for our own sake or for the sake of others who’ve invested their hearts and minds into our creation?”

    that’s really what I’m talking about… maybe we’re getting too hung up on terms. Owe or social contract or moral obligation… to me those are all saying the same basic thing. That the author “should” finish the work for the sake of those who’ve invested their hearts and minds (and dollars, for that matter) into your creation, and in doing so have helped you (the author) to continue doing what you are doing.

    Like I said maybe in the other post, if no one had ever read a Harry Potter book, JK Rowling would still be living on welfare instead of being the 12th richest woman in Britain (according to Wikipedia). The people who bought her books contributed heavily to that happening (combined, of course, with her skill at writing and the work of her publisher in marketing the books).

  7. @Pete
    Because theoretically I bought books 1 through 3, so theoretically I’d enjoy the writers writing. But more honestly, because I’m a voracious consumer of all forms of content.

    To some degree I feel like waiting for a whole series to release is just depriving yourself of the good writing to be had. I mean anything else isn’t a sure bet, but do you really need a sure bet. Do you really NEED a full three book series in order to enjoy even part of a good story?

    If there was any reason I wouldn’t buy book 4, it’s just because I’d be frustrated the author hasn’t accepted that their real gift seems to be in crafting the opening and they should really be handing their series off to other authors they trust to finish. But if they are a good author, why not enjoy their writing, unless their writing is also going downhill in which case I’m not sure I’d want them to butcher their own IPs anyways.

    And before you bring it up, I realize you’re talking about cliff hangers. That doesn’t really change my opinion other than that I usually consider cliff hangers to just be bad writing anyways.

  8. This is an interesting post, so you’ve drawn me in to make my own comments. Good work! 😀

    While I understand a writer’s need to stay motivated and keep working on fresh material, I don’t think a writer should jump around on series’ for some of the very statements made already. There’s often an itch to try something else out after publishing a book, but I think it’s the responsibility of the author to keep themselves from at least PUBLISHING something else before they’ve completed their “promised series” — though they should feel free to start WRITING. Writing something else is their choice, but keeping their series flowing to the public is just good marketing; it would be silly to work on two at a time.

    With all this said, publishing MORE than two at a time is even moreso ludicrous! This, to me, clearly demonstrates an inability to finish a project. For those of you who have ever RP’d in any game format, this is equivelant to the gamemaster who is always having you make new characters and start a new adventure that’s supposed to be the first part of a grand campaign. You have fun on the first adventure, and your next gaming session you’re ready for the continuance. When you get together the second time however, you find yourself making a new character, dropping the old one, and jumping into a whole new campaign. Now imagine yourself doing this four times in a row! I wouldn’t go past 3 in a gaming format, because 3 forms a pattern (this is my rule of thumb for anything actually). For a book series though, having little time to read, and with so many choices out there, I wouldn’t even start on a second series unless I was done with the first.

    Therefore, no, I would not pick up a fourth or fifth start from a good writer if he/she was unable to complete any of these intended series. This, for me, would take the writer out of the “good” category for me.

  9. I’ll go ahead an jump in here because this is a fun conversation. Stipulating to all of the above, yes I would buy a fourth first book. If I liked an author’s book enough to buy three books with cliffhanger ending, he or she is a known quantity to me. I’d understand that these aren’t really series at all.

    The problem for would have been that third book. I’d really have to love an author to be sold on it. 🙂

    I also have a question I’ve been formulating for you. I was wondering if this social contract works two ways. If you have obligated an author whose first book you’ve purchased to finish that series, are you now obligated to purchase those remaining books? I can see reasons why you might answer either way; just curious which way you’ll go.

  10. @Anjin — I would feel obligated to consider purchasing further volumes, although “obligated” is a pretty strong term. This is a lot more hazy since there are thousands of me and only 1 of the author, so I feel more like “the audience” is obligated to continue to buy. But of course you can’t assign obligation to an unrelated group like “the audience” so things get really hazy.

    This assumes the author is putting out a quality product. And though I’ve never said so outright, the author’s obligation to me only applies if the book sold. If the book sold so poorly that the author’s hard work wasn’t compensated then I don’t think he ‘owes’ me a part 2. I’ll still be disappointed, but I could understand the circumstances.

    It also isn’t a wholly symmetrical question: the author instigated the exchange by choosing to write and publish his book (ok the Publisher actually is who ultimately decided to publish, but the author wanted it published). I’m not 100% sure that is relevant.

    But if an author writes part 1 of a series, and 1,000,000 people buy it, it gets reviewed well, makes best seller lists, etc, causing the author to quit his/her day job in order to get part 2 out asap, and when part 2 comes out, no one buys it — it’s hard to blame individual purchasers, but the situation would certainly feel unfair to me. If that makes sense.

    This is also kind of a hard question for me to answer honestly because I know myself: if I read Part 1, I will almost certainly buy the rest of the story every time. I’m a little compulsive about that. In fact, as often as not I’ll buy an entire series at once, before I’ve even read book 1. So it’s hard for me to objectively imagine not buying the rest.

    Er, hopefully that makes sense, I’m at work and typing this comment a few words at a time 🙂

  11. I’d buy. I’m picky; if I’m enjoying the writing as well as you say I am, then I’m in for another story.

    Even if the author chooses not to give me his ending, my imagination is ripe enough I can supply my own endings.

    When it would start to bother me and I’d stop buying is when the writing ceased to be compelling and entertaining in and of itself.

    I don’t think writers owe me anything, particularly when there are publishers and editors standing in the way between me and the writer in many cases. I think it’s a privilege to get a glimpse into a gifted writer’s brain and I’m happy to take what I can get.

    And honestly, dearest Peter, knowing you the way I do I’m actually a little surprised you feel so strongly on the side of entitlement. I’m sure you’ve put yourself in the writer’s shoes during this argument, but I have a hard time picturing you not resenting clammoring masses shouting at you about how they’re entitled to the third installment of your series, making it that much harder for you to even want to write, let alone write the third installment. You’ve really mellowed a lot if that’s no longer one of your hot buttons. 🙂

  12. @Gwyn — Well honestly, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t be the kind of writer that would leave readers hanging like that (honestly if I ever stopped writing a single story, I’d never get back to it). Remember, we’re not talking about something like Harry Potter, we’re talking about the kind of series where the book you’re reading stops but the plot doesn’t.

    But I’m glad you commented because there’s 1 thing you and I are complete opposites about, and I wonder if there’s any relationship here. You don’t care a fig about spoilers; in fact iirc there are times where you even like to know what’s coming in advance. I get mad as hell when somebody spoils a plot.

    I realize there’s no direct relationship between feelings about spoilers and whether or not we’d buy a 1/3rd written story, but there’s some tickle in the back of my mind that somewhere there’s a common thread between the two concepts.

  13. Yes, you remember right — I generally don’t mind spoilers. In fact, it ups my anticipation of getting to see an episode, or read a book, or experience whatever it is having listened to someone’s excited chatter about same. Or even disappointment, it doesn’t ruin my experience either way, but rather spurns me to getting to it more quickly (or feeling more frustrated if I can’t get to it quickly, that’s maybe the only negative).

    In terms of your illustration though, I’m not feeling the tickle or making the connection. I don’t think it’s as simple as our age-old “me optimist, you pessimist” conundrum, though maybe there’s a smidge of that in the mix as well. Do I see not minding spoilers the same as not minding unfinished stories? Hmmm… the thread in there is maybe the quality? Remember, you said this is a story that I, the reader, have really liked full of life and interesting people and places that draw me in and make me love it. Spoilers are the same to me as someone who’s read this book before me and raved about what a great place it was, also a spoiler. The closest analogy I have to this is the Lord of the Rings movies, as the RR Martin series left me cold at book one — I think he’s a crap writer and didn’t buy book two in the first place, personally.

    But the LotR trilogy — you might even remember this — I watched the first movie when it came out on DVD and I was really, REALLY mad where it ended. I think that’s the most frustrated I’ve ever been with any story ending, and I already knew what happened next since I’d read the books. Because it was quality. It had me immersed and being yanked from the immersion was maddening. It didn’t matter I knew what happened next, for the next 24 to 48 hours, I wanted the next installment NOW. But even with that, I’m not sure I would have felt like Jackson owed me the next installment. Which maybe isn’t the same as a writer owing a next installment, but it feels the same to me. Same with Star Trek — I want Abrams to do another movie, but does he owe me one because I enjoyed the first so much? No cliffhanger ending, which takes it out of your example logic, but still it was really quality. And I love a quality escape into someone else’s mind regardless of the medium. Maybe that’s the real crux — having your pleasure points so neatly pushed, then having the crushing reality on top of it there’s no more pleasure coming from where that came from?

    Which goes in circles around nothing constructive, but maybe there’s a glint of something in there that tickles your tickle. 😀

  14. Let me see if I can verbalize the tickle…

    OK at the risk of sounding really coarse, having a story told to me is a little like sex. Doesn’t matter how the story is being conveyed… book, movie, game. It’s all a big long anticipation build up to that pay off at the end. When I get to the end of the last page of the story and I’m just overcome with this “afterglow” and find myself floating along in a kind of high, thinking back of everything that transpired along the journey.

    For you (I’m theorizing, feel free to tell me I’m way off base) a story is more like a road trip. There’s a destination, sure, but you really enjoy the journey. So if you never get to the destination, it’s no biggie.

    Which still isn’t tying into the spoiler thing really, except that for me, the ending, and more specifically the reveal of the ending, is what makes the entire journey pay off. So if I know what the ending is, it diminishes the experience for me. And of there simply is no ending, I feel completely cheated.

  15. Mmmm… sex… [mind wanders blissfully]

    Yep, totally agree — for me the payoff is in the process, not in a satisfactory conclusion. To continue with your sex analogy — you know, since you brought it up and all, and who am I to argue with a good analogy? — the build is the best. I’d much prefer to spend hours squirming and squealing and laughing and crying and screaming and howling and panting and begging even knowing there would be no ultimate satisfaction, then get a few minutes of all that and a promise there’d be an orgasm. I don’t need the orgasm to feel like I got my money’s worth — I’ll take the hot wild deeply thrilling ride over that every time. Even if it means dealing with a little frustration and disappointment at the end. Afterglow is a bit depressing to me, actually… I’m happier “ending” with the anticipation of going again, not rolling over and falling asleep. So even if the author, or the lover, wants to do something else this time rather than continue the current story, I’m game. Assuming the ride will be as wickedly delicious as the last time… fail me on that, and my legs are crossed while I seek out a new author to play with.

    Hmmm… seem to be mixing my delusions there, hee! 🙂

  16. With this example the author would be in the wrong. He or she should have completed the first book series before publishing a second let alone a third or fourth series. I’m not saying the author shouldn’t keep writing or working on other projects, but they shouldn’t publish anything other than the second book of the first series, or, if they wanted they could put out a companion piece or short story about the first series as background, but never start another series. If they did publish something completely different it would be obvious that they don’t intend to finish the first series and that their attempted at getting the readers to come hither to the second series is just a rouse to get more money out of an unsuspecting audience.

    There is no loyalty to the readers or the fan base. just my opinion. Course the exception is Charlene Harris who does work on several series at once, but each book is self contained and doesn’t end in any cliffhanger.

    I’m not sure this applies to the previous argument though. Yes, you should be angry, upset and disappointed with any author that lets you down, but they still have the right to be late with product, because they don’t truly answer to you, they answer to the publisher and themselves. And you as an unhappy fan can refuse to purchase their next product, but that won’t stop it from making a crap load of money, especially when other people are chomping at the bit to get their hands at it.

  17. In your example I would’ve stopped after the second book. When the third book came out and it was not a continuation of either of the first two series, I would’ve given up on the author. I never started the Wheel of Time books because I was waiting for the series to finish, and at this point I don’t plan to ever start it. I picked up the first three books in Fire and Ice assuming it was a complete trilogy. I bought A Feast for Crows when it came out on paper back, but I haven’t read it yet and I probably won’t until the series is finished. I can’t bring myself to re-enter Martin’s world when I’m not sure that the major plot lines will ever be resolved.

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