Writing

What Is a Cliffhanger? Examples of Cliffhangers in Literature, Film, and Television, and Tips for Using Cliffhangers from Dan Brown and R.L. Stine

Written by MasterClass

Apr 26, 2019 • 2 min read

It’s a familiar feeling: Minute 59 of an hour-long television episode and the protagonist is about to face the villain—and the episode cuts to black, ending with “to be continued.” Known as a cliffhanger, this plot device marks the end of a section of a narrative with the express purpose of keeping audiences engaged in the story.

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What Is a Cliffhanger?

A cliffhanger is a plot device in which a component 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. A cliffhanger can end a chapter of a novel, a television episode, a scene in a film, or a serialized story (book or movie).

Cliffhanger endings usually fall into two categories:

  1. The main character comes face-to-face with a dangerous or possibly life-threatening situation.
  2. A shocking revelation comes to light, threatening to alter the course of the narrative.

3 Examples of Famous Cliffhangers in Literature

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.

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.

Thomas Hardy is another Victorian novelist who utilized cliffhangers, most notably with his work A Pair of Blue Eyes, which was released in installments. At the end of one installment, the novel’s heroine, Elfride Swancourt, is walking with her love interest, Henry Knight, when he slips and falls off a cliff. The story then picks up with Elfride rescuing Henry with a makeshift rope crafted from her Victorian undergarments.

5 Examples of Cliffhangers in Film and Television

Film and television series are rife with cliffhangers. In fact, the term “cliffhanger” originated in the 1930s, when cliffhangers kept movie-goers coming back to the theater for serialized films, which were released in short consecutive sections each week. The film serial The Perils of Pauline, for example, would often end with the film’s protagonist on the edge of a cliff—literally.

Today, television shows often end each season on a cliffhanger. Here are some popular examples of cliffhangers in film and television:

  • The science-fiction franchise Star Wars has been employing cliffhangers since its start. Most famous among these was the reveal of Luke’s father’s identity in The Empire Strikes Back.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The television drama Lost kept audiences on the edge of their seats as the show’s characters fought for their lives on a deserted island. Seasons often ended with plot twists and dramatic life-or-death scenarios.
  • Game of Thrones leaves plot points unresolved between seasons, including untimely deaths of main characters and severe acts of brutality.

Ready to write a page-turning ending? Find Dan Brown and R.L. Stine’s tips for writing cliffhangers here.