Monday, April 4, 2011

C is for Cliffhanger

A to Z Challenge – Post by Jenny

My son closed his book and looked up at me. “You’re finished?” I asked.

He nodded, eyes wide. “But the ending was so exciting, I have to go and get the next book right away!” I could tell from his expression…he’d been cliffhangered.

A cliffhanger is a plot device which leaves a character facing a shocking or precarious situation at the end of a story. Most sources I found agree that the term ‘cliffhanger’ dates back to Thomas Hardy’s 1873 novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, wherein Hardy left one of his protagonists literally hanging off a cliff, staring into the “stony eyes of a trilobite.” (Don’t you love that?) But the act of deliberately leaving an audience wanting more goes back even to One Thousand and One Nights. By telling captivating stories that left the king in suspense, Scheherazade was able was able to forestall her own beheading. After 1001 nights, and 1001 stories, the king had fallen in love with Scheherazade and so spared her life. Oh, and they also had three sons together. (I don’t know about you, but I think the threat of beheading would give me history’s most severe case of writer’s block.)

Cliffhangers were very popular with novels serialized in the newspapers of the late 1800s. Not long after, they made the jump to silent films, most notably The Perils of Pauline, starring the perpetual damsel in distress. But some of the most popular cliffhangers of all time are from television shows. Daytime soap operas use them ad nauseam, but prime-time dramas have elevated the use of the cliffhanger to new heights. Dallas, Dynasty, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Twin Peaks, Lost, and True Blood have all famously left their viewers hanging. My sister was traveling in Europe after the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas, and even the French people she met would ask her if she knew who had done it.

I’ve never tried to write a cliffhanger, but I imagine it could be a lot of fun. How do you feel about cliffhangers? Do you enjoy the suspense, or do you prefer it when the story wraps up at the end?

(By the way, I also learned from 1001 Cocktails that a Cliffhanger is a drink made with coffee liqueur, Irish crème, brandy, and whipped cream. Maybe if Scheherazade had 1001 cocktails, she wouldn’t have needed so darn many stories.)

13 comments:

April Moore said...

Great post, Jenny. I've written cliffhangers at the end of chapters, but not to end a book. As soon as I get that huge 7-book deal, however, I will do that! :)

Name: Luana Krause said...

I agree with April. Cliffhangers are good to keep the pages turning, but not to end the story. That doesn't mean I always like happy endings. I actually prefer things to be unresolved. But that's not the same as a cliffhanger.

Langley said...

I've never written a cliffhanger at the end of a book either. I do think it would be fun though.

Kerrie said...

I like things to tie up in a neat little bow at the end of a book.

Cricket McRae said...

I drank a Cliffhanger once. Does that count? And I guess I do tend to end most of my books with relationship cliffhangers that don't affect the mystery plots.

Connie Hall said...

I love cliffhangers, and wish I was better at writing them. Sometimes I go through books and only read the last sentence of every chapter. This was a good blog.

Kerrie said...

But I am up for drinking a Cliffhanger! We could have a cliffhanger party where we drink cliffhangers and share our favorite book cliffhangers.

Gail M Baugniet said...

I liked Stallone's movie, Cliffhanger, but if I read a book that doesn't offer an ending to the story, I won't read that author again. I believe the point of a series is to continue the saga, but to wrap up each "episode" before moving on, unless the next episode is only a week away.

Patricia Stoltey said...

For me, cliffhangers work well at the end of chapters or in weekly television series (although not in the season finale). I don't like cliffhanger endings to novels when the next installment won't be released until a year later. Lee Child tried it with 61 Hours, But I thought it was annoying.

Nate Wilson said...

"The stony eyes of a trilobite." Despite the creature's eyes being possibly the last thing I'd notice, that's a killer phrase.

As for cliffhangers, I prefer my books to be self-contained stories. Leave the suspense for chapter ends, or I might be too annoyed to read on.

RosieC said...

I try to write mini cliff-hangers into the end of my chapters. That way, the reader never wants to put the book down. I don't actually know if that works since I"m not published, but it's a nice idea in theory, no? :)

I'm off to look up that drink recipe!

Rosie
East for Green Eyes

Jenny said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I also prefer a chapter cliffhanger...I like the end of a book to be the end. But, as Cricket pointed out, cliffhangers can affect more than plot. Having some things left undone between characters in a series does keep it interesting.

Connie, that sounds like a helpful exercise.

And I do need to try that drink! Kerrie, I vote for your idea.

Samantha McColl said...

Although a cliffhanger may leave us confused and wanting more, it does exactly what we want from a story: to think. A cliffhanger speaks to our innate curiosity, and perhaps, our fundamental need to be informed. I can speak for myself when I say, I am not a fan of being left in the dark. I like to know how things turn out, if only to see if my predictions were correct. Cliffhangers are a literary tool to get the wheels in your head turning, and once those wheels start it's difficult to turn them off. Wether there is a sequel to the book, short story, movie, ect. cliffhangers definitely add the suspense and that air of mystery that will keep our attention far longer than a neat well-tied up ending.

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