You know how it goes: you’ve been riveted by a movie or TV episode for the past hour, enjoying scene after action-packed scene. The hero and villain finally come face to face, weapons ready. But just as they leap toward each other’s throats, the screen cuts to black. To be continued…
It’s a cliffhanger, a plot technique writers use to end a part of a narrative while retaining the audience’s interest in the story. Viewers can’t wait to continue on, desperate to learn what happens next.
What Is a cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is an abrupt end that offers no resolution of conflicts. It leaves the story at a crucial moment, often with characters in peril, or just after a shocking revelation. It mostly happens at the end of a story, but it can also end a scene in a film, a chapter in a book, or a TV episode.
Excitement is built up throughout the narrative, which you expect to culminate into something epic. Then you’re suddenly left in the dark, making you inevitably ask, “What happens next?” It becomes an itch that you urgently want to scratch. The suspense gives off a sense of urgency that propels you forward in the story.
Cliffhangers are one of the oldest techniques in storytelling, having been used as far back as the Middle Ages. The term itself came about with Thomas Hardy’s A Pair Of Blue Eyes, which was released in installments. He ends a part of it with one of his characters hanging off a cliff.
5 Cliffhangers in Literature
Here are a few brilliant examples of cliffhangers taken from literature. Some of them deal with a story’s end, while others are mini cliffhangers that occur in between chapters.
1. One Thousand and One Nights
The frame story of One Thousand and One Nights involves a king named Shahryār discovering his wife’s unfaithfulness. Growing bitter, he has her executed and begins marrying women only to have them killed the next day. One of these women is Scheherazade, who serves as the narrator of the book.
She narrates a series of stories for 1,001 nights, with each night ending in a cliffhanger. Hooked, the king postpones her execution every day to hear the rest of the stories.
2. A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin
The latest book in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has one of the series’ most beloved characters, Jon Snow, deciding to march to battle. His officers, considering it a betrayal of the Watch’s neutrality, turn on him and stab him in the belly.
This is the last scene narrated from his point of view. The ambiguity of it has made fans speculate about his fate, creating various theories on whether he survives or not. In fact, they’ve been waiting for an answer since 2011.
3. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Louis Creed and his family move to a small town with a pet cemetery that can resurrect the dead. However, anything that comes back to life is a malevolent version of itself.
His wife and child die after several unfortunate events. The novel ends with Louis playing solitaire, when his wife’s reanimated corpse sneaks up behind him, lays a cold hand on his shoulder, and croaks “Darling.”
4. The Odyssey by Homer
After the Trojan War, Odysseus is unable to come home because he angered the god of the sea, Poseidon. Back at home, his son, Telemachus, shares his absent father’s house with his mother and her unwelcome suitors.
Growing tired of the intrusion, Telemachus goes on a journey to find his father. On the way, he is ambushed by the suitors. His fate isn’t shown, and the story shifts to Odysseus’ adventures instead. It’s revealed later on that he survives.
5. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
Little Nell Trent lives with her grandfather in his shop of odds and ends. They become beggars after her grandfather’s unfortunate attempt to ensure her an inheritance.
Originally published as a serial, Dickens ends part of the story with Nelly in a poor state of health. Fans reportedly stormed the New York City docks, shouting at arriving sailors (who might have already read the final chapters from the UK), “Is little Nell alive?”
Cliffhangers from Film and TV
Here are a few more examples of cliffhangers, taken from film and television.
A commercial airplane breaks apart in midair, crashing into an island somewhere in the Pacific. The survivors stick together to survive, finding the island more mysterious than it looks. They find the “hatch,” a manmade structure, early on in the first season.
As the season progresses, they contemplate what to do with it while piecing together clues from the seemingly uninhabited island. In the last episode, they blow it open, showing a dark hole leading into the ground. The episode immediately ends, leaving watchers to speculate about what’s inside.
In this series, J.R. Ewing was a character who frequently double-crossed business associates, fought with his family, and had his wife wrongfully committed to a sanatorium.
In the final episode of the third season (“Who Shot J.R.?”), he hears a noise outside his office and is shot twice when goes out to look. Viewers had to wait until the first episode of the fourth season (“Who Done It?”) to learn who the shooter is.
It was such a popular cliffhanger that many other American shows followed suit.
8. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Because of a previous debt, Jack Sparrow finds himself being pursued by Davy Jones, the dark lord of the Seven Seas. After many misadventures, he is chained to his ship and dragged to Davy Jone’s Locker.
His crew escapes, seeking shelter with the voodoo witch, Tia Dalma. They agree on rescuing their captain and are suddenly greeted by the resurrected Hector Barbossa. The scene quickly cuts to the credits, leaving their adventures for the next film.
9. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
After being rescued from the 75th Hunger Games, Katniss is taken to District 13, where she is introduced to the leaders of the Rebellion. They rescue her fellow tribute, Peeta, who was left in the Capitol’s clutches during the last film.
Katniss is shaken when realizes Peeta has been “hijacked,” making him attack her on sight. Coin, leader of the resistance, ends the film by announcing a major operation against District 2, the only remaining district loyal to the Capitol.
10. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Luke Skywalker arrives and battles with Vader, where he loses an arm and learns that Vader is his father. The movie ends with him getting a prosthetic arm and the gang readying themselves to find Han.
Good and Bad Cliffhangers
Just like with a plot twist, a cliffhanger is all about the execution. Done well, it makes the audience frustrated and excited. This gets them in the mood to learn about what’s coming next. That eagerness is rewarded when they finally get to the next part.
Done poorly, it merely gets them frustrated. As cliffhangers are often done in end scenes, this can leave them with a strong negative impression of a particular work. Or worse, the cliffhanger is left unresolved due to unfortunate events such as a show being canceled or the creator dies.
There are cliffhangers that are intentionally left unresolved. Essentially, they’re ambiguous endings that provoke the readers to speculate. They create their own endings based on a combination of information taken from the work and their own imagination. This allows the audience to construct the ending that they want.
Take, for example, The Princess Bride. While the movie version ends in a happily ever after, the original ending is less certain. The party rides off into the sunset on the prince’s stolen white horses. A series of mishaps ensue, letting the prince’s men close in on them. The author did say he believes they got away, though.
Good cliffhangers are bait for the audience’s curiosity. It leads them smoothly from one story to another while keeping the same level of interest and excitement. As a result, people will always want more of the story.