“But Krymov was now in the grip of new impressions; he was walking on the earth of Stalingrad.”
So ends Vasily Grossman’s magnificent Stalingrad, the “prequel,” as it were, to his even more magnificent Life and Fate. He originally intended them as a two-part work that would tell a complete story; due to the vagaries of publication, Stalingrad was published in the Soviet Union (under the title For a Just Cause) in the 1950s, while Life and Fate was published in the West in the 1980s. Stalingrad finally appeared in English translation for the first time this summer, in what was the Russian translation event of the year. So naturally I had to read it.
I could go on and on about how good it is, but I recommend reading it for yourself instead of taking my word for it. It’s a war novel, and a production novel, and a family drama, and a picture of Soviet life during the first part of WWII, when things were looking truly bleak for the USSR. Stalingrad ends, as you can see from the quote above, just as one of the main characters, finally sets foot in the city after retreating all the way from Kiev and receiving the “Not One Step Back” order to stop the Soviet retreat and hold the line at Stalingrad.
I’ve always loved this kind of ending, especially as, in this case, it concludes an early installment in a series. It’s very Romantic-with-a-Capital-R, as we see in the delightfully fragmented works of Pushkin, Lermontov, or “Odysseus’s Fate,” my favorite poem by Konstantin Batyushkov. I love the sudden opening of the narrative, the feeling that, just as you think the journey is over, a hidden vista has suddenly appeared on the horizon. They give so much space for the reader to create their own meaning, just when it seems that the author is about to collapse the storyline into one interpretation.
In other words, I’m an unashamed fan of what are commonly called cliffhangers. I adore encountering them in the novels that I read, and I love to incorporate them in my own books.
That being said, they have to be used with care. In the above example, it works so well in Stalingrad because 1) Krymov has been striving the entire book to get to Stalingrad, so his arrival is the resolution of that storyline as well as the beginning of a new storyline, about the actual Battle of Stalingrad, and 2) there’s a sequel.
Since I write stories that combine elements of mystery/thriller/suspense and romance, cliffhangers have to be approached with especial care. Both of those genres require a very specific kind of plot resolution. Mysteries have to end with the protagonist solving the main mystery, otherwise they’re not mystery stories, and romance novels have to end with the two main protagonists ending up together. No exceptions! Romance readers are very strict about this, as they should be. I mean, you can write a story about a failed romance, but it’s not a romance novel.
Of course, if you’re writing a series, the rules can be a bit looser, in that the resolution can happen at the end of the series rather than the end of each book. So in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike books, each book ends with a specific mystery being solved, but the ongoing romantic tension between the two characters only grows from book to book, without (yet) being resolved. In fact, the third book, Career of Evil, ends on a devilishly suspenseful moment.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge fan of the series. Have you read it? How do you think it compares with Harry Potter? I may actually prefer it to HP, although Harry will always hold a special place in my heart…
So in my own writing, I specifically sought to borrow techniques that I particularly enjoy from authors I particularly admire. Which means I resolve the main suspense/thriller/mystery conflict at the end of each of my Doctor Rowena Halley books, but then leave a little transitional moment at the very end that provides both resolution of the romantic subplot, and a cliffhanger-ish moment leading into the next book.
So in Campus Confidential,
(you see what I did there?)
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the main mystery and action scene are resolved, but I end with the hint that my protagonist Rowena *may* be starting a new romance.
In Permanent Position, the second book in the series, I up the cliffhanger stakes, ending with the following words (SPOILER ALERT!):
And if you haven’t yet picked up a free Advance Review Copy of Permanent Position, you can find it and dozens of other mysteries and thrillers in the Page Turning Mystery/Thriller Giveaway.
“But there, in amongst all the junk mail, was an email from Dima. Both the subject line and the body had the same, two-word message:
Like Krymov’s arrival in Stalingrad I quoted at the beginning of this post, this ending serves both as an end point and a beginning. A theme that runs through the entire novel is forgiveness and redemption. Dima’s request for forgiveness thus acts as the culmination of that thread of the story, while simultaneously opening up possibilities that until that moment had seemed closed. It’s literally a pivotal moment, causing the overall storyline of the series to pivot in a new direction at the “hinge” between two books.
Summer Session, the novella that comes right after Permanent Position, has a slightly less cliffhanger-y ending, but also has a kind of “hinge” moment in its final scene.
If you haven’t yet gotten a free Advance Review Copy of Summer Session, you can get it and loads of other mystery shorts in the Summer Shorts! Giveaway.
Summer Session ends with the following conversation:
“Is that a promise?” I asked.
He grinned. “You bet.”
Again, it’s a resolution, but it’s a resolution that leaves a lot open. The juxtaposition of the words “promise” and “bet” suggest both certainty and uncertainty. The future, as Tom Petty would tell us, is actually wide open, even as the characters appear to be closing it down.
Wow! What a lot of writing! It’s fun to apply my carefully honed skills in close reading to my own works–until this moment I had never even *thought* about the “promise” and “bet” thing 🙂
But enough about that–what do you like to read? What are some books/series you’ve read recently that have really knocked your socks off?
And now for this week’s selection of giveaways:
The Summer Thrills & Chills Giveaway is still going strong!
Want to find a whole host of kickass heroines? Check out the Damsels Who Cause Distress Giveaway on StoryOrigin!
School doesn’t have to be boring! Swing by the Back to School Special Giveaway to stock up on all your school-related reading.