Cliffhangers, Good and Bad

It’s too bad most cliffhangers suck, because I really do love them.

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I can’t entirely blame the people who use them badly.  The term itself refers to the kind of cliffhangers I hate, where we cut away with a character in imminent danger then cut back to see them rescued without an extra scratch.  I get why they became so popular in old serial films. Any kind of suspenseful, what-the-hell-will-happen-next ending is likely to pack the seats for the resolution.  If every single episode ends with one, maybe you’ll keep making each installment as must see as the last.

Like half of the Star Trek season finales that ended with a giant OMG only for the Enterprise to come back next season and solve the whole problem in the teaser, a bad cliffhanger only reveals itself in its resolution.  It buys you some time with your audience.  Cliffhangers, both good and bad, work.  At least, they work until the audience catches on that you’re cheating.

I think Annie Wilkes in Misery said it best:

Anyway, my favourite was Rocketman, and once it was a no breaks chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCK – A – DOODIE CAR!

So if the difference between a good cliffhanger and a bad one are in the resolution, what is that difference?  Leaving aside cheats like Rocketman’s retconned leap from the car, there are still a heap of really terrible cliffhanger resolutions sloshing around out there.  Especially on television.

My feeling on cliffhangers has always been this: The “What will happen next?!” suspense is nice, but that alone is not worth the cliffhanger.  That moment in The Next Generation’s “The Best of Both Worlds”, where Riker orders the Enterprise to fire of the Borg ship carrying Locutus-ized Picard is awesome.  If you happened to see it when it originally aired, you probably spent all summer freaking out over what would happen next.  It was a damn good feeling.  But when you got back, here’s what you got: The Enterprise fires…and the super-cannon does nothing.  At all.  Sure, the explanation is fair.  Picard’s knowledge of the weapon when he became Locutus prompted the Borg to prepare for the attack.  It was logical.

It also sucked.

A really good cliffhanger is one not where we cut away before the pivotal moment, but where we cut away after.  We don’t have to know we’ve passed the pivotal moment, or even what that moment means.  We could cut away after Riker says “Fire!”, provided that act – the act of firing on Picard’s ship – set in motion something irrevocable.  If the next season opened with the Enterprise damaging the Borg ship and killing Picard, yet not actually destroying the ship itself, imagine the intense episode we’d have gotten as Riker must continue to fight knowing that he has failed to end the threat, instead only killing his own captain?

A cliffhanger that convinces your audience to be even more excited by the next has to change something.  It doesn’t need to be what the audience expects to change, but if all you’ve done is made people wait for things to snap back to the status quo, you haven’t played fair.  Putting your heroes in danger for a cliffhanger doesn’t require their deaths when you return, provided their rescue costs something.  There are only so many costless, clever escapes an audience can take before they stop feeling the suspense.

In fact, if you play fair, you can get away with a cliffhanger pretty much as often as you want.  Code Geass ended almost half of its episodes in cliffhangers.  They never got old, either, because every single one changed the series.  Instead, since they let every cliffhanger push the series forward, the effect was more of an escalation; every one had you more anxious, because you knew how much getting out of the last one cost.

Guy Gavriel Kay and George R. R. Martin do much the same thing, ending chapter after chapter in a nail-biter of a scene.  But since they never cheat, nor do they allow their heroes to escape them all unscathed, each successive cliffhanger ratchets the tension further.  So their books are really, really good.

Use cliffhangers.  Use them liberally.  But try to forget how they were used when the term was coined.

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2 Responses to Cliffhangers, Good and Bad

  1. Steven Till says:

    Good post. I was going to ask — until I read the next to last paragraph — what you thought of authors who use cliffhangers at the end of every chapter or scene change. You’ve mentioned Martin and Kay as two authors who use this technique well; who do you feel uses it poorly?

  2. saalon says:

    I don’t think you get the same kind of poor cliffhanger use in book chapters that you get in television episodes, if for no other reason than that novels don’t have the same incentive to maintain the status quo of the story that television shows do.

    Which is to say, I think there are plenty of novel writers who aren’t very good with cliffhangers, but they’re less obvious and frustrating because every chapter doesn’t go back to “And then, nothing changed!”

    Though the later Robert Jordan novels come to mind, with his use of cliffhangers that, rather than resolve poorly, barely resolve at all. There are only so many chapters of new threats being introduced and none being defeated that you can take before it becomes a bore.

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