Sunday, April 28



Today I'd like to talk about Cliffhangers.

I've been reading Dean Wesley Smith's mini-series about ghost writing a 70,000 word novel in 10 days. (And he's doing it! It's day 9 and he has less than 8,000 words to go.)

One thing Dean has talked about are cliffhangers. He doesn't outline--he's not saying writers shouldn't, just that it's not his style--but he does try and end chapters on cliffhangers.

That got me wondering, What exactly is a cliffhanger and what different kinds are there?

What Is A Cliffhanger?

Here's what Wikipedia has to say:
A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction 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. (Cliffhanger, Wikipedia) (a great but addictive website) adds that the cliffhanger can involve "some or all of the main characters" (Cliffhangers).

Basically, a cliffhanger is when a character your audience cares about is put in jeopardy and left there. At least for a short time. Perhaps you put the cliffhanger at the end of a scene, or the end of a chapter, or the end of an act. You can put it in anywhere there some sort of a pause, break, in the action. Then you have the obligation to resolve the cliffhanger when the story resumes.

I read once that in the early days of European theater, playwrights started using cliffhangers before a scene change so audience members would return! A cliffhanger is another way of making folks care about what happens next, care enough to, hopefully, turn the page.

What Makes A Great Cliffhanger?

As TV Tropes notes, a great cliffhanger will have you on the edge of your seat screaming, "What happens next?!" But how do we, as writers, craft that?

The following advice comes from Martin Ralya, in his wonderful article Key to a Good Cliffhanger. Although Martin was thinking of paper and pencil gaming when he wrote this, storytelling is storytelling. Martin writes:
The key to a good cliffhanger is ending your session on a pause in the action, not right in the thick of it.

That may seem counterintuitive at first, but it’s actually pretty easy to implement. Let’s tackle this tip with a classic example: a big battle.
A climactic battle might break down into five segments:
  1. Opening skirmishes
  2. Major wave of enemy attacks
  3. Wave of attacks is repulsed
  4. More skirmishing
  5. Final showdown with the Big Bad
Assuming that the PCs [Player Characters] are heavily involved in segments 3 and 5 (the two most important parts of the battle), you should put your cliffhanger right before segment 5. (If you put it in 1, 2 or 4, that wouldn’t be a cliffhanger.)

Kinds Of Cliffhangers

There isn't just one kind of cliffhanger since there are many ways to put one's main characters in peril.

In her engaging article, Cliffhangers, Anne M. Leone writes:
My go-to resource on most plot-related things is the wonderfully organized and helpful Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Bell has created a list of nine different types of cliffhanger endings (or as he calls them, Read On Prompts):

Impending disaster
Dangerous emotions
Mysterious dialogue
Secret revealed
Major decision / vow
Announcement of a shattering event
Reversal / surprise
Question left in the air
Anne gives a lot of great examples of Cliffhangers from literature. Her article is definitely worth the read. TV Tropes mentions the Bolivian arm ending. This is probably a kind of impending disaster cliffhanger (the first one on James Bell's list), but I'll include it here anyway. If you have time, investigate some of the links in the quotation, lots of great information there.

Bolivian army ending

A Bolivian Army Ending occurs when the main characters face seemingly insurmountable odds which, for once, they fail to surmount, although their ultimate doom is sometimes left to the audience's imagination. The trope is named for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which ends with the two heroes surrounded by seemingly the entire Bolivian army (more likely just a company of riflemen) after escaping from the States. They could surrender, but instead they choose to come out all guns blazing. The film ends just as they do so, and we never see them die. ...

Nowadays, thanks to Conservation of Ninjutsu, there is a 99% chance that any character caught in a Bolivian Army Ending would survive if the incident took place earlier in the film. (Bolivian army ending)
A Conservation of Ninjutsu is a principle that states:
In any martial arts fight, there is only a finite amount of ninjutsu available to each side in a given encounter. As a result, one Ninja is a deadly threat, but an army of them are cannon fodder. (Conservation of Ninjutsu)
But there's more:
... the Bolivian Army Cliffhanger, can be used in TV shows and other serial media to raise the audience's tension over which characters survive to the next season or installment. See Uncertain Doom for scenarios in which a character's fate is left hanging in the middle of a work, season or installment rather than at the end.

Can be considered a variation of a Downer Ending, although it's ambiguous enough to give the viewer/reader some hope. When the camera cuts to a different scene unrelated to the battle right before the work ends, this overlaps with Charge Into Combat Cut.

Examples Of Cliffhangers

For examples of cliffhangers, see the bottom of TV Tropes post on Cliffhangers. Here is a link to some examples of cliffhangers in film.

I don't use cliffhangers enough in my own work, that's something I need to do more research on. I'm going to spend some time going over these examples and thinking about the different sorts, categories, of cliffhangers one could use.

Question: Do you use cliffhangers in your own work? What is your favorite cliffhanger in literature, TV, film or the theater?

Other articles you might like:

- New Minimum Length For Ebooks On Amazon: 2500 Words
- Word Processing Apps For Writing On The Go
- Dean Wesley Smith, Harlan Ellison, The Internet, and Writing A Book In 10 Days

Photo link: "crisp way" by fRandi-Shooters under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Wow, thanks for the shout-out! This is such a thorough overview of cliffhangers (something I really struggle with myself, hence my original post!) that I think I'll be bookmarking it for my own future use.

    1. Hi Anne! Love your article, thanks so much for writing it.

      Thanks for your kind words. :)

      I do that too, all the time! Blog about things I want to learn. It's great! (grin)


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