First thing you should know: I'm writing the first book in a trilogy and I'm at that beautiful moment where I'm ending it. I know exactly how I want to end it BUT there's one problem. I've been reading a lot of comments where people say they absolutely hate cliffhangers. They say that it's only a ploy that authors use to get you to buy the next novel. My book ends on a cliffhanger and honestly, there's no other way I feel I can end it. Is it really that bad to end your novel with a cliffhanger? Am I a bad author if I do end it with a cliffhanger?
Write it the way you feel it should be written.
However, I would then finish the entire trilogy before finding an agent and shopping it to publishers or publishing it yourself. That way you can either promise your self-pub readers that the next two books are coming, or let your agent pitch that it's a finished trilogy. (I can't see a publisher taking on something so obviously ending in a cliffhanger if the other two books aren't completed.)
I remember at least one book in David Eddings's Belgariad series ending on an absolute cliffhanger, so it's not like it can't ever be done. But the Belgariad was sold as a trilogy and re-broken into five books, so the publisher bought the entire series at a shot.
Unless readers know they've picked up a trilogy or a book in a story arc, most will find a cliffhanger ending unsatisfying and wonder why the author didn't finish the story. As most television show episodes, motion pictures, novels and short stories have a clear beginning-middle-end, readers have become accustomed to tales that follow such a plot line.
If you wish to open the way for a sequel, consider structuring your novel so it completes one story that is part of a larger tale. For example, a trilogy might be about an unlikely band of characters going on a quest. To complete the first part of the journey, they must overcome some major obstacle that cements them together as a team. This leaves an opening for them to pick up their quest in progress in the next novel, which has them overcome a specific goal necessary for them to continue their journey (Perhaps to reach a specific spot they must solve some large puzzle). The third novel would follow this pattern by following another specific adventure in the quest. Indeed, most of the original King Arthur stories about the quest for the Holy Grail were written using this structure – as self-contained stories that each bring the characters a little closer to achieving their overall goal.
One possibility for including the cliffhanger in a novel is to add as an epilogue. Once the segment of the heroes’ adventure has been completed in the novel’s chapters, the epilogue is an extra that doesn’t feel tacked on but opens the ways for a sequel.
To get a novel with a cliffhanger to not end that way, you’ll likely need to add the solution to the cliffhanger in one last chapter. That may require editing some sections out of the story to prevent it from being too long. In a worst-case scenario, you may need to revisit the story’s plot and revise it so it contains a self-contained story.
The whole trilogy fad started with the Lord of the Rings being published in three volumes instead of one as its author intended, because of post war paper shortage and to keep down the price (of one single "book").
A trilogy in this original sense is one book that is so long that publishing it in one volume is impractical. Its story runs smoothly through all three volumes, as if the text was undivided.
Only recently have trilogies been planned as marketing strategy: write one great book that ends in mid story so readers are left hooked. Then publish two mediocre volumes that consist mostly of boring filler and a weak or irritating end.
From the marketing practice today it follows that
trilogies must end with a cliffhanger!
Otherwise the bad reviews of the second and third volume will keep your readers from buying them. Only the cliffhanger forces them to pay for that s**t despite their better judgement.
Or in other words:
Any literary work should be composed as a whole. If you plan to write a trilogy, think of the story arch as stretching from the fist page until page 10.000. Consequently the arc of suspence should increase over all three volumes, and the climax and the resolution of the great mystery should happen close to the end of the last volume.
If you think in the three act structure or the hero's journey or Schneyders beats or whatever, they must be spread across the three volumes equally. Do not use up all your ideas and plot twists in the first volume. Instead, make the second volume more intense than the fist, and the third volume a veritable emotional bomb. The first volume is the first act. It ends with the point of no return, not with the final battle between hero and antagonist.
If you write your first volume as both first part of a trilogy and a standalone novel, the second and third volumes will disappoint. Only if you allow your first book to set the stage and the other two books to finish it, will the whole trilogy succeed.
But of course, the point of no return, or "door", is a cliffhanger.
Since you can't please everybody, you might as well please yourself. Write the book that you would like to read. Life itself is a series of cliffhangers, isn't it? Picture that friend or relative who would love reading a book like yours, then picture him turning the last page and it's a cliffhanger. What will he say to you? But overall, write the book that you want to write. If your book ever gets picked up by a publisher, believe me, their editor will tell you exactly how to finish your book.
More than likely you will alienate whatever readers did pick up your book. They PAID to buy your story, and you did not provide them with a complete story. A Series does not mean each story segment is left unfinished. If it is made clear up front your Trilogy is an ongoing SERIAL which requires all three books to reach the conclusion, you might get by with it. But you don't find booksellers offering SERIAL as an option for categorizing the books they sell. Another option is to only sell your story as a three book SET. Do not allow individual sales of each book.
I'm writing a very long series spanning 175 years. In each book I cover the major events that take place within the time frame established for that book. Readers will know the story doesn't end. But they won't be left wondering what happened. Each book can stand-alone, but is not written in episodic fashion either. EG: One book may lead through teens to early adult and end before marriage, or at graduation. The next book may start with the wedding and carry the story through married life and up until the kids begin leaving the nest. But the reader will not be cheated on finding out what happened during the specified time frame. Perhaps a mild hook, did he marry his college sweetheart? The only way to find out is to buy the next book, but no topics started in the book are left unanswered, unless impossible to answer them until the end.
One of most important aspects of a good story - I'd say about the most important of all - is the aftertaste. It's the feeling left after finishing the story. Satisfying or disturbing, puzzling, leaving us thoughtful - that's all achieved by closures, by finishing various threads in various ways.
Some stories are open-ended. It could be said they end where another story could begin, but they end in such a way that the reader can create that story in his/her head, keep the story going on past the end of the written text. The text left enough clues, enough threads firmly heading in a certain direction, that the next few unwritten pages are simply obvious to the reader - and then the story spins off in wild tangents in their imagination.
I can say some of very best stories are open-ended.
And there are stories with a cliffhanger. Ones that cut off right at a point where the next seconds are a total mystery to the reader, and force them to wait, seek a sequel, but primarily get very frustrated at the terrible interruption. Cliffhangers are cheap. They are annoying and leave a bad aftertaste which the reader might hope to wash off with the continuation. Nobody likes cliffhangers, maybe except people who make money off them. Some readers are tolerant, they accept the mantra "good things come to those who wait." Others - like me - have been burned with false promise of a continuation a few times too many, and outright hate and despise cliffhangers.
That doesn't mean you can't leave a hook for a sequel. Bring a forgotten side-thread into focus and show how its unresolved issue is about to escalate. Have someone do just the wrong thing at the wrong moment. Make a revelation that was barely hinted so far. But for goodness sake, if you have one or two primary, major threads, close them! If there are two major antagonists, and the book ends with beating the weaker one while the stronger one just finished building an army, you're going to receive all my hate.