Definition of Cliffhanger

A cliffhanger is a plot device in which a character or characters are left with a difficult dilemma or a shocking revelation at the end of a chapter or section. Authors use cliffhangers in order to encourage the reader to keep turning pages to find out what happens, or to buy the next book in a series.

The term cliffhanger is thought to have originated with the 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. The novel was an example of the popular style of the time, serialized fiction. These types of novels were published one chapter at a time in weekly or monthly periodicals. To keep readers interested and wondering what would happen next, Thomas Hardy left his protagonist Henry Knight hanging off a cliff at the end of one of these sections. Thus, the definition of cliffhanger had a literal meaning at the beginning; readers wondered if Henry Knight would escape, and how he would do so.

Common Examples of Cliffhanger

Cliffhangers are very popular in television shows and movie series. Advertisers have also picked up on the tradition, and have incorporated examples of cliffhangers in certain ads so that potential customers will be interested enough to visit their websites to learn more. Cliffhangers are arguably most popular in soap operas, which are charged with the difficult task of keeping viewers coming back day after day, week after week, year after year.

Here are some notable cliffhanger examples from television and film:

  • “Who shot J.R.?”—Perhaps the most famous cliffhanger ever, this episode ended the third season of Dallas, and kept viewers waiting until the premier of the fourth season to find out the answer to the mystery.
  • “Who shot Mr. Burns?”—An obvious homage to Dallas, The Simpsons picked up on the idea and featured villain Mr. Burns getting shot at the end of the sixth season. During the summer between the sixth and seventh seasons, viewers were tasked with guessing the culprit, who was revealed in the first episode of the seventh season.
  • “The One at the Beach”—The final episode of the third season of Friends has Ross choosing between two doors to enter: either that of the room he’s sharing with his girlfriend, or that of his ex-girlfriend Rachel. He opens one, but viewers wouldn’t find out until the following season which woman he’d chosen.
  • “Mother’s Mercy”—The final episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones seems to end with the death of beloved character Jon Snow, but fueled speculation for a very long time about whether he had really died, or could potentially be resurrected.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring—The first installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy ends with the fellowship splitting up unexpectedly into three groups. Viewers are left in suspense about what will happen to the kidnapped hobbits, and if Frodo and Sam will reach Mount Doom.
  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back—The second film of the original trilogy ends with the heroes with difficult dilemmas as well as shocking revelations, none more than the truth that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Viewers had to wait for three until the truth was revealed and the plot was tied up.
  • Before Sunset—This quiet film by Richard Linklater features a pair of people who’d met many years earlier in Vienna, but had failed to exchange contact information. They find each other again in Paris, and there is obvious attraction between them, but the film ends with the ambiguous exchange of the woman noting that the man is going to miss his flight home, and his response of “I know.” Viewers had to wait more more years for the third film in the series to find out what had happened between this pair.

Significance of Cliffhanger in Literature

Though the concept of the cliffhanger was perhaps most popular with the rise of serialized fiction, and now with television and movie series, there are examples of cliffhangers all the way back to ancient Greece. For example, in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the reader is confronted with suitors for Odysseus’s wife attempting to kill his son, but action shifts over to Odysseus’s adventures before we learn Telemachus’s fate.

Cliffhangers are perhaps most common in certain genre fiction, such as mystery, thriller, and adventure novels. However, there are examples of cliffhangers in countless works of literature. Interestingly, there is a psychological effect known as the Zeigarnik effect which states that people who have been interrupted in a task remember it better than a completed task. Thus, there is some psychological evidence that readers and viewers will not only be more interested in what happens next in a serialized work, but will also remember the details better.

Examples of Cliffhanger in Literature

Example #1

Meantime the suitors went on board and sailed their ways over the sea, intent on murdering Telemachus. Now there is a rocky islet called Asteris, of no great size, in mid channel between Ithaca and Samos, and there is a harbour on either side of it where a ship can lie. Here then the Achaeans placed themselves in ambush.

(The Odyssey by Homer)

As referenced above, even this early and classic text contains a famous example of a cliffhanger. The first four books of Homer’s Odyssey concern Telemachus’s journey to find his father, but we don’t see him again until Book XV. During this time we learn about what Odysseus has been doing, but are kept in suspense about Telemachus’s fate.

Example #2

And the King was astonished, and said to him, What causeth thee to weep, O youth? He answered, How can I refrain from weeping, when this is my state?—and so saying, he stretched forth his hand, and lifted up the skirts of his clothing; and lo, half of him, from his waist to the soles of his feet, was stone; and from his waist to the hair of his head, he was like other men. He then said, Know, O King, that the story of the fish is extraordinary; if it were engraved upon the intellect, it would be a lesson to him who would be admonished:—and he related as follows:—

(One Thousand and One Nights, translated by Edward William Lane)

The collection of stories One Thousand and One Nights gives an important function to cliffhangers. The framing device for this collection is the narrative that a ruler named Shahryār believes all women to be unfaithful, and executes each successive new bride the day after their wedding. A cunning woman named Scheherazade puts this to a stop when she starts telling the rule a tale on their wedding night, but leaves a cliffhanger at the end so that Shahryār is forced to stay her execution and keep listening to her tales. In fact, most of the cliffhangers do not end in the sense that there is grave danger. Instead, many tales end with a character promising to tell a new interesting story which will illuminate the previous one. Such is the case with the excerpt above.

Example #3

Voldemort had raised his wand. His head was still tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear—
He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling)

Many avid readers speculated about how J. K. Rowling would end the Harry Potter series, with several theories involving Harry’s own death at the hands of Voldemort. In the seventh book there is indeed a confrontation between Harry and his nemesis, and at the end of Chapter 34 we read that Harry sees the tell-tale green flash (a killing curse). There are many examples of cliffhangers throughout the series, but this is the most dramatic; we do not find out for several pages if Harry has, in fact, died.

Test Your Knowledge of Cliffhanger

1. Which of the following statements is the best cliffhanger definition?
A. A moment in which the protagonist hangs off a cliff in order to create suspense.
B. A character who is very brave and will metaphorically scale cliffs to reach a solution.
C. A shocking revelation or difficult dilemma that ends a particular section of a work to keep the audience in interested suspense.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following psychological effects is associated with cliffhangers?
A. The Telemachus effect
B. The Zeigarnik effect
C. The Hardy effect

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following situations from William Shakespeare plays is an example of cliffhanger?
A. The ship in The Tempest sinks at the end of Act 1.
B. The eponymous Othello kills his wife Desdemona and himself at the end of Act 5.
C. Puck ends the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a monologue to restore order.

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