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What Is a Cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is a plot device in which part of a story ends unresolved, usually in a suspenseful or shocking way, in order to compel audiences to turn the page or return to the story in the next installment. Cliffhangers most commonly manifest when a scene ends just before a climactic action. The term came from Thomas Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), which ended with a character literally hanging from a cliff. Originally, a cliffhanger ending referred to a final, unresolved scene where a character’s life was at stake, but today cliffhangers can be large or small.
Most thriller writers end each chapter with a cliffhanger. They spend the chapter building questions around a particular subject. At the end, they withhold vital information from the reader, thus propelling them to keep turning the pages. Cliffhangers tend to go one of two ways: Either the main character comes face-to-face with a life-threatening situation, or a shocking revelation comes to light, threatening to alter the course of the narrative.
9 Examples of Cliffhangers
Cliffhangers have enhanced the storytelling of thousands of authors, playwrights, and screenwriters. Cliffhangers also dominate many television shows and films. Here are some popular cliffhanger examples from literature, TV shows, and movies:
- One Thousand and One Nights: Literary cliffhangers trace back to One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic folk stories. The collection’s central story revolves around a young bride named Scheherazade, who tells her new husband, King Shahryar, story after story as a way to save herself from execution. Each story Scheherazade tells has a different cliffhanger ending, prompting her husband to keep her alive so he can find out what happens next.
- The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens: Charles Dickens popularized cliffhangers with serialized novels in the early nineteenth century. His novel The Old Curiosity Shop was published in weekly installments. One installment ended with the character Little Nell in a precarious state of health, prompting fans to gather outside New York’s harbor to wait for the ship transporting copies of the next installment.
- Contemporary novels: Contemporary novelists have similarly mastered the art of the cliffhanger. New York Times bestsellers like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, David Baldacci’s Absolute Power, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, and Stephen King’s Needful Things all demonstrate how a well-written cliffhanger ending can propel readers onward to the next chapter, the next book, or even a spinoff series.
- Star Wars: Every installment of Star Wars has leaned on cliffhangers. Most famous among these was the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, which set the stage for the subsequent film, The Return of the Jedi.
- Soap: In 1978, the comedy television show Soap aired what is believed to be the first season cliffhanger on U.S. television—the season ended with an affair between two characters. Writers of many other TV shows quickly took note.
- Dallas: The CBS soap opera Dallas, which aired from 1978-1991, featured a cliffhanger at the end of each season. The most famous of these is the “Who shot J.R.?” episode. Nearly all soap operas end each episode on a cliffhanger. Most soaps are designed to never end, so there’s a bit of dramatic irony every time a cliffhanger ultimately leads to a false resolution.
- Breaking Bad: The television drama Breaking Bad found compelling use for cliffhangers in each of its seasons. Although a given season of the show would often feature a different bad guy, obstacle, and family dynamic, creator Vince Gilligan and his writing team always took pains to keep viewers coming back through the use of cliffhangers.
- Game of Thrones: Game of Thrones leaves plot points unresolved between seasons, including untimely deaths of main characters and severe acts of brutality. These inspired viewers to cue up the next episode.
- Twin Peaks: The first season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s television series Twin Peaks features some of the most legendary TV cliffhangers, as both viewers and ABC studio executives alike could not wait to learn who killed Laura Palmer. This lingering question continued past the season finale and into the second season, but when the Palmer mystery was solved via a shocking revelation, viewership trailed off. The mystery resolution marked a turning point in the show, and there were no longer enough unanswered questions to keep the audience hooked. Consequently, there was no third season.
7 Tips on Writing Cliffhangers
Cliffhangers thrill readers, but writing them takes skill and practice. Here are seven writing tips and techniques you can use to make sure your script or your book’s cliffhangers achieve maximum impact and hold your viewer’s or reader’s interest:
- Withhold key information from a reader. Try narrating from the point of view of a character who doesn’t know all the information.
- Stay grounded in a protagonist’s sensory experience. Let the audience experience the cliffhanger the same way the character does. The character’s point of view will invariably provide a heightened sense of urgency.
- Keep each chapter ending concise and cut out superfluous descriptions. A great cliffhanger can be watered down by detail that would fit better somewhere else in the chapter. The end of the chapter should be taut.
- Make your cliffhanger scenes focus on your main character. A reader is more likely to push past the end of a chapter if a plot twist or suspenseful shift in the storyline focuses on the protagonist rather than an antagonist or ancillary character.
- Keep your plotlines distinct. End chapters with a cliffhanger for one particular plotline, and address other plot lines elsewhere.
- Remember that a cliffhanger is not a spoiler. As you develop your writing craft, take care to write chapter endings that offer foreshadowing and build suspense, but do not spoil any information that would be better saved for the very end—whether that’s a final scene, final confrontation, or, in the case of television, a season finale.
- Use a flashback as a cliffhanger. Flashbacks can make good cliffhangers if they reveal new information that affects the present-day action of the story. As such, a properly constructed chapter-ending flashback can fit the definition of cliffhanger.
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