As a reader, there’s nothing more exciting than reaching the point in a story that puts you on the edge of your seat—gripped and desperate to know what happens next. So as a writer, honing your skills for writing suspense is one of the most effective ways to find success and build interest in your work. From Dickens to Hitchcock, writers have used the cliffhanger as a way to entice readers to turn the page, pick up the sequel, or tune in to the next episode. We’re here to show you how to add some extra drama and suspense to your own writing, along with some classic cliffhanger examples to inspire your next project.
What Is a Cliffhanger?
Before we jump into a few examples, let’s take a look at the cliffhanger definition. The phrase comes from a 1872 Thomas Hardy novel, in which the protagonist is literally hanging from a cliff at the book’s conclusion. But the concept has been around for much longer, dating back to fictional works in the Middle Ages.
In simple terms, a cliffhanger is a point in the plot when the writer peaks the suspense by placing a key character in a difficult situation. The scene ends at this point, leaving the situation unresolved or open-ended.
Whether the cliffhanger ends the entire story or the closing of a single chapter or episode, it’s a narrative technique used to entice the audience to return and see how the character’s problem is resolved.
Cliffhanger endings have become increasingly common in books and television shows. In a world of a thousand distractions, both authors and screenwriters know that keeping an audience’s attention is a significant challenge. Shows like Game of Thrones and Doctor Who and feature films like Star Wars have all used the cliffhanger as a “to be continued” to keep audiences dying to know what happens next.
Examples of Cliffhangers
Want to build this type of dramatic tension into your own writing? Let’s take a look at some cliffhanger examples to get your creative ideas flowing.
The Unresolved Love Triangle
There are few narrative tropes more enticing than uncertain love interests. The messier and more complicated you can make your romantic relationships, the better. The Twilight books and films are a great example of this type of cliffhanger. Who remembers the Team Edward versus Team Jacob fandoms?
Throughout the books, Bella is torn between Edward and Jacob and often changes her mind about who she wants to be with. In the second film, Edward tells Bella he can only protect her if she becomes a vampire, and Jacob does everything in his power to prevent this from happening. As Bella professes her love for both men, the audience must watch the next movie to find out how their love triangle is resolved.
An Unexpected Death or Accident
Adding drama with an unanticipated death or injury to a key character is a common cliffhanger used in psychological thrillers and mystery stories. Just when the audience thinks everything will be fine, an unexpected tragedy changes everything for the protagonist.
Remember Sybil’s untimely demise after giving birth in Downton Abbey? There’s also Dumbledore’s tragic end by the hand of Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Both these events completely change the story, enticing readers and viewers to come back and see what happens next.
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Pose a Question
One of the most common cliffhangers is the unanswered question. In the Harry Potter series, the audience finishes each book wondering, “is Voldemort still alive?” Shakespeare was also a fan of leaving his audience on the edge of their seats. The outcome of the opening shipwreck in his play The Tempest wasn’t revealed until the second act!
Hope Is on the Horizon
While it may not result in a happy ending, giving your protagonist a glimmer of hope that something better is coming can be equally as enticing for your audience. Television writers often use this technique to suggest relationships between characters.
Fans of Friends will remember the season four finale where Ross says, “I take thee, Rachel” at his wedding to Emily. The camera pans to Rachels face as the credits begin to roll and the audience is left to wonder if Ross’ mistake was truly a slip-of-the-tongue or if he really would rather marry Rachel.
The possibility of hope in the pursuit of love is one of the biggest reasons audiences will tune in for the next episode or wait patiently for the release of the next season.
Take Away the Closure
Most readers expect a story to be wrapped up neatly by the closing chapters. But if you’re looking to deliver a cliffhanger ending, taking away this closure is the perfect way to keep your audience interested. Stories that are split into multiple parts, like trilogies or longer series, will usually take this approach for every book except the final to encourage readers to pick up the sequel.
Actually Dangle Someone From a Cliff
If all else fails, you can always leave your main character precariously balanced on the edge of a rocky ledge like many good thrillers do. Even Tolkien left Gandalf hanging in The Lord of the Rings. If the greatest writers of our time can indulge in some literal cliffhangers, you can too!
Leave Your Audience Hanging
Building real suspense that keeps your readers interested is one of the most challenging tasks for a writer. But now that you have plenty of examples in your back pocket, you’re ready to add some drama to your next story.
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