I’m not a hard-core TV fan, but I am utterly committed to Breaking Bad. With only two episodes left, I’m torn between relief at freedom from this obsession with an impeccable series that will never have to jump the shark, and sadness at the demise of a show that so brilliantly embodies every element of great storytelling, without fail, in every single episode.
I pause here to offer a spoiler alert. (1-2-3.) End of pause.
What do they have in common?
Two things: Cliffhangers and wildly committed fans. And, in most cases, no happily-ever-afters (HEAs), or at least, HEAs with caveats. Yeah, Harry conquered Voldemort, but his HEA is relative. Even after vanquishing the Dark Lord, Harry never knew his wonderful parents. Nor did his kids. He still lost Sirius, Dumbledore, Fred, Hedwig, and … well, you get the point. If Harry Potter had a happy ending, I’m glad it’s his and not mine. (Full disclosure: I am a devout and vociferous HP fan.)
As a relative newcomer to the world of indie lit and an eager student of it, the vitriol I’ve observed about cliffhangers and the obsession with HEAs utterly baffles me. And it makes me wonder exactly what we’re looking for in indie lit (and I realize, we all look for different things in entertainment. That’s what makes us each, ya know, individual).
As I read reviews, the anti-cliffhanger, rabid-HEA mindset strikes me as almost a pack mentality of questionable durability. I wonder – honestly and in good faith – if we’re demanding Hershey bars in indie lit. I’ve devoured every Hershey bar I’ve ever possessed with relish and delight, but I’ve never really thought about any particular Hershey bar ever again.
Two weeks ago, there was a gratifying scene in Breaking Bad, where Hank – a damn good man and the finest DEA agent ever to walk this earth – finally has Walt in handcuffs. At last, he’s nailed his very human, very deceptive, very demented brother-in-law. Hank calls his wife, Marie, with the good news. He ends the conversation with, “I gotta go. It may be a while before I get home. I love you.”
In that moment, I knew Hank was a goner. He’d be brutally murdered any minute.
But he didn’t die in that episode.
Sure enough, Hank was murdered this week. Yes, I tuned in, knowing that a gruesome death awaited the good guy, and I presumed (correctly) that his loyal crime-fighting partner Gomez would be murdered right alongside him. No HEA in sight.
How morbid! How horrid! But why wouldn’t I watch? It’s great storytelling, and a cliffhanger or lack of HEA doesn’t change that; it enhances it! It builds suspense. It keeps us invested. It makes us say, “OMG! What next?”
Time isn’t the issue. The series may air weekly, but there was a time when electricity didn’t exist but books did. Time itself hasn’t changed. Our attention spans have, accompanied by a fierce demand for relatively immediate gratification. It’s all still media. It’s all still storytelling.
There are plenty of great stories that can be told in one volume, or even in a short story. I’m not saying great writing must have a cliffhanger or no HEA. From Disney to Austen to Harlequin Romances to Shakespeare, literature is full of great storytelling that can be wrapped up in one tidy package with a very satisfying HEA.
What I am saying is that cliffhangers don’t invalidate great storytelling, and HEAs don’t make it. Sometimes, they even ruin it. My life is much better because Breaking Bad and Harry Potter were in it. And nothing annoys me more than a story with an ending I don’t believe, even if it’s the ending I wanted.
I worry that these cliffhanger/HEA obsessions also threaten some extraordinarily talented writers. You will find undiscovered Vince Gilligans and J.D. Salingers and J.K. Rowlings and Pat Conroys and Toni Morrisons in indie lit. I fear these fan obsessions might scare them away from honesty to their craft.
As indie authors, I urge you to tell your story, from your heart, from your soul, from your mind, from your fingertips. Do not pander to your audience. Honor your characters and their journeys. And remember, life is messy. And if literature isn’t about life, what is?
As indie readers, I urge you to try to crawl a bit into the writer’s mind through her words and her plot and her character development. Look for clues (like, “I gotta go. It might be a while before I get home. I love you.”). Look for more than a Hershey bar – the yummy but predictable formulaic recipe — and dig for the take-away. You may not find it wrapped in a neatly tied ribbon, but oh! When you find that ribbon and open that pretty package, you’ll probably find a gift that will stay in your hearts and minds and Kindles forever.
Even if it’s not what you’d hoped for.