Thursday 3 May 2018

Some Thoughts on Cliffhangers

The cliffhanger used to be a staple of story-telling.  Scheherazade used them to extend her life for a 1001 days.  The term "cliffhanger" comes from the old serial adventure films, which often ended with the heroes hanging off an actual cliff, the villain about to succeed, and the admonition to "Tune in next week!" to find out what happened.

I'm sure he'll be fine.
Today, though, they're not as popular, at least not on the audience side.  It can be incredibly frustrating to see To Be Continued... crawl across the screen when it's not expected.  Or to get to the last page and still not know who the Big Bad is, or what their plan is, or how our heroes are going to thwart it.

The issue goes back to story structure.  Regardless of whether one uses a three act structure, a five act structure or the 22 plot points of the Hero's Journey, a resolution is always the last step.  It's not always in the heroes' favour but it is an ending, one way or another.

There are points where I feel that cliffhangers are acceptable.  Some stories are too big to be told within typical page or time limits.  Dividing them into several parts is a valid choice but it's a challenge to make sure that the audience is satisfied at the end of each installment.  And it's critical that the audience knows that the story is ongoing.

I am not a fan of the start-on-a-cliffhanger technique, where the audience is shown the heroes in peril or doing something uncharacteristic, and then we flash back to "Two days earlier" and the creator shows how they got to that point.  It invariably feels like a cheap tactic to generate tension.  It's not even a particularly effective tactic since it's been used so many times. 

If an audience thinks the creator is stringing them along in order extort more sales, they will be rightfully furious.  It's a fine line between a hook and a cliffhanger, and it's mostly in the audience's perception.

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