Cliffhangers: What Are They and How to Write One (Plus Examples)
Leaving an unresolved story presents one of the most significant challenges as a screenwriter; how badly will it anger the audience? It’s widespread for writers all over the spectrum to directly pander to their audience without any care about taking risks or trying something new for the art form.
Thankfully, cliffhangers are an excellent way for writers to take a risk with their script while adding another layer to the matter. Nevertheless, are you confused about cliffhangers, what they are, and how to write one? If that’s the case, you’re in the right place. Below will highlight what a cliffhanger is, features of a cliffhanger, how to write one, and examples. Let’s take a look!
Still from 'Blade Runner (1982)'. Photo credit: Looper
What is a Cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is a component of a story that’s unresolved that leaves suspense or shock. The entire point is to either compel the audience to stay tuned for the next act, film, or episode in the story. However, it is common for a cliffhanger to be the story’s ending, leaving it up for interpretation. Examples include:
● An Unanswered Question
● A Loss
● Dangling What The Character Wants
● A Threat
● A Ticking Clock
● An Accident
● Unexpected News
Constant Cliffhanger Investigation
Mysteries tend to evoke a constant cliffhanger investigation, a way of causing the audience to wonder what’s to come constantly. Rather than have a singular cliffhanger of wondering what happened at a crime scene or where a character went off to, the constant cliffhanger can change as the story goes on.
Television v Film Cliffhangers
The length and potential of a script can heavily sway the dynamic of a cliffhanger. For example, a film would only use a cliffhanger as the intro to cause the audience to want more, as the ending (for ambiguity or to tie in a sequel), or throughout the film if it’s more of a mystery. In comparison, an episode of a television series will typically end on a cliffhanger to get the audience to want more.
Will the Cliffhanger Be Answered?
The most significant challenge writers have with cliffhangers is to leave it ambiguous, up for interpretation, or eventually answered. Television series have a constant slew of cliffhangers that are almost always resolved the following episode. Still, a television series and film have the issue of answering every question or leaving some on the table. Will the main character die? What happens next? Who did it? Points that should be kept in mind while writing.
Ending On A Cliffhanger
Besides the classic mystery sense of a cliffhanger, there’s the other avenue of ending on a cliffhanger. General audiences enjoy a happy story where everything is resolved. Although it tends to be the case with blockbusters, taking chances is what writing is all about. Endings can be ambiguous, up for interpretation, or anything for that matter.
How to Write a Cliffhanger
Cliffhangers are often confused with twists, a moment in the story where a grand reveal occurs. Unlike twists, the answer tends to not come to fruition with a cliffhanger. Although plenty of scripts feature a twist and a cliffhanger, understand that the cliffhanger is all about leaving the audience wanting more.
1. Withhold information, and don’t be afraid to confuse the audience.
2. Stay focused on the story at hand.
3. Keep each act’s ending concise.
4. Have the cliffhanger focus on the protagonist.
Cliffhanger Examples (SPOILER WARNING)
The best way to create an excellent cliffhanger is to examine cliffhangers that have already been done—writing a television pilot but don’t know how to end it, causing the audience to want more? Want your feature film to be highly ambiguous like any great David Lynch flick? Examples are there for a reason, so use them.
1. Star Wars
Every Star Wars installment outside of the concluding episodes relied on a cliffhanger to cause the audience to want more. A great and most notable example is when Darth Vader is revealed to be Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, leaving Luke hopeless with no solution in front of him. How great is that moment?
2. Breaking Bad
Although Breaking Bad featured a constant change of characters, enemies, and obstacles, the cliffhangers are what kept the audience along. The best example is during the final season’s mid-season finale when Hank discovers who Heisenberg is. What happens next? Well, we eventually got to know, but boy did it crush us to wait.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
When it comes to ambiguous endings, no one has debated the ending of Blade Runner more. Although the theatrical release gave us a lame car-ride voice-over ending, the Final Cut had a more ambiguous ending, leaving us to wait for its sequel desperately.
4. In Bruges (2008)
In Bruges is one of the best Dark Comedies ever made, and its ending is an excellent display of wondering if the protagonist lives or not. Does Ray end up being okay? What about Chloe? It’s up to us to make a guess.