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.)