I. What is a Cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is when a story or plotline ends suddenly or a large plot twist occurs and is left unresolved. It is a device that is used to cause suspense, but most importantly, it leaves unanswered questions that make the reader or viewer want to come back to learn what will happen. The phrase comes from the idea of “hanging off a cliff”—whatever happens will determine the character’s future and the story’s plot, leaving audiences “on the edge” of knowing. Cliffhangers are a particularly popular and widely used device in television, whose success relies heavily on audiences returning to watch week after week with episodes that are “to be continued.”
II. Example of a Cliffhanger
Read the following short passage:
The man stood on the end of the platform, looking down at the still turquoise water ten meters below. He had worked towards this his whole life. He wasn’t nervous, even though what would happen in the next few moments—few seconds—would determine his future. But he was as tranquil as the water below. He arched his heels, balancing on the balls of his feet; his arms extended above him into the perfect point. He filled his lungs with air and closed his eyes for only a fraction of a second, and when they opened, he exhaled calmly, and dove.
The passage above leaves one huge question unanswered—how did the diver perform? We wonder, what will happen if he fails? If he succeeds? Each possibility creates further questions for readers to consider, and in turn, we are likely to continue reading to get answers.
III. Importance of Cliffhangers
Cliffhangers are a crucial tool for storytelling because they encourage people to come back for each new segment, for example, a TV show’s weekly episode. A show or book series is successful if the audience is interested in the plotline, because then they will want to keep watching or reading. Thus, so long as a cliffhanger creates questions, fans will want answers.
IV. Examples of Cliffhangers in Literature
A very famous cliffhanger is still unresolved today from George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, which is also known by its HBO television series Game of Thrones. In fact, fans have been waiting for answers since the book’s release in 2011. The cliffhanger involves the well-loved character Jon Snow, whose fate is left unclear after the following passage:
Then Bowen Marsh stood there before him, tears running down his cheeks. “For the Watch.” He punched Jon in the belly. When he pulled his hand away, the dagger stayed where he had buried it.
Jon fell to his knees. He found the dagger’s hilt and wrenched it free. In the cold night air the wound was smoking. “Ghost,” he whispered. Pain washed over him. Stick them with the pointy end. When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold …
This is the last passage and chapter narrated from the point of view of Jon Snow, but; the book ends only a few chapters later. So, this leaves an ambiguous ending for the audience—is Jon Snow dead, or does he survive? Fans are still waiting for the next book of the Song of Ice and Fire series; in fact, the Internet is full of theories about this cliffhanger and Jon Snow’s fate.
Marvel Comics’ The Spectacular Spider-Girl often features stories that are “to be concluded” in the next issue; a commonly used technique in comic book series. They end in the midst of major action, usually with Spider Girl stuck in a dangerous situation, as in the comic page below:
The scene above is the final page of Issue 4 and shows Spider Girl seemingly about to die. The comic’s abrupt ending at the height of action ensures that readers will buy the next issue to find out what happens to Spider Girl.
V. Examples of Cliffhangers in Pop Culture
The 1960’s TV series Batman closed the majority of its episodes with cliffhangers to set up for the next. The story would close mid-action, with a newscaster-style narrator urging the audience to tune in tomorrow to find out what happens. Sometimes the cliffhangers were both suspenseful and funny, as in the following clip:
Batman’s wedding is a prime example of a cliffhanger—it even puts the unanswered questions in words across the screen: “Mr. and Mrs. Batman??!!” and the joke “Find out tomorrow whether she misses…or Mrs.!!” Like in the clip above, each cliffhanger on Batman was accompanied by the tagline “Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel,” which told the audience where to return for the continuation of the story.
In Season 1 of the TV drama LOST, the main source of mystery and anticipation for viewers is “the hatch,” a large metal structure that one character finds on the seemingly uninhabited island. The anticipation builds even further for the audience in Part 1 of the season finale, when something finally happens that could provide answers and possibly change everything—
Here, we see as a determined John Locke blows open the hatch despite Hugo’s protests. Just as this major breakthrough occurs, the episode ends, leaving audiences shocked, excited and, and certain to return for the second part of the finale.
VI. Related Terms
A thriller is a genre in which the primary feature is to induce strong feelings of excitement, anxiety, tension, suspense, fear, and other similar emotions in its readers or viewers—in other words, media that thrills the audience. A cliffhanger is a great technique to use in a thriller because it builds up the action and then leaves the audience on the edge of their seat in anticipation of what comes next.
Suspense is a feeling that audiences have when waiting for the outcome of an important event. Authors frequently build suspense throughout their stories to keep their reader’s attention and increase anticipation for what is to come. Cliffhangers are one of the best techniques for building suspense.
In conclusion, cliffhangers help turn audiences and readers into long-term fans. By ending in the middle of the action, they leave unanswered questions and build suspense that makes people eager to learn what happens next.