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 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 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.