How to Use Cliffhangers
The primary purpose of a cliffhanger is to create a strong feeling of suspense. Cliffhangers are usually focused on one or more characters, leaving the audience wondering what will happen to them when the story resumes. The most important thing to remember when creating a cliffhanger is that it leaves significant questions unanswered. Below are some of the most common cliffhanger situations, though the possibilities are unlimited.
- characters faced with a crucial decision
- characters about to commit, get caught, or are discovered in the midst of doing something morally or legally wrong
- characters about die to or become injured
- a mystery on the verge of being solved
- a new clue that could lead to resolution of a conflict
- a new antagonist or culprit reveals himself
Furthermore, cliffhangers are often followed up with a “recap” (a review of what previously happened) before continuing where the action left off, especially in television. This way the audience can be reminded of important details that happened in the last installment of the story.
When to Use Cliffhangers
Cliffhangers are and can be used across all genres of fiction; however they most commonly occur in thrillers, dramas, and mysteries; mainly in television. They typically happen at the end of a book, movie, or TV episode, leaving the action hanging until the sequel or next installment of the story, though they sometimes occur in the middle of stories as well.
Overall, cliffhangers have the most impact in visual media. For instance, in television, showing a cliffhanger just before a commercial break is popular and basic practice that essentially all shows use. Sometimes shows will even end a series finale with a huge cliffhanger, which guarantees a huge audience for the next season’s premiere. In popular fiction, many authors end their novels and other works with cliffhangers, which encourages fans to buy the next edition of the story (see Examples of Cliffhangers in Literature). Sometimes they occur at the end of a chapter of a book, especially in mysteries.