Cliffhanger

Who Shot Mr. Burns

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 incentivize the audience to return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.

Cliffhangers were used as literary devices in several works of the medieval era, with ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ the collection of Arabic folktales, ending on a cliffhanger each night.

Some serials end with the caveat, ‘to be Continued’ or ‘the end?’; in movie serials and television series, the following episode sometimes begins with a recap sequence.

Cliffhangers appeared as an element of the Victorian serial novel that emerged in the 1840s, with many associating the form with Charles Dickens, a pioneer of the serial publication of narrative fiction. Following the enormous success of Dickens by the 1860s cliffhanger endings had become a staple part of the sensation serials.

In ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ Scheherazade narrates a series of stories to King Shahryār for 1,001 nights, with each night ending on a cliffhanger in order to save herself from execution. Some medieval Chinese ballads like the ‘Ballad of the hidden dragon’ ended each chapter on a cliffhanger to keep the audience in suspense.

Cliffhangers became prominent with the serial publication of narrative fiction, pioneered by Charles Dickens. Printed episodically in magazines, Dickens’s cliffhangers triggered desperation in his readers. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum captured the anticipation of those waiting for the next installment of Dickens’ ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’: ‘In 1841, Dickens fanboys rioted on the dock of New York Harbor, as they waited for a British ship carrying the next installment, screaming, ‘Is little Nell dead?”

On Dickens’ instalment format and cliffhangers—first seen with ‘The Pickwick Papers’ in 1836—Canadian historian Leslie Howsam in ‘The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book’ said, ‘It inspired a narrative that Dickens would explore and develop throughout his career. The instalments would typically culminate at a point in the plot that created reader anticipation and thus reader demand, generating a plot and sub-plot motif that would come to typify the novel structure.’

With each new instalment widely anticipated with its cliffhanger ending, Dickens’ audience was enormous (his instalment format was also much more affordable and accessible to the masses, with the audience more evenly distributed across income levels than previous).

The term ‘cliffhanger’ is thought to have originated with the serialized version of Thomas Hardy’s ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’ (which was published in ‘Tinsley’s Magazine’ between September 1872 and July 1873) in which Henry Knight, one of the protagonists, is left hanging off a cliff.

Cliffhangers were especially popular from the 1910s through to the 1930s serials when nickelodeons and movie theaters filled the cultural niche later primarily occupied by television. During the 1910s, when Fort Lee, New Jersey was a center of film production, the cliffs facing New York and the Hudson River were frequently used as film locations. The most notable of these films was ‘The Perils of Pauline,’ a serial which helped popularize the term cliffhanger. In them, the serial would often end suddenly leaving actress Pearl White’s Pauline character literally hanging from a cliff.

Cliffhangers are commonly used in Japanese manga and anime. In contrast to American superhero comics, Japanese manga are much more frequently written with cliffhangers, often with each volume or issue. This is particularly the case with shōnen manga (manga marketed towards young teen males, lit. ‘boys’ comic’), especially those published by Weekly Shōnen Jump, such as ‘Dragon Ball’ and ‘One Piece.’

During its original run, ‘Doctor Who’ was written in a serialized format that usually ended each episode within a serial on a cliffhanger. The producer of the series at the time, Philip Hinchcliffe, cited the 1950s radio serial ‘Journey into Space’ as an influence for its use of cliffhangers. In the first few years of the show, the final episodes of each serial would have a cliffhanger that would lead into the next serial. The program’s cliffhangers sometimes caused controversy, most notably ‘Part Three of The Deadly Assassin’ (1976), which was altered for future broadcasts following a complaint from campaigner Mary Whitehouse. The episode originally ended with the Doctor’s head held under water. Whitehouse cited it in interviews as one of the most frightening scenes in ‘Doctor Who,’ her reasoning being that children would not know if the Doctor survived until the following week and that they would ‘have this strong image in their minds’ during all that time.

Cliffhangers were rare on American television before 1980, as television networks preferred the flexibility of airing episodes in any order. The sitcom ‘Soap’ was the first US television program to utilize the cliffhanger, at the end of its first season in 1978. Cliffhangers then went on to become a staple of American primetime soap operas; the phenomenal success of the 1980 ‘Who shot J.R.?’ third season-ending cliffhanger of ‘Dallas,’ and the ‘Who Done It’ fourth-season episode that finally solved the mystery, contributed to the cliffhanger becoming a common storytelling device on American television.

Another notable cliffhanger was the ‘Moldavian Massacre’ on ‘Dynasty’ in 1985, which fueled speculation throughout the summer months regarding who lived or died when almost all the characters attended a wedding in the country of Moldavia, only to have revolutionaries topple the government and machine-gun the entire wedding party. When the series resumed, viewers quickly learned that only two minor characters of the series had died in the attack. In the 2006 CBS special ‘Dynasty Reunion: Catfights & Caviar,’ Gordon Thomson stated that it was the ‘follow-up’ that was the letdown, not the cliffhanger itself.

Cliffhanger endings in films date back to the early 20th century, and were prominently used in the movie serials of the 1930s (such as ‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Buck Rogers’), though these tended to be resolved with the next installment the following week. A longer term cliffhanger was employed in the ‘Star Wars’ film series, in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980) in which Darth Vader made a shock revelation to Luke Skywalker that he was his father, and the life of Han Solo was in jeopardy after he was frozen and taken away by a bounty hunter. These plotlines were left unresolved until the next film in the series three years later.

Cliffhangers are also sometimes deliberately inserted by writers who are uncertain whether a new series or season will be commissioned, in the hope that viewers will demand to know how the situation is resolved. Such was the case with the second season of ‘Twin Peaks,’ which ended in a cliffhanger similar to the first season with a high degree of uncertainty about the fate of the protagonist, but the cliffhanger could not save the show from being canceled, resulting in the unresolved ending.

The cliffhanger has become a genre staple (especially in comics, due to the multi-part storylines becoming the norm instead of self-contained stories) to such a degree, in fact, that series writers no longer feel they have to be immediately resolved, or even referenced, when the next episode is shown, variously because the writer didn’t feel it was ‘a strong enough opener,’ or simply ‘couldn’t be bothered.’ The heavily serialized television drama ‘True Blood’ has become notorious for cliffhangers. Not only do the seasons conclude with cliffhangers, but almost every episode finishes at a cliffhanger directly after or during a highly dramatic moment.

Commercial breaks can be a nuisance to script writers because some sort of incompleteness or minor cliffhanger should be provided before each to stop the viewer from changing channels during the commercial break. Sometimes a series ends with an unintended cliffhanger caused by a very abrupt ending without a satisfactory dénouement, but merely assuming that the viewer will assume that everything sorted itself out.

Sometimes a movie, book, or season of a television show will end with the defeat of the main villain before a second, evidently more powerful villain makes a brief appearance (becoming the villain of the next film). Occasionally an element other than a villain is also used to tease at a sequel.

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