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Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger

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A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device
Plot device
A plot device is an object or character in a story whose sole purpose is to advance the plot of the story, or alternatively to overcome some difficulty in the plot....

 in fiction
Fiction
Fiction is the form of any narrative or informative work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not factual, but rather, imaginary—that is, invented by the author. Although fiction describes a major branch of literary work, it may also refer to theatrical,...

 which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.

The phrase is believed to come from the end-of-episode situation in adventure silent film
Silent film
A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. In silent films for entertainment the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, pantomime and title cards...

s of the early 1900s days, with the protagonist literally left hanging from the edge of a cliff, although the oldest usage the Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

has is from 1937. Some serials end with the caveat "To Be Continued..." or "The End?" In television series, the following episode usually begins with a recap sequence.

History


The idea of ending a tale at a point where the audience is left in suspense as to its conclusion (which, in most cases, is then given at another time) may have been a staple part of storytelling for almost as long as the idea of stories has existed. It is a central theme and framing device of the collection of stories known as the One Thousand and One Nights, wherein the queen Scheherazade
Scheherazade
Scheherazade , sometimes Scheherazadea, Persian transliteration Shahrazad or Shahrzād is a legendary Persian queen and the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights.-Narration :...

, who is facing a morning execution on the orders of her husband, King Shahryar, devises the solution of telling him a story but leaving it at a cliffhanger, thus forcing the king to postpone her execution to hear the rest of the tale.

The term 'cliffhanger' may have originated with Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy, OM was an English novelist and poet. While his works typically belong to the Naturalism movement, several poems display elements of the previous Romantic and Enlightenment periods of literature, such as his fascination with the supernatural.While he regarded himself primarily as a...

's serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes
A Pair of Blue Eyes
A Pair of Blue Eyes is a novel by Thomas Hardy, published in 1873.The book describes the love triangle of a young woman, Elfride Swancourt, and her two suitors from very different backgrounds. Stephen Smith is a socially inferior but ambitious young man who adores her and with whom she shares a...

in 1873. At the time newspapers published novels in a serial
Serial (literature)
In literature, a serial is a publishing format by which a single large work, most often a work of narrative fiction, is presented in contiguous installments—also known as numbers, parts, or fascicles—either issued as separate publications or appearing in sequential issues of a single periodical...

 format with one chapter appearing every month. To ensure continued interest in the story, many authors employed different techniques. When the novel was serialised in Tinsley's Magazine
William Tinsley
William Tinsley was a British publisher. The son of a gamekeeper, he had little formal education; but together with his brother Edward he founded the firm of Tinsley Brothers, which published many of the leading novelists of the time.-Life:Tinsley was born in the village of South Mimms, north of...

between September 1872 and July 1873, Hardy chose to leave one of the main protagonists, Henry Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite
Trilobite
Trilobites are a well-known fossil group of extinct marine arthropods that form the class Trilobita. The first appearance of trilobites in the fossil record defines the base of the Atdabanian stage of the Early Cambrian period , and they flourished throughout the lower Paleozoic era before...

 embedded in the rock. This became the archetypal—and literal—cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.

Once Hardy created it, all serial writers used the cliff-hanger even though Anthony Trollope
Anthony Trollope
Anthony Trollope was one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era. Some of his best-loved works, collectively known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, revolve around the imaginary county of Barsetshire...

 felt that the use of suspense
Suspense
Suspense is a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety about the outcome of certain actions, most often referring to an audience's perceptions in a dramatic work. Suspense is not exclusive to fiction, though. Suspense may operate in any situation where there is a lead-up to a big event or dramatic...

 violated "all proper confidence between the author and his reader." Basically, the reader would expect "delightful horrors" only to feel betrayed with a much less exciting ending. Despite the rhetorical distaste all serial authors used the cliffhanger and Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins
William Wilkie Collins was an English novelist, playwright, and author of short stories. He was very popular during the Victorian era and wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 non-fiction pieces...

 is famous for saying about the technique: "Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait – exactly in that order."

Collins is famous for the Sensation Novel, which relied heavily upon the cliffhanger. Examples of his endings include:

"The next witnesses called were witnesses concerned with the question that now followed--the obscure and terrible question: Who Poisoned Her? (The Law and the Lady
The Law and the Lady
The Law and the Lady was published in 1875, by Wilkie Collins, although still in print, is largely forgotten now. Not quite as sensational in style as The Moonstone and The Woman in White, it is still a detective story.-Plot summary:...

)
"Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?" "Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in white. Drive on." (The Woman in White
The Woman in White (novel)
The Woman in White is an epistolary novel written by Wilkie Collins in 1859, serialized in 1859–1860, and first published in book form in 1860...

)
"You can marry me privately today," she answered. "Listen--and I will tell you how!" (Man and Wife)"

This anticipation and conversation-inducing authorial technique would often be very contrived as the only purpose was to maintain interest in the monthly serial. Therefore, these were regularly removed from the plot when the serial was published as a full novel.

The cliff-hanger migrated to film and is best known from the popular silent film series The Perils of Pauline
The Perils of Pauline (1914 serial)
The Perils of Pauline is a motion picture serial shown in weekly installments featuring Pearl White as the title character. Pauline has often been cited as a famous example of a damsel in distress, although some analyses hold that her character was more resourceful and less helpless than the...

(1914), shown in weekly installments and featuring Pearl White
Pearl White
Pearl Fay White was an American film actress, the so-called "Stunt Queen" of silent films, most notably in The Perils of Pauline.-Early life:...

 as the title character, a perpetual damsel in distress
Damsel in distress
The subject of the damsel in distress, or persecuted maiden, is a classic theme in world literature, art, and film. She is usually a beautiful young woman placed in a dire predicament by a villain or monster and who requires a hero to achieve her rescue. She has become a stock character of fiction,...

 who was menaced by assorted villain
Villain
A villain is an "evil" character in a story, whether a historical narrative or, especially, a work of fiction. The villain usually is the antagonist, the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters...

s, with each installment ending with her placed in a situation that looked sure to result in her imminent death – to escape at the beginning of the next installment only to get into fresh danger at its end. Specifically, an episode filmed around the New Jersey Palisades
New Jersey Palisades
The Palisades, also called the New Jersey Palisades or the Hudson Palisades are a line of steep cliffs along the west side of the lower Hudson River in northeastern New Jersey and southern New York in the United States. The cliffs stretch north from Jersey City approximately 20 mi to near...

 ended with her literally left hanging over a cliff and seeming about to fall.

Possibly the most famous cliffhanger was at the end of the 1969 movie, The Italian Job
The Italian Job
The Italian Job is a 1969 British caper film, written by Troy Kennedy Martin, produced by Michael Deeley and directed by Peter Collinson. Subsequent television showings and releases on video have established it as an institution in the United Kingdom....

, where the escape vehicle was literally balancing on the edge of a cliff.

Although a cliffhanger can be enjoyable as a page turner at the end of a chapter in a novel, a cliffhanger at the very end of a work can be frustrating. Cliffhangers can build anticipation
Anticipation
Anticipation can refer to:* Anticipation , a 1971 album by Carly Simon* Anticipation , the title track of this album* Anticipation , a 2008 comedy album by Lewis Black*Anticipation...

 (and, subsequently, profit
Profit (economics)
In economics, the term profit has two related but distinct meanings. Normal profit represents the total opportunity costs of a venture to an entrepreneur or investor, whilst economic profit In economics, the term profit has two related but distinct meanings. Normal profit represents the total...

) for sequel
Sequel
A sequel is a narrative, documental, or other work of literature, film, theatre, or music that continues the story of or expands upon issues presented in some previous work...

s. However, if no sequel follows, effective suspension of disbelief
Suspension of disbelief
Suspension of disbelief or "willing suspension of disbelief" is a formula for justifying the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in literary works of fiction...

 can leave the audience
Audience
An audience is a group of people who participate in a show or encounter a work of art, literature , theatre, music or academics in any medium...

 or readership wondering what happened in the work's fictional realm. Sometimes (for example at the end of Blake's 7
Blake's 7
Blake's 7 is a British science fiction television series produced by the BBC for its BBC1 channel. The series was created by Terry Nation, a prolific television writer and creator of the Daleks for the television series Doctor Who. Four series of Blake's 7 were produced and broadcast between 1978...

) that goes so far that people write fan fiction
Fan fiction
Fan fiction is a broadly-defined term for fan labor regarding stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator...

 (or even publish a novel
Novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

) deciding what happens next.

Serial media


Cliffhangers were especially popular in 1920s and 1930s serial
Serial (film)
Serials, more specifically known as Movie serials, Film serials or Chapter plays, were short subjects originally shown in theaters in conjunction with a feature film. They were related to pulp magazine serialized fiction...

s when movie theater
Movie theater
A movie theater, cinema, movie house, picture theater, film theater is a venue, usually a building, for viewing motion pictures ....

s filled the cultural niche
Niche market
A niche market is the subset of the market on which a specific product is focusing; therefore the market niche defines the specific product features aimed at satisfying specific market needs, as well as the price range, production quality and the demographics that is intended to impact...

 now primarily occupied by television
Television
Television is a telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images that can be monochrome or colored, with accompanying sound...

. Cliffhangers are often used in television series, especially soap opera
Soap opera
A soap opera, sometimes called "soap" for short, is an ongoing, episodic work of dramatic fiction presented in serial format on radio or as television programming. The name soap opera stems from the original dramatic serials broadcast on radio that had soap manufacturers, such as Procter & Gamble,...

s that end each episode on a cliffhanger. Prior to the early 1980s, season-ending cliffhangers were rare on U.S. television. The first such season-ender on U.S. TV was in the comedy
Comedy
Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

 send-up of soap operas Soap
Soap (TV series)
Soap is an American sitcom that originally ran on ABC from 1977 to 1981.The show was created as a parody of daytime soap operas, presented as a weekly half-hour prime time comedy. Similar to a soap opera, the show's story was presented in a serial format and included melodramatic plot elements such...

in 1978. Several Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

n soap opera
Soap opera
A soap opera, sometimes called "soap" for short, is an ongoing, episodic work of dramatic fiction presented in serial format on radio or as television programming. The name soap opera stems from the original dramatic serials broadcast on radio that had soap manufacturers, such as Procter & Gamble,...

s, which went off air over summer, such as Number 96
Number 96 (TV series)
Number 96 was a popular Australian soap opera set in a Sydney apartment block. Don Cash and Bill Harmon produced the series for Network Ten, which requested a Coronation Street-type serial, and specifically one that explored adult subjects...

, The Restless Years
The Restless Years
The Restless Years is an Australian soap opera which followed the lives of several Sydney school-leavers and young adults. It was produced by the Reg Grundy Organisation for Network Ten. It debuted December 1977 and ran until late 1981. It was not renewed by the network due to declining ratings...

, and Prisoner
Prisoner (TV series)
Prisoner is an Australian television soap opera which was set in the Wentworth Detention Centre, a fictional women's prison. The series was produced by the Reg Grundy Organisation and ran on Network Ten for 692 episodes from 27 February 1979 to 11 December 1986.The series was inspired by the 1970s...

, ended each year with major and much publicised catastrophe, such as a character being shot in the final seconds of the year's closing episode.

In the US, it was the phenomenal success of the "Who shot J.R.?
Who shot J.R.?
Who shot J. R.? is an advertising catchphrase that American network CBS created in 1980 to promote the television series Dallas.In the final scene of the 1979–1980 season, the character J. R. Ewing, played by Larry Hagman, was shot by a hidden assailant. The episode, titled "A House Divided", was...

" season-ending cliffhanger on Dallas
Dallas (TV series)
Dallas is an American serial drama/prime time soap opera that revolves around the Ewings, a wealthy Texas family in the oil and cattle-ranching industries. Throughout the series, Larry Hagman stars as greedy, scheming oil baron J. R. Ewing...

, which closed the show's second season, that led the cliffhanger to become a popular staple on television dramas and later situation comedy
Situation comedy
A situation comedy, often shortened to sitcom, is a genre of comedy that features characters sharing the same common environment, such as a home or workplace, accompanied with jokes as part of the dialogue...

 series as well. Another notable cliffhanger was the "Moldavian Massacre" on Dynasty
Dynasty (TV series)
Dynasty is an American prime time television soap opera that aired on ABC from January 12, 1981 to May 11, 1989. It was created by Richard & Esther Shapiro and produced by Aaron Spelling, and revolved around the Carringtons, a wealthy oil family living in Denver, Colorado...

in 1985, which fueled speculation throughout the summer months regarding who lived or died when almost all the characters attended a wedding in the country of Moldavia, only to have revolutionaries topple the government and machine-gun the entire wedding party. The "Best of Both Worlds
The Best of Both Worlds (TNG episode)
"The Best of Both Worlds" is a two-part storyline from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.-Part 1:...

" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: The Next Generation is an American science fiction television series created by Gene Roddenberry as part of the Star Trek franchise. Roddenberry, Rick Berman, and Michael Piller served as executive producers at different times throughout the production...

in 1990 is also cited as a reason that season-enders are popular today.

The two main ways for cliffhangers to keep readers/viewers coming back is to either involve characters in a suspenseful, possibly life-threatening situation, or to feature a sudden shocking revelation. The 2003 Season Finale of Home and Away
Home and Away
Home and Away is an Australian soap opera that has been produced in Sydney since July 1987 and is airing on the Seven Network since 17 January 1988. It is the second-longest-running drama and most popular soap opera on Australian television...

features an example of both a shock cliffhanger (in the revelation that Angie Russell
Angie Russell
Angela "Angie" Russell was a fictional character on the Australian soap opera Home and Away, portrayed by Laurie Foell from 2002 until the character's death in 2003.Angie subsequently appeared as a ghost in her daughter Tasha's dreams....

 was Tasha Andrews' mother) and a suspense cliffhanger (the Sutherland family trapped in a mine shaft).

Cliffhangers are also used to leave open the possibility of a character being killed off due to the actor not continuing to play the role. The aforementioned Star Trek season finale worked around the possibility of Patrick Stewart
Patrick Stewart
Sir Patrick Hewes Stewart, OBE is an English film, television and stage actor, who has had a distinguished career in theatre and television for around half a century...

's contract expiring. Between seasons, his contract was renewed and as a result, the character of Captain Picard survived the cliffhanger.

Cliffhangers are also sometimes deliberately inserted by writers who are uncertain whether a new series or season will be commissioned, in the hope that viewers will demand to know how the situation is resolved. Such was the case with the second season of Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks is an American television serial drama created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. The series follows the investigation headed by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper , of the murder of a popular teenager and homecoming queen, Laura Palmer...

, which ended in a cliffhanger similar to the first season with a high degree of uncertainty about the fate of the protagonist, but the cliffhanger could not save the show from being canceled, resulting in the unresolved ending. Another notable example of this case was the Sledge Hammer!
Sledge Hammer!
Sledge Hammer! is an American satirical police sitcom produced by New World Television that ran for two seasons on ABC from 1986 to 1988. The series was created by Alan Spencer and stars David Rasche as Inspector Sledge Hammer, a preposterous caricature of the standard "cop on the edge" character,...

season 1 episode "The Spa Who Loved Me
The Spa Who Loved Me
"The Spa Who Loved Me" is the 22nd episode of the television series Sledge Hammer! and the final episode of the show's first season. It originally aired on ABC in the United States on April 28, 1987...

", which ended with the city destroyed by a nuclear explosion followed by this caption: "To Be Continued...Next Season?" A second season was eventually signed, but instead of explaining the fate of the characters following the explosion, the season 2 opener took place five years prior to the incident. The Season 5 Finale of ABC
American Broadcasting Company
The American Broadcasting Company is an American commercial broadcasting television network. Created in 1943 from the former NBC Blue radio network, ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Company and is part of Disney-ABC Television Group. Its first broadcast on television was in 1948...

 show LOST
Lost
-In cinema or television:*Lost , an ABC drama about people who become stranded on a mysterious island*Lost , a short-lived reality television program*Lost , an American thriller starring Dean Cain...

ends with the island survivors, in a different time zone of 1977 on the island, attempting to blow the island up with a hydrogen bomb. The final scene shows a fatally injured Juliet Burke hammering on the hydrogen bomb, which failed to detonate after Jack Shepherd drops the bomb down, what would later chronologically be called 'The Hatch/Swan'. The finale ends with a massive white light, then the credits. The cliffhanger has become a genre staple (especially in comics, due to the multi-part storylines becoming the norm instead of self-contained stories). To such a degree, in fact, that series writers no longer feel they have to be immediately resolved, or even referenced, when the next episode is shown---for example, the last episode of the second series of Graham Linehan
Graham Linehan
Graham Linehan is an Irish television writer, actor, comedian and director who, often in partnership with Arthur Mathews, has written or co-written a number of popular television comedies...

's The IT Crowd
The IT Crowd
The IT Crowd is a British sitcom by Channel 4, written by Graham Linehan, produced by Ash Atalla and starring Chris O'Dowd, Richard Ayoade, Katherine Parkinson and Matt Berry...

ended with a substantial cliffhanger that was not addressed until the third episode of series three, variously because the writer didn't feel it was "a strong enough opener," or simply "couldn't be bothered." The heavily serialized television drama True Blood
True Blood
True Blood is an American television series created and produced by Alan Ball. It is based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries series of novels by Charlaine Harris, detailing the co-existence of vampires and humans in Bon Temps, a fictional, small town in the state of Louisiana...

has become notorious for cliffhangers. Not only do the seasons conclude with cliffhangers, but almost every episode finishes at a cliffhanger directly after or during a highly dramatic moment.

Commercial breaks can be a nuisance to script writer
Screenwriter
Screenwriters or scriptwriters or scenario writers are people who write/create the short or feature-length screenplays from which mass media such as films, television programs, Comics or video games are based.-Profession:...

s because some sort of incompleteness or minor cliffhanger should be provided before each to stop the viewer from changing channels during the commercial break. Sometimes a series ends with an unintended cliffhanger caused by a very abrupt ending without a satisfactory dénouement, but merely assuming that the viewer will assume that everything sorted itself out.

Sometimes a movie, book, or season of a television show will end with the defeat of the main villain before a second, evidently more powerful villain makes a brief appearance (becoming the villain of the next film). A good example of this is the anime
Anime
is the Japanese abbreviated pronunciation of "animation". The definition sometimes changes depending on the context. In English-speaking countries, the term most commonly refers to Japanese animated cartoons....

 version of Viewtiful Joe
Viewtiful Joe (anime)
is a Japanese anime series based on the video game series of the same name.The series follows a similar plot of the games, but there are many differences. The series, comprising fifty-one episodes, was shown every Saturday on the Japanese television station TV Tokyo from October 2, 2004 until...

, which ends with Captain Blue being defeated and returned to normal, and then a large space craft approaching Earth. Pixar's
Pixar
Pixar Animation Studios, pronounced , is an American computer animation film studio based in Emeryville, California. The studio has earned 26 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes, and three Grammy Awards, among many other awards and acknowledgments. Its films have made over $6.3 billion worldwide...

 The Incredibles
The Incredibles
The Incredibles is a 2004 American computer-animated action-comedy superhero film about a family of superheroes who are forced to hide their powers. It was written and directed by Brad Bird, a former director and executive consultant of The Simpsons, and was produced by Pixar and distributed by...

spoofed this convention by having a new villain, The Underminer, burst into view from underground at the very end of the movie. The 2009 computer-animated film Astro Boy
Astro Boy (film)
Astro Boy, also called in Japan, is a 2009 computer-animated film loosely based on the long-running Japanese series of the same name by Osamu Tezuka. It was produced by Imagi Animation Studios, the animation production company of TMNT. The studio announced the project in September 2006...

ended with an octopus-like alien hovering over the city and Astro flying to confront it.

Another example of cliffhangers in movies is the horror franchise Saw (franchise), which has all its movies ending with someone failing his tests and becoming trapped somewhere, leaving doubt as to what happened to him.

See also

  • Back to back film production
    Back to back film production
    Filming sequels "back to back" refers to the practice of filming two or more movies as one production, reducing costs and time.Trilogies are common in the film industry, particularly in the science fiction, fantasy and adventure genres...

  • List of cliffhanger endings
  • Zeigarnik effect

External links