I’m currently nearing the end of a book I had highly anticipated reading for the past year, and I can say it has definitely not let me down. Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is absolutely enthralling, and it has a movie already in production so if it’s on your reading list as well, I’d suggest you get on it soon. I have about 100 pages left and am eagerly awaiting the end, which is apparently a cliffhanger per a friend’s warning. It’s a good thing I already have the second book waiting on my bookshelf. I can’t fathom where the story is going to end. So much has already happened, so many emotional twists and losses. Whatever this cliffhanger is, it’ll be something gut-wrenching, I’m sure. So what is a cliffhanger, and why do readers both love and hate them so much? And more importantly, are they effective tools for writers?

In fiction, a cliffhanger is a plot device where a main character is usually left in some precarious situation or is confronted with some shocking revelation just before the end of a chapter or episode or before the end of the whole story itself. Its purpose is often to create suspense or to provide a hook, a means of enticing a reader into taking the bait and turning the next page or purchasing the next book. However, a cliffhanger can be a rather precarious plot device itself, dangling on the precipice between intoxicating and frustrating, and we as writers have to walk a very fine line between the two in order to successfully snare unwary readers.

Types of Cliffhangers

There are a myriad of different cliffhangers out there, but they basically fall into one of two categories: an external cliffhanger or an internal cliffhanger. An external cliffhanger usually involves something physically happening to a character, like a grievous injury. Whereas, an internal cliffhanger represents something emotional or internal occurring, such as a conflict of values. These two types of cliffhangers directly mirror the two methods of turning a story during a plot point or climactic moment, through either action or revelation—and often both. During a story’s turning point, a revelation will sometimes lead to an action, or an action will sometimes lead to a revelation. The choice then, if applying a cliffhanger, is to decide if you want an external cliffhanger to occur during the action or an internal cliffhanger to occur during the revelation.

Here are a few examples of commonly used cliffhangers:

  • Mortal Peril (aka, a life-threatening situation)
  • Emotional Peril (aka, an emotionally devastating situation)
  • Dread (a character’s own fears or foreboding)
  • Plot Twist (a betrayal, a change of plans, an unexpected alliance, etc.)
  • Dilemma (aka, a character has to make a decision)
  • Choice (aka, a character make a decision or vow to act)
  • Discovery (a clue or lead, etc.)
  • False Lull (where everything seems to be going too perfectly)
  • The Much Anticipated Object/Moment/Place (something your character has been struggling toward is just within reach)

Placement of a Cliffhanger

During the rising action of your story structure, there are multiple plot points/conflicts with their own rising and falling actions. Cliffhangers can be placed within these plot points, or turning points, between the rising and falling action of the plot as well as in the actual climax of the plot. The exact placement depends on how you want to leave your audience dangling. What element of suspense is most likely to entice them to read the next section?

1. Before the turning point

The action is rising; the tension is mounting. Some pivotal turning point in the story is about to happen, a battle perhaps, and your reader knows it. But just before anything happens, the story cuts away to another chapter or scene, and the reader is left to wonder in agony what is happening to the characters! This cliffhanger occurs before the actual turning point and is probably the one that will frustrate audiences most. Remember back to the days before streaming services when your crime show was about to interview their prime suspect and suddenly it cut to commercial break? This is that.

Webtoons are also notorious for using this placement as a brilliant strategy for getting subscribers to pay coins to read the next episodes in advance of its release. They build the tension up to a pivotal moment, only for the episode to end before anything happens.

The purpose of placing a cliffhanger before the turning point is to create anticipation about the outcome of the turning point.

2. During the turning point

The protagonist, after a cunning game of cat and mouse, finally confronts the antagonist. They face off in a duel, only for the protagonist to be stabbed in the shoulder and left bleeding on the ground. The protagonist is left in peril, and the story cuts away to another scene. This cliffhanger is occurring within the climax of the turning point itself.

Because a turning point can contain both an action and a revelation, a cliffhanger can occur in the middle of the action scene, in the middle of the revelation, or in between the two. For example, take our dueling protagonist and antagonist. Perhaps in addition to their actual physical fight, where the antagonist stabs the protagonist in the shoulder, there’s also an ongoing battle of words, and once the antagonist has wounded the protagonist and feels he has the upper hand, he then reveals some gut-wrenching truth. Perhaps he outs the antagonist’s closest friend as one of his informants. Now you have two turning points: the action (the wound in the shoulder) and the revelation (the betrayal of his friend). The previously described cliffhanger, occurring when the protagonist is stabbed in the shoulder by the antagonist, will leave readers worrying about the character’s safety and physical health. In contrast, if a cliffhanger occurs when the antagonist reveals the betrayal of the protagonist’s friend, then the suspense of the reader will instead be focused on the protagonist’s emotional or psychological well-being. If you insert a cutaway between the action and revelation, between the stab in the shoulder and the revealed betrayal, then the cliffhanger should use the action to create suspense about the impending revelation. This should also be the case in the reverse: if the revelation comes first, a cliffhanger between it and an action should use the revelation to build suspense towards the impending action.

When including a cliffhanger within an actual turning point that contains both an action and a revelation, it’s important to consider what suspense you want the cliffhanger to emphasize because its placement can dramatically shift the focus of your audience one way or another. Regardless, the purpose of this placement is to build anticipation about the character’s well-being during this pivotal moment.

3. After the turning point

Tension has reached its pivotal point. The character is stabbed and lies bleeding on the floor. The antagonist has emotionally devastated them by revealing the betrayal of his closest friend. But then suddenly that friend appears and stabs the antagonist through the chest. The conflict is suddenly over, and yet as the scene cuts away, the readers are left with questions. Will the protagonist survive? Did his friend truly betray him? Has he come to his aid or is he simply double-crossing the antagonist for some personal gain? This cliffhanger takes place after the turning point.

The purpose of this placement is generally to create anticipation about the meaning of the turning point or the future of the characters after the events of the turning point.

4. During the resolution

Perhaps the treacherous friend steps over and helps the protagonist to his feet, encouraging him to stay awake until they can find some help. Perhaps the protagonist questions his friend about his betrayal, and his friend admits the truth of it: he did betray him.

“Why did you betray me? And why are you helping me now?” the protagonist asks.

The friend shrugs. “I had my reasons. Someone I had to protect. Maybe I’ll tell you about it if you live.”

And the scene cuts, leaving the reader now in a new rising action with a new hook: who is this person the friend had to protect and why did it necessitate his betrayal? The protagonist has safely come through his ordeal, and the antagonist is defeated, and yet there is the taste of some new rising action, the promise of future obstacles and the continuance of their story. Or perhaps the author simply wishes to leave the readers with a vague, open ending—a suggestion that, while the story itself has concluded, the characters’ lives and struggles continue on.

The purpose of placing a cliffhanger during the resolution is to create anticipation for future plot points or to create an ambiguous ending.


Cliffhangers can be notably effective. See the clamor created by famous cliffhangers in the history section below for examples. Why? Well, according to the Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the reason cliffhangers are so effective is that the human brain tends to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than it remembers completed tasks. That being said, if done poorly, cliffhangers can easily exasperate readers. So how do you make a cliffhanger successful?

First is to realize that it’s your story that creates suspense, not the cliffhanger itself. The cliffhanger should serve more as a tool to enhance the suspense that is already within the plot. If the plot points are weak, a cliffhanger will only serve to make those weaknesses more evident.

Secondly, a cliffhanger should disturb the normal flow of the narrative, upending expected or desired outcomes, without seeming out of place. Subtle buildup through careful foreshadowing is important to ensure that the cliffhanger is believable. The best way to create a truly dramatic cliffhanger is to use them sparingly throughout episodes or chapters and position the cliffhanger you want to create the most impact after a series of chapters where plot points reach expected resolutions. Then BAM! Hit them with an unresolved ending.

Lastly, it’s important for your cliffhanger to both serve a purpose and to live up to the suspense it creates. Don’t just stick random cliffhangers at the end of a chapter without considering the sort of questions you are leaving your readers with and what those questions say about your characters, your plot, and the mood it creates. Cliffhangers need to create purposeful anticipation, or else they’ll just annoy readers. Once a cliffhanger is used, be sure to follow through with a worthy shock or surprise or resolution. Don’t undercut the tension you’ve worked to create with some banal explanation.

History of the Cliffhanger

TV shows such as The Last of Us or Game of Thrones use cliffhangers nearly every episode or at the very least during the season finales in an effort to keep audiences enthralled. But when exactly did cliffhangers become so popular? In 1950, CBS aired The First Hundred Years, the first network soap opera, which brought cliffhangers to daytime TV.

It was a different time.

But it wasn’t until 1980 when the cliffhanger was made popular by the prime-time soap opera Dallas, which was to 1980 what Game of Thrones was to many of us. Instead of “winter is coming,” they had “who shot J.R.?” J.R. Ewing was the main villain of Dallas, and the season finale episode “A House Divided” ended with J.R. being shot by a mysterious assailant, leaving fans to wonder whether or not J.R. was still alive and who actually shot him.

Newspaper clipping from the Muncie Star (Muncie, Indiana, Nov 26, 1980)

Much as the cast of Game of Thrones were often kept in the dark about the episodes they were filming so as to prevent spoiling major cliffhangers, so too did the producers of Dallas keep a tight lid on the shooter’s identity. They went so far as to film each cast member shooting J.R. so that no one would know the true identity until the season premier. But what really made the J.R. mania insane is that production on the season premier episode (very creatively named “Who Done it?”) was actually postponed twice, first because one of the actors demanded a pay raise and then again due to a writer’s strike. So instead of what should have been three months, viewers actually had to wait eight months for the season premier.

(That’s almost how long we had to wait for each season of Game of Thrones. Those spoiled 80s adults.)

When the “Who Done It?” episode finally aired, it became the most watched television episode in U.S. history, with about 83 million people tuning in—that’s more than the number of voters that took part in that year’s presidential election. Even in spite of Republican attempts to buy into the craze with their campaign buttons…

A massive letdown from the campaign button of ’72.

Okay, so Dallas popularized the use of cliffhangers for season finales, but that doesn’t explain where the cliffhanger actually comes from. According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the word “cliffhanger” was recorded in 1931. So let’s journey back to the days of silent film. In 1914, the silent movie The Adventures of Kathlyn was released in a series of about 20-30 minute segments, each of which ended with the damsel Kathlyn being chased by tigers or trapped in a volcano or harassed by some really racist stereotypes as a means of bringing movie-goers back for the next segment. This was the beginning of the cinematic cliffhanger.

But still not the beginning of the cliffhanger itself.

The cliffhanger originally got its start in literature of course. The term most likely came from the 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. And no, it wasn’t an action novel. It was a romance. And kind of a mediocre one, according to critics. However, there’s a famous scene in the book where the main character is walking along with one of her suitors when he suddenly topples over the edge of a cliff. Since the novel was originally published as installments in a magazine, the poor readers had to wait for this literal cliff hanger to be resolved come the next installment. It’s okay though! The heroine did rescue her suitor! Using her underwear actually…

It was a different time.

Most people recognize this scene as coining the term “cliffhanger”—even though Hardy maybe kind of borrowed some of his material from the essays and real life experiences of author and mountaineer Sir Leslie Stephen.

Damn. The history of cliffhangers has some pretty crazy twists itself. Let’s recap. Soap operas introduced cliffhangers to daytime television; Dallas popularized the season finale cliffhanger; silent movies pioneered the first cinematic cliffhanger, and Thomas Hardy helped coin the term “cliffhanger” with his novel. So that’s a wrap, right? Sort of…See, most people seem to cite Thomas Hardy as the “inventor” of the cliffhanger, but in reality the literary device was long used before there was actually a word for it.

Picture 1836 Europe. Purchasing a book in those days cost the equivalent of $300-400 today. It was a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Enter a young up-and-coming writer by the name of Charles Dickens. He was brought on by a fishing and hunting club to add descriptions to these illustrations they printed about their illustrious adventures. Long story short, Dickens went the extra mile and ended up creating what would later be deemed his first novel The Pickwick Papers, a series of monthly publications much like magazines, that the middle and working class could afford and subsequently clamored for, thus revolutionizing the literary market. The excitement surrounding the release of the last installment of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841 was such that there is tale of Dickens fans waiting on the docks of New York Harbor to obtain their copy, eager to find out if beloved character little Nell was dead or not.

“At Rest” illustration by George Cattermole

She totally died. I mean, it’s Dickens we’re talking about. While it’s unlikely anyone actually rioted at New York Harbor as is often claimed, the clamor surrounding the last release of The Old Curiosity Shop has been compared to the similarly large clamor that surrounded the last book of the Harry Potter series. Also, according to my notes, it only took about three and a half months for a ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. These Dickens fans would’ve never survived the Firefly/Serenity fiasco.

I know what you’re thinking: this is it! Charles Dickens definitely invented the cliffhanger, right? He does seem to get a lot of credit for it. But, no. For that allusive answer, we have to go all the way back to the 8th century Middle East.

Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad are fairly popular Middle Eastern heroes, but their tales are just a handful in a collection of stories that eventually came to be known as One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights). The main story of One Thousand and One Nights centers around the sultan Shahryar, who had a very bad first relationship experience and decided no one would ever cheat on him again by beginning a very strict routine—of beheading his virgin brides after their wedding night. That is, until the most persuasive woman in history came along.

Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880

This woman Sheherazade, after the romancing part, offers to tell Shahryar a bedtime story. And damn was she good at story-telling. As the sun peaked over the horizon and her fateful date with the chopping block loomed near, Sheherazade paused her storytelling mid-action and lamented that poor Shahryar would never find out what happened to the hero. Behold! The life-saving power of the mighty cliffhanger! For one thousand and one nights, Sheherazade executed flawless cliffhangers that forced Shahryar to delay her execution so he could find out what happened next.

(Wait, you’re telling me, that this bedtime story last for … 2.7 years!? Ooof.)

So that’s the end of our journey. The origin of the cliffhanger lies with One Thousand and One Nights. I wonder why people tend to overlook this contribution it has made to literature, often offering more credit to Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. I mean, the author of One Thousand and One Nights deserves some credit of their own, right? I wonder who wrote that collection of stories anyway…

Well, that’s anticlimactic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: