Cliffhanger Definition

A cliffhanger is a type of narrative or a plot device in which the end is curiously abrupt so that the main characters are left in a difficult situation without offering any resolution of conflicts.

As a result of a sudden end, suspense is created at the very end of the novel, leaving the readers in such a state that they could not help but to ask, “What will happen next?” This type of end is common to the serially published novels which end at a dramatic or suspenseful moment. Cliffhanger plot device ensures readers will buy the next installment in order to read and find out what happens.

Cliffhanger Examples in Everyday Life

Cliffhanger examples in television series are abundant. Episodes of TV series end during moments of high drama in order to ensure the following of viewers in the next episode. One famous example is the TV series “Lost” with cliffhangers in almost every episode. Commercial breaks compel writers to include a cliffhanger in the plot before each break to maintain suspense.

Examples of Cliffhanger in Literature

Let us analyze a few examples of cliffhanger in literature:

Example #1

Cliffhanger has its roots in ancient oriental literature. One example is in the collection of stories known as “One Thousand and One Nights”. The king “Shehreyar” orders her queen “Scheherzade” to be hanged. She devises a plan to tell a story to the king every night and ending that story with a cliffhanger. The king postponed the order of execution every morning to hear the rest of the story.

Example #2

The term “cliffhanger” seems to get its name from Thomas Hardy’s novel “A Pair of Blue Eyes” which was published in a magazine in a series format with a chapter published every month. At the end of one of the episodes, Hardy left his main character “Henry Knight” hanging onto a cliff staring at the stony eyes of a fossil embedded in rocks below. Since then every abrupt end has been termed as a cliffhanger.

Example #3

Shakespeare could not afford his audience to be bored and for this reason he uses a cliffhanger in Act 1 Scene 1 of his play “The Tempest”. The scene of a storm and shipwreck is depicted in a most vivid manner but the audience is unsure if anybody on the ship survived. The device is employed with the purpose that the audience will return to see the next act. Finally, the fate of the crew on board is revealed in Act 2 Scene 1 and the focus of the audience is ensured by that time.

Example #4

J.K Rowling in “Harry Potter and the Last Sorcerer’s Stone” employs many Cliffhangers. To cite an example from Chapter 3, “The Letters from No One”:

“One minute to go and he’d be eleven. Thirty seconds…twenty…ten…nine – may be he’d wake Dudley up, just to annoy him – three…two…one…
The whole shack shivered and Harry sat bolt upright, staring at the door. Someone was outside, knocking to come in.”

Obviously, you will turn the page and start reading the next chapter to know who was outside knocking at the door. The obvious reason for such endings is to create interest in the readers so they will move onto the next chapter without the slightest hesitation.

Function of Cliffhanger

By nature, man is a curious creature. Cliffhangers in any form of literature appeal to our curiosity. The main purpose of employing this device is to maintain suspense in the plot in order to ensure the interest and focus of the readers. It acts as a bait to lead the readers from one part of the text to another with more interest than before.

In TV series, where the cliffhanger tool is perhaps most popular, they make use of this device to great effect. The favorite characters of the viewers are left in a lurch and the viewers yearn to know more about their fate. As a result, viewers will for sure want to catch up with the latest in the next episode.

Cliffhangers, undoubtedly, are enjoyable to read at the end of the chapters of novels. However, it can be very frustrating at the very end of a novel as it leaves the readers discontented after all the effort they put in to read the novel.

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