Today, let’s take a look at a writing technique that is both loved and despised by fiction-lovers everywhere: the infamous cliffhanger. A cliffhanger is defined as an end to an episode of a serial drama that leaves the audience in suspense. This also applies to books, movies, and fanfiction chapters. When used correctly, it can keep the fans on their toes while drawing them back in for each update. When used badly, mass fan rage can lead to a drastic decrease in viewership and/or readership.
The question is this: How can cliffhangers be used in a way that leaves the readers in suspense, but doesn’t infuriate them enough to make them drop the story altogether?
To answer that question, I’ll present a personal, specific example of what I find to be a bad kind of cliffhanger, and what I find to be a good kind through my own experiences, and say why I think they’re good or bad. From that, we can figure out what makes or breaks any cliffhanger.
Who Will Die?
This is probably the most infuriating kind of cliffhanger and/or story hook I have seen. The premise is simple: Someone’s going to die, but we won’t know who until the next episode! Oooh, the suspense!
Yeah, no. It’s a cheap, stupid tactic that shows that the writer has no faith in the plot itself. If the threat of a mystery death is what you need to keep people coming back, you’re doing something wrong. It sucked when Animorphs did it. It sucked when The Walking Dead did it. It will always suck.
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with building tension. If there’s a situation happening where someone is going to die, but we don’t know who until it happens, that’s a wonderful way to up the suspense. You may choose to do a cliffhanger where it’s left unclear whether or not the killer found someone. That’s a good cliffhanger.
What I’m specifically talking about is a scenario when you know without a doubt that someone is about to die, or has just been killed, but you have to wait until the next installment to find out who. If you’re going to kill someone, go through with killing them. Don’t bullshit the readers. Trust me. They can see right through it.
Another sucky kind of cliffhanger, which is closely related, is showing a character being gravely wounded, then ending that installment, leaving the fans to wonder whether the person is dead or alive. First of all, these cliffhangers rarely result in the character in question actually dying, so it’s lost its effectiveness over the years. Second, it’s cheap. If you’re going to kill a character, kill them. If you’re going to injure them and have them in critical condition for a few episodes, do that. But establish which it is before cutting things off. Otherwise, fans will only talk about that, and not anything else that happened in that installment, as any other events will cease to be important in their eyes.
Basically, don’t use death as a cheap tool.
On the flip side, we have an example of one of my favorite kinds of cliffhangers, provided it’s done right. A Character Revelation is any moment that reveals something shocking about a character. It could be that someone we thought was dead is actually alive, that someone has secretly been part of the mafia throughout the series, or that they’re an alien species. The possibilities are endless!
The reason why these kinds of cliffhangers work is that it leaves the fans in suspense while giving room and time for their imaginations to come up with what will happen next. They have a whole week (or month, or year, depending on the kind of installment) to come up with theories, ideas, and predictions based on this new reveal. Let’s be honest: Fan theories make up a huge part of any fandom.
Another reason why this kind of cliffhanger works is that it basically means that the next episode/book/etc. will then devote a good amount of time to explaining that reveal. This leads to character development, backstories, and other juicy bits.
What’s really good about this kind of cliffhanger is that it focuses on plot and character, rather than using cheap shock tactics to keep the fans’ attention. It puts trust in the fact that this reveal will mean something, and will shock fans while making them desperately want to find out more. It’s the tantalizing, lovely suspense that makes us shake our fists while smiling fondly at the same time.
Looking at these examples, I think I can tell you how to differentiate a good cliffhanger from a bad one: Is it respecting the audience and the story? If the answer is yes, you have a good cliffhanger. Does it use cheap shock value in order to get an overblown reaction? If the answer is yes, you have a bad one. It’s quite simple when you get down to it.
Use tactics that are specific to the plot, and trust your audience to appreciate them. Stay away from cheap strategies that leaves the audience asking a simple “Did they, or didn’t they?” question over and over again until the next installment. Your fans are smarter than that, and you are better than that.
As always, keep writing and peace out!