Anatomy of a cliffhanger

They’re page-turning. They’re nail-biting. They’re infuriating. They’re everywhere. Cliffhangers, those endings to scenes, chapters, or whole works that create anticipation in the audience, sometimes feel like the bread and butter of modern storytelling televised and written, and as a literary tool they have a long history. Today, let’s step back and take their measure. What is a cliffhanger? How do they work? When are they valuable? When are they not?

Then and now

Although cliffhangers can feel like a modern phenomenon, and although the word itself originates only in the 1930s (the Oxford English Dictionary cites an early use of the term in a 1931 issue of Variety magazine), writers and storytellers have been employing this tool for centuries.

The text that foregrounds cliffhangers better perhaps than any other is the Middle Eastern folklore collection A Thousand and One Nights, whose storyteller Scheherazade breaks off her nightly tale at a suspenseful moment so that the listening king’s anticipation will stop him from having her executed.

In the British Victorian era, writers like Charles Dickens published monthly or weekly installments of their novels in serialized periodicals like Blackwood’s Magazine. The cliffhanger at chapter endings became a key literary feature here as a tool to recruit readers from one issue to the next. It’s important, when reading novels from the period, to consider the original serialized publication and how the format influenced writers and readers.

Cliffhangers were central tools of the early television era. As with the serialized fiction magazines, the episodic nature of television made cliffhangers at the ends of episodes or even just before a commercial break indispensable to writers and directors, the continued production and broadcasting of whose work depended on a growing number of viewers. Certain genres like the Soap Opera made especial use of the cliffhanger, using it to heighten the tension of even a brief conversation between characters, and this has funneled back into literature, giving us thrillers, suspense novels, and action-packed genre fiction that keeps us turning pages with twist after twist of cliffhanging drama.

Today, it’s hard to find a TV drama that doesn’t make repeated use of cliffhangers, certainly between episodes, gut-wrenchingly between seasons, and even from scene to scene within an episode. This tendency is borne out in bestselling fiction, from Dan Brown to James Patterson–the cliffhangers are (among other tools) what keep us reading until three in the morning, and without doubt, much is to be said for their power.

Yet their very ubiquity I think should lend suspicion. Lest we begin to treat cliffhangers as a default in our writing, rather than the specific and best-in-small-doses device they really are, let’s dissect the cliffhanger, explore its various effects, and consider the question of its value.

Essential pieces of a cliffhanger

A simple engine powers all cliffhangers, and it is there we will begin:

The Approach

The cliffhanger always comes at the end of something, and considering what that something is has an important impact on the cliffhanger’s usefulness or lack thereof. Consider that a cliffhanger (almost) always serves to increase tension. Therefore, we’ll often find mid-story cliffhangers at the end of sequels, the slower, reflective portions of the story that are more prominent in literary fiction and less so in action-packed page-turners.

A cliffhanger at the end of a sequel jump-starts the action and can be an effective way of signaling to readers that conflict is returning. The danger here is that sometimes, we throw in a cliffhanger because we’re afraid the sequel is boring our readers. Personally, I love the sequels, and if anything I think I am guilty of drawing these out too long. But if every sequel ends abruptly in a cliffhanger, we risk shortchanging our character development and emotional resonance.

Cliffhangers can also appear at the end of scenes, the action, goal-driven sections of stories. Here, the cliffhanger propels us from action into… more action (another scene, without a dividing sequel). Used sparingly, these can really amp up the excitement of a story. I think they work best when the two scenes involve different types of action (for example, an emotional reconciliation scene ending in a cliffhanger that suggests external, combative action).

This action-to-action cliffhanger is the quintessential season-finale type, as the starship stands on the brink of destruction, midpoint in a climactic battle, and all readers want is to know how the hero is going to pull it together… but wait we must!

The Hook

The hook is the cliffhanger itself: the clue writers insert at the end of the scene/sequel that suggests what is coming next. The hook can take many forms: an unexpected challenge, a question, a forgotten bit of foreshadowing finally rearing up–whatever it is, an effective hook must be believable and relevant to the story at hand (random catastrophes usually come across as canned). Additionally, and this can be a bit trickier, the hook should signal some shift in the story. Where we’re moving from sequel into scene, this happens naturally. But scene-to-scene cliffhangers can feel arbitrary if there’s no shift in the tenor of the action. “Why are you breaking the chapter?” the reader asks. “Oh, I got it. You’re just making a cliffhanger.” A cliffhanger that fits more naturally into the overall structure of the story will gives some reason for the cut that always follows the hook.

Here are a few types of cliffhanger hooks that can work. I’m sure there are others. I’ll write about four:

Scare

An unexpected or complicated danger is the most common (or at least the most recognizable) cliffhanger hook. It effectively galvanizes characters to action, gets the reader turning pages (if, at least, the reader cares enough about the characters by this point [this is why a Scare cliffhanger is a bad idea in Chapter 1: the reader isn’t yet invested enough]), and propels the conflict of the story forward.

Scare cliffhangers are the most dramatic type, and they’re at the greatest risk of creating “cliffhanger fatigue,” in which readers are so inundated with action that they lose investment in the story. This, unfortunately, happened to me while watching Outlander. The beautiful character and mystery development of the first several episodes became overshadowed for me by scene after scene of circular action and cliffhangers. Gradually my interest in the story flagged. I stopped watching.

Mystery

A cliffhanger needn’t involve immediate danger: asking a big question can be enough to propel a reader forward. Mystery cliffhangers tend to work well earlier in a story as they can gesture at larger issues rather than the more situation-specific expectations that Scare cliffhangers create.

Mystery cliffhangers are quieter than their frightening counterparts, and they draw less attention to themselves as cliffhangers. At the same time, of course, they are often less powerful in drawing the reader on. It’s a give-and-take.

Promise

Sometimes, we talk about cliffhangers as if they must involve a surprise. I think that actually, the best cliffhangers have been built up all along. There are few things more satisfying than slogging our way through The Lord of the Rings and at long last finding ourselves at the gates of Mordor. Readers have already been led to anticipate these climactic scenes, and the final approach to them naturally takes on a kind of mystic quality. “I’ve been waiting for this,” the reader says. “Let’s see how it actually plays out.”

When a reader knows a particular scene has been coming for a long time, it works well to break the chapter just before. This allows the reader to mentally prepare, to not be hurled into the scene unexpected (which ends up feeling like rushed pacing), and to foreground the promised scene in its own section of the text. The Promise cliffhanger is really the idea that a cliffhanger should fit the larger flow of the story taken to its logical extreme. We aren’t playing cheap tricks on our readers here. We have promised tension, and we are about to deliver.

The unspeakable

A final, oft forgotten cliffhanger is one that comes to us from theater. Due to the challenge of staging, many of the high-action battles, murders, sexual assaults, and other pivotal moments in Shakespearean and other plays take place offstage. We see the characters marching towards the battle, and in a modern production we might even hear a series of suggestive sound effects, but then the characters reemerge to show us the aftermath.

In modern fiction, we may omit these action scenes to suggest, perhaps, that they are too painful to describe, or that their outcome is inevitable. There is often an aura of the predetermined about them, made powerful by their very absence from the text. This type of cliffhanger is the only type that can lower tension, because it creates in its place a kind of catharsis, a kind of playing-out of the action in the reader’s mind, yet a knowledge that we will never know the precise truth of what occurred.

The Gap

Whatever the hook, a cliffhanger always involves some kind of a gap in the text, and this too can impact its effect and its effectiveness.

A gap in the story

A temporal gap in the narrative that often accompanies a cliffhanger (note that this is less common in a Scare-cliffhanger). At the end of a chapter or scene, the writer has an unobtrusive opportunity to skip ahead. This is a tool not to be dismissed, especially when we so often find ourselves overwriting, wanting to describe every detail and moment in a Ulysses-style litany. Chapter breaks and cliffhangers are the perfect time to move our narrative to the next key moment.

A gap in reading

More centrally and necessarily, cliffhangers function because they occur at moments in the text that either suggest or even require that reading pause. These range from scene breaks at the light end to end-of-book-in-a-series cliffhangers at the most intense. It’s worth paying attention to the likely length of this gap when we write cliffhangers: if it’s a scene or chapter break, where the reader is very likely to simply read on, the tension of the cliffhanger is immediately satisfied. When it’s the end of a novel, and the reader has to actively go seek out (or wait for publication of) the next installment, the tension can fester. This can be good or bad, depending on the reader, depending on the hook.

A cliffhanger functions as a type of pacing device and so has an interesting relationship with a chapter break. Scene and chapter breaks serve to slow the reader down. They are signposts, suggesting logical divisions. It’s interesting to read a book that doesn’t divide itself. It can feel unmoored, overwhelming. In some ways, this is a great experience. It’s worth writing about another time, perhaps. But the cliffhanger at the end of a chapter puts pressure on that chapter break. Just as we are telling the reader explicitly that they might stop, the cliffhanger implies that they must not. Perhaps it is a kind of trickery, like we are hurling the reader into a wall, so hard perhaps, that they’ll break through.

An interesting type of cliffhanger can emerge in a text that follows two (or more) alternating storylines. Cliffhangers in Story A are followed by a section of Story B. This section may also end in a cliffhanger, leading us back into Story A, where the anticipation of the first cliffhanger is resolved. This means that, short of skipping ahead, readers cannot satisfy the tension of the cliffhanger immediately. They just have to wait!

The Expectation

This is the payoff. In a way, every cliffhanger is a promise: by writing one, we tell a reader what to expect. The biggest danger here is that we don’t follow through. In other words, a Scare-cliffhanger, suggesting danger, that gets resolved in the first paragraph of the next chapter, constitutes a deflated expectation. This is eye-rolling. This is trust-betraying. If there’s one lesson to be learned from this post, let it be this.

Sometimes, a cliffhanger sets up in the reader an unrealistic expectation. Usually, in this case, I think it’s better to cut the cliffhanger. Maintain the integrity of the story. A cliffhanger that doesn’t deliver is empty words.

Assembling the pieces

Cliffhangers have a mixed reputation. They are everywhere, and we hate and love them, and sometimes they’re regarded as a writer’s copout. They don’t have to be. A well-crafted cliffhanger that carefully considers each of the pieces discussed above can propel a story forward, enhance its power, and deepen readers’ engagement. Used carelessly, without consideration of their deeper effects on attention, character sympathy, and anticipation–this is when our cliffhangers do us a disservice.

What do you think about cliffhangers? Do you use them? How often? How? Are there other types of hooks than the ones I’ve discussed here? What are your favorite examples?

An unintended cliffhanger.
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