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What is a Cliffhanger?

A cliffhanger is a storytelling device that leaves the audience at the edge of their seats, eager for resolution. It's the unresolved conclusion at a narrative's chapter or episode end, compelling viewers to return for more. How do cliffhangers shape our engagement with stories, and why do they keep us coming back? Join us as we explore the art of suspense.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

During the middle of the 19th century, a genre of literature written for mass appeal to a largely adolescent male audience became very popular. In the United States, these stories were called dime novels, while in England they were known as penny dreadfuls. Many of these literary works were written in serialized form, with the readers only receiving a chapter or two in each new issue. In order to keep readers interested in the melodramatic story lines, the authors frequently used a plot device subsequently called a cliffhanger.

A cliffhanger ending began with certain heroic characters finding themselves literally hanging off a cliff. Sometimes a hero would cling to the edge of the cliff for dear life, or perhaps grab a tree root, branch, or rock for support. The point of a cliffhanger was to leave the character in a dangerous predicament until the release of the next chapter. Would the hero fall to his death? Would he be rescued at the last minute? Would he be discovered by the villain? All of these possible outcomes would pique the reader's interest and almost certainly guarantee the purchase of the next dime novel or penny dreadful.

The first cliffhangers had heroes literally holding on for their lives at the end of the first part of a literary work.
The first cliffhangers had heroes literally holding on for their lives at the end of the first part of a literary work.

The cliffhanger ending as a suspense-building plot device eventually found its way into the world of silent films. Serials such as The Perils of Pauline routinely featured heroes or heroines trapped in seemingly inescapable situations, with the resolution only one more reel of film away. Many of the popular Western movie serials used variations on the cliffhanger plot device to create suspense. Sometimes the hero would find himself in dire straits, but quite often the villains would kidnap the hero's sidekick or loved one to guarantee a response. The suspense would build as the hero rode off dramatically to confront the villains and free his comrades. During a cliffhanger ending, the audience might see the victim flailing helplessly in restraints as the villains plot their next move.

Serialized TV shows often rely on cliffhangers to get viewers to tune back in for the next episode.
Serialized TV shows often rely on cliffhangers to get viewers to tune back in for the next episode.

Serialized television shows also use the cliffhanger plot device to keep viewers glued to their screens each week. If a show's plot line is intended to be a two-part arc, the first episode typically ends with a cliffhanger. Without some sort of suspenseful, unresolved ending, viewers might not feel the need to watch the second part of the story arc. If one of the show's regular cast members appears to be in danger, however, viewers often have a very strong need to see that plot line resolved in the next episode.

The use of a cliffhanger plot device can be seen as too manipulative if not done correctly or used too often. There has to be palpable tension as to the future of the character presently dangling from a cliff wall, literally or figuratively. The classic spy series featuring Agent 007 James Bond is a good example of how effective cliffhangers can be. Bond is routinely captured by the villains throughout these films and placed in what appears to be inescapable situations. The audience is brought to the edges of their seats in anticipation of a seemingly impossible escape, which Bond usually delivers with authority. It is this tension-and-release aspect which makes a cliffhanger ending so effective with readers and viewers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a cliffhanger in storytelling?

A cliffhanger is a narrative device commonly used in storytelling to keep the audience engaged by ending a story at an intense or suspenseful moment, without resolution. It leaves the plot hanging, hence the term, compelling the audience to return for the next installment to find out what happens. This technique is prevalent in TV series, novels, and serials, where the suspense is used to ensure viewers or readers come back for more.

Why do writers use cliffhangers?

Writers use cliffhangers to create suspense and maintain audience interest. By leaving a story unresolved, they tap into the audience's natural curiosity and desire for closure. This can be particularly effective in serialized content, such as television shows or book series, where maintaining viewer or reader engagement over time is crucial. Cliffhangers can also drive discussions and speculation among fans, further increasing engagement with the work.

Can cliffhangers be found in genres other than thrillers or mysteries?

Yes, cliffhangers can be found across various genres, not just thrillers or mysteries. They are used in romance, science fiction, fantasy, and even comedy. Any narrative that benefits from sustained tension or anticipation can effectively employ a cliffhanger. For instance, a romantic novel might end with a protagonist making a grand gesture without immediate response, leaving readers wondering if there will be a happy ending.

How do cliffhangers affect the audience's emotional response?

Cliffhangers can significantly affect the audience's emotional response by creating a sense of anticipation, excitement, or frustration. This heightened emotional state can increase the audience's investment in the story and characters. According to a study published in the journal "Media Psychology," cliffhangers can elicit strong emotional reactions and a sense of suspense that enhances the enjoyment and memorability of a story.

Are there any risks associated with using cliffhangers?

While cliffhangers can be effective, there are risks associated with overusing them. If a story relies too heavily on cliffhangers without sufficient resolution, audiences may become frustrated or disillusioned. Additionally, if the subsequent resolution does not meet the expectations set by the cliffhanger, it can lead to disappointment. It's important for storytellers to balance the use of cliffhangers with satisfying story development to keep their audience engaged and satisfied.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular WiseTour contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular WiseTour contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Sequoia

Good point there in the last paragraph. The television show Lost became famous and later infamous for it's use or over-use of cliffhangers. Many people believe that the show had set up too many lingering plot lines that by the end it was impossible to wrap them all up in a satisfying way, but at the same the cliffhangers was what made the show addictive and fun in the first place.

Maybe it's possible to enjoy cliffhangers in and of themselves without having to know what the resolution is. Sometimes television shows or movies will end on a cliffhanger - more commonly known as an open ending - and leave it up to the audience to decide what happens. Personally I like these types of endings because it gives me more to think about.

anon44317

Excellent article that well explains what a cliffhanger is.

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    • The first cliffhangers had heroes literally holding on for their lives at the end of the first part of a literary work.
      By: Mike-Fotografie
      The first cliffhangers had heroes literally holding on for their lives at the end of the first part of a literary work.
    • Serialized TV shows often rely on cliffhangers to get viewers to tune back in for the next episode.
      By: Scott Griessel
      Serialized TV shows often rely on cliffhangers to get viewers to tune back in for the next episode.