What Is a Cliffhanger? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Cliffhanger Definition


A cliffhanger (KLIF-hang-ur) is the abrupt ending of a plotline that leaves major elements of the story unresolved until the next installment of the work. It can be something as simple as an interrupted bit of dialogue or something as drastic as a character death.

The earliest examples of cliffhangers come from ancient and medieval literature, but they gained popularity with the serialized novels of the Victorian era, most famously in the works of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

The term itself was first used in the 1910s to describe serial motion pictures, in which key characters would face perilous situations at the close of the movie. In several notable cases, a character would literally be left hanging off a cliff until their story continued in the film’s sequel. This led to the more widespread use of the word cliffhanger to describe the specific plot device of metaphorically leaving characters—and audiences/readers—hanging.


Common Cliffhanger Elements


Cliffhangers appear in literature, movies, and television shows and have become a part of popular culture. Though different plots have different cliffhangers, they typically contain one or more general elements:

  • At least one principal character faces a mortal danger: In Catching Fire, the second installment in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, the novel ends with Katniss’s rescue while another principle character—her friend/love interest Peeta—is captured by President Snow in the Capitol.
  • A secret is revealed that changes the lives or fates of the primary character(s): One of the cliffhangers in J.K. Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, involves Professor Snape revealing himself to be a half-blood—meaning one of his parents had magic while the other did not—before he escapes with the Death Eaters.
  • A principal character must make a choice that comes with high stakes: This type of cliffhanger closes Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved as Sethe hovers between life and death. She confronts an important choice: rally, survive, and reclaim her own power or allow herself to slip away like the daughter she lost.
  • A principal character encounters a moral dilemma without a useful resolution: This is the case in George Orwell’s iconic dystopian novel 1984, which ends with Winston deciding to love Big Brother despite all the atrocities they have inflicted on him—and the world.


The Literary Functions of Cliffhangers


Writers employ cliffhangers to create tension and inspire readers to continue reading. Cliffhangers can appear at the end of individual chapters, at the end of the book itself, or both to encourage readers to return and find out what happens next. This literary device holds readers’ attention because they build drama by leaving important questions temporarily unanswered.

A chapter-closing cliffhanger often places a new beginning at the chapter’s end, leaving readers unsure of the implications. For instance, in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a chapter ends with, “I understood the instant I saw them that my life, as I knew it, was over.” A line like this makes readers want to start the next chapter to see just how the character’s life will change.

Compare this to a cliffhanger at the end of a book, where the fates of important characters are not made clear before the story’s conclusion. In Henry Farrell’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, for example, the title character, on the brink of insanity, dances for a crowd of perplexed onlookers as her sister Blanche is lying several feet away, near death. Readers never learn whether Jane is arrested and taken away or if Blanche survives.

From a marketing standpoint, cliffhangers in novel series compel readers to purchase the next installment so they can see what happens next. This also create free publicity for the story; passionate readers generate public and private discourse around dangling plotlines by positing theories and sharing unanswered questions. Recent examples would be the Song of Ice & Fire series by George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Both series held readers spellbound and spawned much discussion and controversy as fans awaited the next novels in the series.


Popular Genres that Use Cliffhangers


Though writers use cliffhangers in all genres of literature, there are a few in which cliffhangers are more common.


Suspense Novels

Suspense novels are mysteries, thrillers, adventures, spy fiction, horror/supernatural tales, and any story that relies on tension as a driving force of the plot. As such, they often include cliffhangers to increase the nail-biting atmosphere of the tale and keep readers on edge.

  • In the final pages of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, the vampire Louis attacks his interviewer before fleeing. The interviewer, referred to as “the boy,” pursues Louis, hoping the latter will bite him and make him immortal. The boy’s fate is not revealed until Rice’s third novel in the series, The Queen of the Damned.
  • Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl ends with Amy Dunne returning to her husband Nick and confessing that she orchestrated her whole disappearance to both punish him and, perversely, save their marriage. She seemingly convinces him to stay in the marriage and support her elaborate lie—including an unborn child she claims is Nick’s but was actually fathered by Desi, a man Amy seduced and then murdered. Readers must speculate about whether such a deceitful marriage could ever last or if the couple’s long-brewing animosity will eventually emerge in other ways.
  • Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary wraps with a spine-tingling cliffhanger. As Louis sits in a chair playing solitaire, the zombie-corpse of his wife sneaks up behind him, rests a hand on his shoulder, and croaks “Darling.”


Children’s Literature

Children’s and young adult literature make abundant use of cliffhangers. Because there is an immeasurable benefit to fostering a love of reading early on, cliffhangers keep young readers interested in turning the page. Take these much-loved stories for young people:

  • Cliffhanger endings are a central feature of R.L. Stine’s spooky Goosebumps In The Ghost Next Door, Danny thinks Hannah Fairchild rescued him from the burning house. Later, he learns that Hannah died several years before.
  • In Roald Dahl’s The Witches, the main character is transformed from a little boy into a mouse. His grandmother explains to him that, as a mouse, he will only live a few more years. Though an unsettling revelation, the boy does not seem to mind because it means he likely will not outlive the grandmother he loves.


Movies and Television

Outside of the literary world, cliffhangers are extremely popular in television and movie plotlines.

Soap operas, for example, have long incorporated cliffhangers into their stories. They are especially prevalent in episodes that air on Fridays or, in the case of nighttime soaps, serve as season finales. Cliffhangers are also common in season finales for situation comedies and dramas, as they produce buzz during the show’s hiatus and make viewers anxious to tune back in when the series returns. Smaller-stakes cliffhangers—like ending a scene with a character asking “Will you marry me?” or revealing an uncovered secret—are sometimes inserted before commercial breaks to prevent viewers from changing the channel.

Two popular examples of pop culture cliffhangers are:

  • “A House Divided,” the third-season finale of the nighttime soap opera Dallas, is one of the most frequently cited cliffhangers in popular culture. At the end of the episode, J.R. Ewing opens his office door and an unseen assailant shoots him twice before the end credits roll. J.R. Ewing was one of 1980s television’s bad boys, so practically every character on the show had a motive to want him dead. Viewers had to wait all summer long until the show revealed the shooter’s identity at the start of the fourth season. (Spoiler alert: It was his mistress/sister-in-law, Kristin Shepard.)
  • In The Simpsons episode “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”, a parody of the Dallas storyline, C. Montgomery Burns is the victim of a shooting. Like J.R., Mr. Burns was almost universally reviled, making everyone in town a suspect. The first half of the two-part story ended Season 6; the second part aired that fall as the Season 7 premiere, finally revealing who pulled the trigger. (Spoiler alert: It was the Simpsons’ infant daughter Maggie.)

Movie franchises rely on cliffhangers to build fanbases and increase box office revenue. Superhero, horror, and science fiction film franchises, epic adventure serials, and even some romantic drama series all depend on cliffhangers to stretch out their stories and keep audiences engaged. Consider these examples:

  • The sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes, the first in the franchise, ends with a cliffhanger that sets the stage for the other films in the series. The characters of George and Nova come across the shattered remnants of the Statue of Liberty, which reveals to them—and viewers—for the first time that the planet of the film’s title has been Earth all along—not some distant world inhabited by simian overlords.
  • At the end of the movie Before Sunset, the second in a trilogy, Celine tells Jesse he is going to miss his plane. Jesse simply replies, “I know”—leaving viewers to wonder if he stays with her or returns home.


Cliffhangers’ Relationship to Sequel Hooks

A sequel hook, or sequel bait, is a plot reference that indicates the possibility of a future story. Appearing in both literature and filmed entertainment, they may be an obvious lead-in to a planned follow-up installment, or they may be more ambiguous and merely raise the possibility of a future sequel.

A sequel hook differs from a cliffhanger because, in the former, the story’s main plot is typically resolved by the end. Instead of a huge, linger question, the sequel hook leaves a minor plot point not entirely explained. Sometimes, this is nothing more than an offhand reference the writer makes. This gives the novel or film a thread with which to continue the story if demand is strong enough.

  • Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Paradiso includes an easily observable sequel hook. In Canto 5, Dante encounters a radiantly happy individual whom he yearns to know more about. This sets up Canto 6, throughout which the “holy figure” sings.
  • In Douglas Adams’s 1979 science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the last chapter finds Arthur and his friends having lunch at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The following year, Adams released the sequel, entitled The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
  • The beloved Disney film The Lion King ends with a sequel hook: the birth of Simba and Nala’s cub. The ending suggests the possibility of a movie focused on this character, which is exactly what Disney did with the 1998, direct-to-video follow-up, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.
  • Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With the Wind concludes with a sequel hook, in which Scarlett O’Hara vows that she will return home to Tara. In Alexandra Ripley’s 1991, Scarlett, a sequel novel to Mitchell’s, the character fulfills this promise.


Examples of Cliffhangers in Literature


1. George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

The fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire series contains a now-classic cliffhanger involving the character Jon Snow. Stabbed multiple times, Snow falls face first into the snow. Dance ends shortly thereafter, never explaining whether Snow survives or succumbs to his wounds.

Ironically, A Dance with Dragons created a real-life cliffhanger of sorts. Martin released the novel in 2011 as the fifth of a proposed seven-book series. Despite his assurances that the next installments were forthcoming, the famously slow writer has yet to finish the series. Thus, fans found themselves wondering whether Jon Snow’s fate—or any character’s—would ever be resolved.

2. Anonymous, One Thousand and One Nights

One of the earliest recorded literary cliffhangers comes from the ancient Middle Eastern folk tale collection, One Thousand and One Nights, and the character Scheherazade.

King Shehryar orders the hanging of Scheherazade, his queen. To fend off her own death, she plans to tell the king a story every night, ending each one with a cliffhanger to pique his curiosity so much that he postpones her execution until he hears the end. This tactic works; Shehryar is so transfixed by her tales, he is forced to keep her alive so he can find out how the stories resolve.

3. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Chapter 34 of the final novel in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series ends on a cliffhanger. After a confrontation with Voldemort, Harry sees the sign of his imminent death, “a flash of blinding green light” that signifies his adversary has just used the unbeatable, unforgivable Killing Curse. Readers do not learn until many pages later that Harry—for the second time in his life and in wizarding history—survives the spell.


Further Resources on Cliffhangers


Culture and women’s lifestyle website Bustle has a list of cliffhangers found in popular fiction, including Gone Girl, Catching Fire, and Fight Club.

Goodreads compiled a long list of the “Best Cliffhanger Endings” in literature.

For more classic television cliffhangers, see this slideshow assembled by the Independent.

For movie cliffhangers, a few of the best examples appear on ScreenCrush’s list.


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