Cliffhanger Meaning: What You Need To Know

Are you curious about cliffhanger meaning? Here we explain how this plot device works and provide examples for writers. 

If you want to write a story that keeps readers coming back for more, you’ll need to use a cliffhanger at some point. It’s a good device for telling a story across multiple books or stories. Expect many synonyms for a cliffhanger. It’s basically a standard plot device that sets up what happens next in a story. Writers regularly use a cliffhanger in the season finale of a television series to hook viewers. 

The Definition of Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger Meaning

A cliffhanger describes when a writer leaves the audience or reader waiting for a resolution at the end of a story or plot arc by using an overt or dramatic beat.

Some books or TV shows will end an episode in the middle of a dialogue between two characters or after a key moment of action. Other stories leave a question about whether the main character died. Serialized films, TV shows and soap operas often leave key plot elements unresolved until even the second or third season to hook viewers.

As a writer, if you get to the end of a story and leave major plot elements unresolved, you’ve worked a cliffhanger into the story. It’s a great way to keep the audience interested because they will want to read the next story or watch the next episode to figure out how these major plot elements are resolved. 

Where Did the Term Cliffhanger Come From?

Where did the term cliffhanger come from?
Cliffhanger is a metaphor for leaving essential plot elements and characters unresolved

As the name suggests, the audience is meant to picture a character dangling from the edge of a cliff. In some cases, that is exactly what happened. The term came to life in the early 20th century, as it was tied to motion pictures where the character might be facing a perilous death at the close of the movie. Then, the audience would not know if the character got pulled up from the edge of the cliff or if the character fell to his or her death. This issue would not be resolved until the next movie came out.

Now, the term is not used literally in most books or films. It’s a metaphor for leaving essential plot elements and characters unresolved. Essentially, the audience is left hanging, so the name still makes sense. 

Why Do Writers Use Cliffhangers?

Many people believe the writer should simply resolve the story right then and there. Indeed, it is not unusual for audience members to get upset when something ends on a cliffhanger.

The biggest role of a cliffhanger is to create tension in the story. That way, the reader will keep reading. Sometimes, the next installment might be available to stream, and people can seek resolution immediately. In other cases, the audience might have to wait for the right or to release the next book or for the next episode of the TV show to come out.

Ultimately, the biggest goal of a cliffhanger is to hold the audience’s attention. There is a significant amount of drama in having important questions unanswered. There are even cases where a cliffhanger is placed at the end of a chapter. Then, the reader has to turn the page to figure out what happens next. 

Of course, it is important not to overlook the financial element of a cliffhanger. If there is a cliffhanger at the end of a novel, it encourages readers to purchase the next book. That way, they can see what happens next. There is also a lot of publicity generated by a cliffhanger because people will talk about what they think happened at the end of the book.

5 Important Parts of a Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger meaning
Depending on the type of story, a cliffhanger can appear in multiple ways

Today, cliffhangers show up in television shows, movies, books, magazines, and more. Essentially, they have become a part of popular culture because the audience likes the suspense and thrill. Depending on the type of story, a cliffhanger can appear in multiple ways. A good one uses at least one of several important elements.

1. Mortal Danger

There is typically some element of mortal danger involved in a cliffhanger. Take a look at the earliest examples of cliffhangers. The main character is usually left hanging on the edge of a cliff. Now, there are multiple types of mortal danger the main character might face. For example, a story may close with the main character being captured and taken to an enemy prison. 

2. A Secret Is Revealed

It is also possible that there might be a secret revealed that changes the story’s path. For example, imagine if Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back ended with Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he is his birth father. Even though the movie did and shortly after that, this is an example of a major cliffhanger. How will this change the way the rest of the story unfolds? The audience is left hanging, which is why it leads beautifully into Episode VI. 

3. The Main Character Makes a Difficult Choice

A cliffhanger can also end with the main character being forced to make a tough choice. In many cases, the audience must choose between life and death. It’s a common type of cliffhanger employed by movies using the hero’s journey.

Or, the main character is forced to choose between their family or career. The story may end up shortly after this choice becomes apparent, leaving the audience to wait until the next installment to see what the character chooses. For example, at the end of season three of Friends, Ross opens a bedroom door to Rachel or his girlfriend Bonnie. But the audience doesn’t find out his choice till the next season.

4. A Moral Dilemma

It is also possible that a character might face a significant moral dilemma. For example, in the book 1984 by George Orwell, the book ends with one of the main characters deciding to love Big Brother even though Big Brother has inflicted a wide variety of significant atrocities on the world. There are numerous other stories where the character is forced to choose in the middle of a moral dilemma, which is why this is such a powerful Cliffhanger. What is the character going to choose?

5. Withhold Key Information From the Reader

You should also withhold key information from the reader as the cliffhanger unfolds. A brilliant example of this is in Game of Thrones, where numerous episodes end with a major character having a serious wound. The audience doesn’t know if the character lives or dies until the next episode starts.

These are just a few of the numerous important elements of a cliffhanger. Even though a cliffhanger doesn’t necessarily need to have all of these important elements, they frequently appear in movies, TV shows, and books. 

The Final Word on Cliffhanger Meaning

Clearly, a cliffhanger ending can have a significant impact. The goal is to create a suspenseful situation that encourages the audience to figure out what happens next. The use of cliffhangers across multiple stories can even encourage someone to go out and purchase the next instalment. At the last moment, the book or TV show ends, leaving a lot of important questions unanswered. If you find this article helpful, here’s a short storytelling exercise. Take one of your recent short stories or even novels and outline a potential cliffhanger using one of the elements listed above.

FAQs About Cliffhanger Meaning

Where does the term cliffhanger come from?

This term became popular in the early 20th century when movies were first released. It was not unusual for the movie to end with the character hanging on the cliff edge, leading the audience to wonder whether the character died or survived.

Why should I include a cliffhanger at the end of my story?

You can use a cliffhanger in your story to create tension and suspense. People will talk about your story, trying to figure out what happened at the end. Then, you can encourage people to keep reading to figure out what happened. You can resolve the cliffhanger in the next installment. 

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