Definition of Cliffhanger

A cliffhanger is a plot device in which a character or characters are left with a difficult dilemma or a shocking revelation at the end of a chapter or section. Authors use cliffhangers in order to encourage the reader to keep turning pages to find out what happens, or to buy the next book in a series.

The term cliffhanger is thought to have originated with the 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. The novel was an example of the popular of the time, serialized fiction. These types of novels were published one chapter at a time in weekly or monthly periodicals. To keep readers interested and wondering what would happen next, Thomas Hardy left his Henry Knight hanging off a cliff at the end of one of these sections. Thus, the definition of cliffhanger had a literal meaning at the beginning; readers wondered if Henry Knight would escape, and how he would do so.

Common Examples of Cliffhanger

Cliffhangers are very popular in television shows and movie series. Advertisers have also picked up on the tradition, and have incorporated examples of cliffhangers in certain ads so that potential customers will be interested enough to visit their websites to learn more. Cliffhangers are arguably most popular in soap operas, which are charged with the difficult task of keeping viewers coming back day after day, week after week, year after year.

Here are some notable cliffhanger examples from television and film:

Significance of Cliffhanger in Literature

Though the concept of the cliffhanger was perhaps most popular with the rise of serialized fiction, and now with television and movie series, there are examples of cliffhangers all the way back to ancient Greece. For example, in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the reader is confronted with suitors for Odysseus’s wife attempting to kill his son, but action shifts over to Odysseus’s adventures before we learn Telemachus’s fate.

Cliffhangers are perhaps most common in certain fiction, such as mystery, thriller, and adventure novels. However, there are examples of cliffhangers in countless works of literature. Interestingly, there is a psychological effect known as the Zeigarnik effect which states that people who have been interrupted in a task remember it better than a completed task. Thus, there is some psychological that readers and viewers will not only be more interested in what happens next in a serialized work, but will also remember the details better.

Examples of Cliffhanger in Literature

Example #1

Meantime the suitors went on board and sailed their ways over the sea, intent on murdering Telemachus. Now there is a rocky islet called Asteris, of no great size, in mid channel between Ithaca and Samos, and there is a harbour on either side of it where a ship can lie. Here then the Achaeans placed themselves in ambush.

(The Odyssey by Homer)

As referenced above, even this early and classic text contains a famous example of a cliffhanger. The first four books of Homer’s Odyssey concern Telemachus’s journey to find his father, but we don’t see him again until Book XV. During this time we learn about what Odysseus has been doing, but are kept in suspense about Telemachus’s fate.

Example #2

And the King was astonished, and said to him, What causeth thee to weep, O youth? He answered, How can I refrain from weeping, when this is my state?—and so saying, he stretched forth his hand, and lifted up the skirts of his clothing; and lo, half of him, from his waist to the soles of his feet, was stone; and from his waist to the hair of his head, he was like other men. He then said, Know, O King, that the story of the fish is extraordinary; if it were engraved upon the intellect, it would be a lesson to him who would be admonished:—and he related as follows:—

(One Thousand and One Nights, translated by Edward William Lane)

The collection of stories One Thousand and One Nights gives an important function to cliffhangers. The framing device for this collection is the that a ruler named Shahryār believes all women to be unfaithful, and executes each successive new bride the day after their wedding. A cunning woman named Scheherazade puts this to a stop when she starts telling the rule a tale on their wedding night, but leaves a cliffhanger at the end so that Shahryār is forced to stay her execution and keep listening to her tales. In fact, most of the cliffhangers do not end in the sense that there is grave danger. Instead, many tales end with a character promising to tell a new interesting story which will illuminate the previous one. Such is the case with the excerpt above.

Example #3

Voldemort had raised his wand. His head was still tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear—
He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling)

Many avid readers speculated about how J. K. Rowling would end the Harry Potter series, with several theories involving Harry’s own death at the hands of Voldemort. In the seventh book there is indeed a confrontation between Harry and his , and at the end of Chapter 34 we read that Harry sees the tell-tale green flash (a killing curse). There are many examples of cliffhangers throughout the series, but this is the most dramatic; we do not find out for several pages if Harry has, in fact, died.