What Is a Cliffhanger?

A cliffhanger is a common narrative device in literature, film, television, and other forms of storytelling. It involves ending a scene, chapter, or story at a point of suspense or tension. Naturally, leaving the audience eager to know what happens next.

Types of Cliffhangers
  1. The main character comes face-to-face with a dangerous or possibly life-threatening situation.
  2. A shocking revelation comes to light, threatening to alter the course of the narrative.

History of Cliffhangers

Literary cliffhangers trace back to One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic folk stories. The collection’s central story revolves around a young bride named Scheherazade. The girl tells her new husband, King Shahryar, story after story as a way to save herself from execution. Each story Scheherazade tells has a different cliffhanger ending, prompting her husband to keep her alive so he can find out what happens next.

One of the earliest and most famous examples of the cliffhanger comes from Charles Dickens’ novel “The Pickwick Papers,”. Which he published between 1836 and 1837. In one chapter, Dickens ends with Mr. Pickwick being arrested and charged with breach of promise. This unexpected twist left readers anxiously awaiting the next installment to find out how the protagonist would resolve his predicament.

Related: A Brief History of Literature

Charles Dickens popularized cliffhangers with serialized novels in the early nineteenth century. Dickens published his novel The Old Curiosity Shop in weekly installments. One installment ended with the character Little Nell in a precarious state of health, prompting fans to gather outside New York’s harbor to wait for the ship transporting copies of the next installment.

The term “cliffhanger” itself is often attributed to Thomas Hardy’s serialized novel “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” published in 1873. The story features a suspenseful scene where one of the characters was left hanging from a cliff. And this dramatic situation captured the essence of the tension and anticipation that cliffhangers create.

Eventually, as serialized storytelling continued to gain popularity, writers began to intentionally use cliffhangers to keep readers engaged and coming back for more. Over time, the concept of the cliffhanger expanded beyond literature to include other forms of media such as film, television, and even radio dramas. Today, cliffhangers remain a common and effective narrative technique used to create suspense and excitement in various storytelling mediums.


Examples of Cliffhangers in Literature:

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. The first book ends with Katniss and Peeta defying the Capitol by threatening to eat poisonous berries. This forces the Capitol to declare them both winners to prevent a double suicide.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien. The first book in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy ends with Frodo and Sam separated from the rest of the Fellowship and entering the dangerous land of Mordor.

“A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin. The first book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series ends with Daenerys Targaryen’s three dragon eggs hatching, marking a significant turning point in the story.

Examples of Cliffhangers in Film:

“The Empire Strikes Back” (Star Wars): The film ends with Darth Vader revealing to Luke Skywalker that he is his father. This shocking revelation creates a major plot twist and leaving audiences wondering about Luke’s fate.

“Inception”: The film’s ending is open to interpretation, with the spinning top wobbling. But not revealing whether the protagonist is still in a dream or reality.

“Avengers: Infinity War”: The film concludes with half of the universe’s population disintegrating due to Thanos’s actions, leaving audiences shocked and eager to see how the story will resolve.

Examples of Cliffhangers in Television:

“Game of Thrones” (Season 5, Episode 8): The episode ends with Jon Snow being betrayed and left for dead by his fellow Night’s Watchmen, leaving viewers in suspense about his fate.

“Stranger Things” (Season 1, Episode 8): The first season ends with Eleven’s apparent sacrifice to defeat the Demogorgon, but her fate is left uncertain.

“Breaking Bad” (Season 4, Episode 13): The season ends with Walter White’s former partner, Jesse Pinkman, discovering a sinister truth about Walter and his involvement in Brock’s poisoning.

Cliffhangers are a powerful storytelling tool that keep audiences engaged, create anticipation for the next installment, and leave a lasting impact on the overall narrative. They encourage viewers and readers to continue with the story. Because at the end of the day literature reflects life. And life is not linear, there are up and downs and to writers cliffhangers are the link.

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