In the world of storytelling, there's a crafty literary device that consistently succeeds in keeping audiences on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting what comes next.

This device is known as a cliffhanger.

Used across films, television series, and literature, cliffhangers are the masterful strokes that pause narratives at moments brimming with tension and uncertainty.

Today, we dive into the art of the cliffhanger, exploring its definition, history, and the pivotal role it plays in weaving captivating tales that transcend time and genre.

So, hang on for dear life!

Cliffhanger definition

A cliffhanger is a narrative device typically used in storytelling, particularly in film, television, and literature, where a story ends abruptly at a crucial moment of suspense or uncertainty.

This technique leaves the plot unresolved, often at a high point of tension or with a dramatic revelation, creating a strong sense of anticipation and curiosity in the audience.

The term 'cliffhanger' metaphorically refers to a situation where a character is left in a precarious or dangerous predicament, akin to hanging off the edge of a cliff, with their fate unknown.

This device compels the audience to return for the next installment or episode to find out how the situation resolves, thereby maintaining their engagement and interest in the narrative.

The History of Cliffhangers

What Is a Cliffhanger? Definition and Examples

'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back'


The origin of the cliffhanger can be traced back to the serialized novels of the 19th century, where authors like Charles Dickens ended each installment with unresolved tension, ensuring that readers would eagerly await the next part.

This technique later found its way into early cinema, especially in serialized films of the early 20th century, and has since become a staple in TV and film narratives.

Why Do Filmmakers Use Cliffhangers

What Is a Cliffhanger? Definition and Examples'Lost'ABC

The primary purpose of a cliffhanger is to ensure audience retention. By leaving key plot points unresolved, viewers feel compelled to watch the next installment to find out what happens.

You want the audience to anticipate the next episode or season, and to keep watching or streaming to have their questions answered.

This strategy is particularly effective in serialized TV shows, where each episode's ending plays a crucial role in maintaining viewer interest over weeks or even months.

Or in between film sequels.

What Are the Types of Cliffhangers?

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Warner Bros.

  1. Plot Cliffhanger: These involve leaving a central plot point unresolved. For instance, a detective show might end an episode before revealing the identity of the criminal.
  2. Character Cliffhanger: This type focuses on the fate of a character, like ending an episode with a character in a life-threatening situation.
  3. Emotional Cliffhanger: These play on the audience's emotional attachment to the story or characters, such as ending on an unresolved romantic confession.
  4. Twist Cliffhanger: This type introduces a shocking twist or revelation that changes the audience's understanding of the story, prompting them to return for explanations.

Examples of Cliffhangers

Examples in Television

  • Game of Thrones: Known for its unexpected plot twists, the show frequently used cliffhangers to keep viewers engaged. A notable example is the end of Season 5, where Jon Snow is betrayed and left presumed dead for good, leaving viewers debating his fate for months.
  • Breaking Bad: This series effectively used cliffhangers to build tension, with one memorable instance being the end of To'hajiilee, where a shootout leaves the outcome uncertain.
  • Friends: Even sitcoms use cliffhangers. The end of Season 4, where Ross says Rachel's name instead of Emily's at the altar, is a classic example.

Examples in Film

  • Avengers: Infinity War: The film ends with Thanos succeeding in his plan, and half of all life in the universe disappearing, leaving audiences in shock and anticipation for the next installment.
  • The Empire Strikes Back: This classic Star Wars film ends with Han Solo captured and Luke Skywalker learning about his parentage, setting up a high-stakes conclusion in the next movie.
  • Inception: The film concludes with a scene that leaves the audience questioning the reality of the protagonist's experience, a thought-provoking cliffhanger that sparked much debate.

Cliffhangers are a time-honored narrative device in film and television, used to create suspense and ensure audience retention.

From emotional high points to shocking plot twists, they come in various forms and have been employed in some of the most memorable moments in cinematic and TV history.

Let me know your favorites in the comments.