According to Wikipedia, a cliffhanger "is a plot device leaving a character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction." Cliffhangers are created to ensure the audience will wait to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.
The literary device known as the cliffhanger goes way back in storytelling history. One of the oldest instances known to us is in Homer's The Odyssey. Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and one of the main characters, is attacked by bandits. Homer, instead of immediately resolving the scene and letting us know what happens to Telemachus, breaks to another character, leaving the fate of Telemachus in suspense.
Cliffhangers became very important in stories that were serialized, in which the storytellers wanted the audience to return later for more. Examples include the installments by Wilkie Collins and the film series known as the Perils of Pauline. The term probably comes from the serialized version of a Thomas Hardy novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, published in 1873, in which the protagonist was literally hanging off a cliff.
When writing fiction, a cliffhanger typically takes place at the end of a scene, chapter, section or even a novel -- or in TV at the end of a season, leaving viewers waiting all summer. The goal is to make your audience want to come back for more. The question then becomes: what will create this yearning in your audience?
Exactly how you approach this problem depends a lot on your story and the possibilities you have set up. It depends, too, on your genre. If your characters are involved in life-or-death situations, then generally there will be a threat to their lives. If the core story involves, say, romance, a cliffhanger may be best created by having the hero seem about to propose. If you are writing in a genre that involves supernatural, you have many options available. You should consider, too, which emotion you are trying to produce in your readers. Despair? Hope? Anticipation? Dread? Surprise? Alarm?
Furthermore, cliffhangers create expectations that are either positive or negative in your audience. By negative, I mean that the readers are expecting something terrible to happen to the protagonists, and they don't know how the protagonists will cope. By positive, I mean that your readers have reason to believe that something wonderful is about to happen -- something the characters have longed for, striven for, possibly for chapters or even volumes -- and the readers can't wait to see it happen on the page. These are suggestions and guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. A positive event could be totally unexpected rather than something that has been anticipated for many pages.
Here are some ideas that can be used as cliffhangers:
Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could happen? Or even, what are the worst things as in plural catastrophes? Don't be afraid to pile it on. Your protagonists can be set upon by more than one trouble. Consider the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. By this time Gandalf has (apparently) died; the fellowship has mostly fallen apart, with Frodo's mission being challenged by one of his own compatriots; then they are also set upon by orcs, and Merry and Pippin are captured.
What you do after the cliffhanger depends on the format of your storytelling. If the cliffhanger is at the end of a chapter or a scene, your readers will not have forgotten the events as they turn the page, so reminding them of what just happened in the story is not needed. If you are creating a series of novels or film, and could reasonably expect that some time has gone by since your readers/viewers were last in your story (and some may have missed previous episodes entirely) you may want to recapitulate events for your audience.
Constructing a recap is a delicate business, because you want to remind and bring up to speed those who need it without boring the rest of your audience. In movies and films I am sure that the editors sweat as they pick out which scene snippets to include. There are many ways you can do this in literature. You could simply summarize the previous novel(s) in a section titled, "Summary of Previous Novel(s)." You could assume that your fan-base is so devoted that nothing is required. You could retell the events from another point of view. My co-author and I used this technique in Antigone & Creon. In the first chapter we recap the events of Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus, because without understanding the basic plot of Jocasta, readers will not have enough to appreciate Antigone & Creon. However, we retell the events from the point of view of Jocasta's brother Creon, who has a completely different take on the events of Jocasta and who knows a few things that his sister did not. Because of his unique perspective, we hope that readers who have read and who remember "Jocasta" will be entertained.
So, after you have created a cliffhanger and ratcheted up the tension, what comes next? There are several options.
One frequently used device is to leave the readers (and perhaps the characters) hanging and to skip to another thread in your story (as Homer did in The Odyssey). This approach is an artificial but effective way to ratchet up the tension by forcing your readers to wait to learn what happens. On the one hand, it may also use up some of the good will you have created with your audience as beginnings can be difficult. On the other hand, you should strive to have the new thread become so interesting that, when you switch back to the original thread, your readers leave the new thread with reluctance.
Eventually you will need to return to the characters and their cliffs and continue the story. How do you do this? Mostly this is up to your imagination and where you want the story to go, but here are some considerations.
One alternative is to have simply misled the readers. It could be what happened in the last scene is actually different than it first appeared. Perhaps the police arrived and announced that they are here to arrest Mr. Smith. In the continuation we discover that they are referring to another Mr. Smith. In my opinion this literary device should not be used at the end of a major break in your story -- such as the end of a novel or a season of TV -- but it can be a lot of fun at the end of chapter or a scene. For major story breaks, however, this approach may be considered a cheat.
Besides this, you can develop the story any number of ways, either making the situation better (from the perspective of the characters) or worse (again from the perspective of the characters). If the situation improves, how does it improve? Is it through the efforts of the protagonist, or does assistance arrive from a likely -- or better yet, an unlikely -- source?
If the situation gets worse, how much worse are you going to make it? If you have killed off a main character, does that main character remain dead and compel the other characters to cope? Or will you find a means of resuscitation, resurrection, or haunting?
Perhaps the situation's growing worse -- as when Harry, Hermione and Ron are captured and taken to Malfoy Manor in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- is what provides the information, albeit in an unexpected and unpleasant manner, for the heroes to complete their quest.
Perhaps the cliffhanger, at the end of a chapter, is simply a change for the character and life never does get better. In Roots by Alex Haley, when Kunta Kinte is taken into slavery, that's it. He never lives life as a free man again, and several generations will pass before his descendants experience liberty.
If you are writing historical fiction, such as Haley's Roots, then you may have less flexibility with respect to your resolution of cliffhangers. If you are writing in most other genres, you can frequently do much more with your imagination to treat your readers to an unexpected resolution.
Occasionally the whole chapter or even the volume of the series is devoted to dealing with the very serious problem that fell on the heads of the protagonists at the end of the previous chapter/book, only to have the action pause again on another exciting point.
The use of cliffhangers is an extremely effective technique to get your readers to turn to the next page or to buy the next volume. They are frequently manipulative, but they can also be enormous fun.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.