Cliffhanger

Last updated
The 1914 film serial Perils of Pauline was shown in bi-weekly installments and ended with a cliffhanger Perilsofpauline.jpg
The 1914 film serial Perils of Pauline was shown in bi-weekly installments and ended with a cliffhanger

A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode [1] of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to incentivize the audience to return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.

Contents

Some serials end with the caveat, "to be Continued" or "the end?"; in movie serials and television series, the following episode sometimes begins with a recap sequence.

Cliffhangers were used as literary devices in several works of the medieval era, with One Thousand and One Nights ending on a cliffhanger each night. [2] Cliffhangers appeared as an element of the Victorian serial novel that emerged in the 1840s, with many associating the form with Charles Dickens, a pioneer of the serial publication of narrative fiction. [3] [4] Following the enormous success of Dickens by the 1860s cliffhanger endings had become a staple part of the sensation serials. [5]

History

Cliffhangers were used as literary devices in several works of the medieval era. The Arabic literary work One Thousand and One Nights involves Scheherazade narrating a series of stories to King Shahryār for 1,001 nights, with each night ending on a cliffhanger in order to save herself from execution. [2] [6] Some medieval Chinese ballads like the Liu chih-yuan chu-kung-tiao ended each chapter on a cliffhanger to keep the audience in suspense. [7]

Victorian serials

Cliffhangers became prominent with the serial publication of narrative fiction, pioneered by Charles Dickens. [3] [4] [8] Printed episodically in magazines, Dickens's cliffhangers triggered desperation in his readers. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum captured the anticipation of those waiting for the next installment of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop ;

In 1841, Dickens fanboys rioted on the dock of New York Harbor, as they waited for a British ship carrying the next installment, screaming, "Is little Nell dead?" [3]

Advertisement for Great Expectations serialised in the British weekly magazine All the Year Round, 1860. The advert displays the plot device "to be continued". Publicite pour Great Expectations dans All the Year Round.jpeg
Advertisement for Great Expectations serialised in the British weekly magazine All the Year Round , 1860. The advert displays the plot device "to be continued".

On Dickens’ instalment format and cliffhangers—first seen with The Pickwick Papers in 1836—Leslie Howsam in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (2015) writes, "It inspired a narrative that Dickens would explore and develop throughout his career. The instalments would typically culminate at a point in the plot that created reader anticipation and thus reader demand, generating a plot and sub-plot motif that would come to typify the novel structure." [9]

With each new instalment widely anticipated with its cliffhanger ending, Dickens’ audience was enormous (his instalment format was also much more affordable and accessible to the masses, with the audience more evenly distributed across income levels than previous). [9] The popularity of Dickens's serial publications saw the cliffhanger become a staple part of the sensation serials by the 1860s. [5]

Etymology

The term "cliffhanger" is considered to have originated with the serialised version of Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes (which was published in Tinsley's Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873) in which Henry Knight, one of the protagonists, is left hanging off a cliff. [10]

However, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the term's first use in print was in 1937. [11]

Serial media

Early film

Cliffhangers were especially popular from the 1910s through to the 1930s serials when nickelodeons and movie theaters filled the cultural niche later primarily occupied by television.

During the 1910s, when Fort Lee, New Jersey was a center of film production, the cliffs facing New York and the Hudson River were frequently used as film locations. [12] The most notable of these films was The Perils of Pauline, a serial which helped popularize the term cliffhanger. In them, the serial would often end suddenly leaving actress Pearl White's Pauline character literally hanging from a cliff. [13]

Modern usage

Cliffhangers are often used in television series, especially soap operas and game shows.

Several Australian soap operas, which went off air over summer, such as Number 96 , The Restless Years , and Prisoner , ended each year with major and much publicized catastrophe, such as a character being shot in the final seconds of the year's closing episode.

Cliffhangers are commonly used in Japanese manga and anime. In contrast to American superhero comics, Japanese manga are much more frequently written with cliffhangers, often with each volume or issue. This is particularly the case with shōnen manga, especially those published by Weekly Shōnen Jump , such as Dragon Ball , Shaman King , and One Piece . [14] [15]

During its original run, Doctor Who was written in a serialised format that usually ended each episode within a serial on a cliffhanger. In the first few years of the show, the final episodes of each serial would have a cliffhanger that would lead into the next serial. The programme's cliffhangers sometimes caused controversy, most notably Part Three of The Deadly Assassin (1976), which was altered for future broadcasts following a complaint from campaigner Mary Whitehouse. [16] [17] [18] Whitehouse objected to the violence of the scene (the Doctor's head is held underwater in an attempt to drown him). She often cited it in interviews as one of the most frightening scenes in Doctor Who, her reasoning being that children would not know if the Doctor survived until the following week and that they would "have this strong image in their minds" during all that time. [19] The producer of Doctor Who at the time, Philip Hinchcliffe, cited the 1950s radio serial Journey into Space as an influence for its use of cliffhangers. [20] A later serial, Dragonfire (1987), is notable for having a cliffhanger that involved the Seventh Doctor literally hanging from a cliff, which has been described as "the most ludicrous ever presented in Doctor Who". [21] Another British science fiction series, Blake's 7 (1978-81), employed end-of-season cliffhangers for each of the four seasons the series was on air, most notably for its final episode in 1981 in which the whole of the main cast are seemingly killed. The final cliffhanger was never resolved.

Cliffhangers were rare on American primetime television before 1980, as television networks preferred the flexibility of airing episodes in any order. The sitcom Soap was the first US primetime television programme to utilise the end-of-season cliffhanger, at the end of its first season in 1978. Cliffhangers then went on to become a staple of American primetime soap operas; the phenomenal success of the 1980 "Who shot J.R.?" third season-ending cliffhanger of Dallas , and the "Who Done It" fourth-season episode that finally solved the mystery, contributed to the cliffhanger becoming a common storytelling device on American television. [22] Another notable cliffhanger was the "Moldavian Massacre" on Dynasty in 1985, which fueled speculation throughout the summer months regarding who lived or died when almost all the characters attended a wedding in the country of Moldavia, only to have revolutionaries topple the government and machine-gun the entire wedding party. Other primetime soap operas, such as Falcon Crest and Knots Landing , also employed dramatic end-of-season cliffhangers on an annual basis. Sitcoms also utilised the cliffhanger device. As well as the aforementioned Soap, the long-running sitcom Cheers would often incorporate cliffhanger season endings, largely (in its earlier years) to increase interest in the on-and-off relationship between its two lead characters, Sam Malone and Diane Chambers. These cliffhangers did not place the characters in peril of any kind, but rather left their relationship (which was at the core of the show) hanging in the balance.

Cliffhanger endings in films date back to the early 20th century, and were prominently used in the movie serials of the 1930s (such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers ), though these tended to be resolved with the next installment the following week. A longer term cliffhanger was employed in the Star Wars film series, in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in which Darth Vader made a shock revelation to Luke Skywalker that he was his father, and the life of Han Solo was in jeopardy after he was frozen and taken away by a bounty hunter. These plotlines were left unresolved until the next film in the series three years later. The first two films in the Back to the Future series end in cliffhangers, with the first displaying the "to be continued" title card. [23]

The two main ways for cliffhangers to keep readers/viewers coming back is to either involve characters in a suspenseful, possibly life-threatening situation, or to feature a sudden shocking revelation. Cliffhangers are also used to leave open the possibility of a character being killed off due to the actor not continuing to play the role.

Cliffhangers are also sometimes deliberately inserted by writers who are uncertain whether a new series or season will be commissioned, in the hope that viewers will demand to know how the situation is resolved. Such was the case with the second season of Twin Peaks , which ended in a cliffhanger similar to the first season with a high degree of uncertainty about the fate of the protagonist, but the cliffhanger could not save the show from being canceled, resulting in the unresolved ending. The final episodes of soaps Dallas and Dynasty also ended in similar fashion, though all three shows would return years later in some form or other to resolve these storylines. The Australian soap opera Return To Eden ended in 1986 with a dramatic cliffhanger in anticipation of a second season. However, the network chose not to renew the show and so a hastily filmed five-minute "conclusion" was filmed and added on to the end of existing final episode to provide closure. Some shows, however, became known for never being resolved. In addition to the aforementioned Blake's 7, the supernatural series Angel , the original 1984 series V and its 2009 remake, all ended with unresolved cliffhangers.

The cliffhanger has become a genre staple (especially in comics, due to the multi-part storylines becoming the norm instead of self-contained stories) to such a degree, in fact, that series writers no longer feel they have to be immediately resolved, or even referenced, when the next episode is shown, [24] variously because the writer didn't feel it was "a strong enough opener," [25] or simply "couldn't be bothered." [26] The heavily serialized television drama True Blood has become notorious for cliffhangers. Not only do the seasons conclude with cliffhangers, but almost every episode finishes at a cliffhanger directly after or during a highly dramatic moment, much like the primetime soap operas of the 1980s and 90s. [27]

Commercial breaks can be a nuisance to script writers because some sort of incompleteness or minor cliffhanger should be provided before each to stop the viewer from changing channels during the commercial break. Sometimes a series ends with an unintended cliffhanger caused by a very abrupt ending without a satisfactory dénouement, but merely assuming that the viewer will assume that everything sorted itself out.

Sometimes a movie, book, or season of a television show will end with the defeat of the main villain before a second, evidently more powerful villain makes a brief appearance (becoming the villain of the next film). Occasionally an element other than a villain is also used to tease at a sequel.

Peter Hogg's novel Smilla's Sense of Snow ends with a deliberate cliffhanger, with the protagonist and main villain involved in a life-and-death chase on the arctic ice off Greenland - and in this case, the author has no intention of ever writing a sequel, the ambiguous ending being part and parcel of the basic ideas permeating the book's plot. Similarly, Michael Flynn's science fiction novelette The Forest of Time ends with a deliberate and permanent cliffhanger: readers are not to be ever told where the protagonist ended up in his wandering the "forest" of alternate history timelines and whether he ever got back to his home and his beloved, nor whether the war which takes a large part of the plot ended in victory for the Good Guys or the Bad Guys.

George Cukor, when adapting in 1972 Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt deliberately introduced a cliffhanger missing from the original. While Greene's book ended with the protagonists definitely choosing the adventurous and rather shady life of smugglers in Paraguay and closing off other options for their future, at the conclusion of the Cukor film a character is seen tossing a coin whose fall would determine their next move, and the film ends on a freeze frame shot as the characters await the fall of the coin.

See also

Related Research Articles

A soap opera or soap for short is a radio or television serial dealing especially with domestic situations and frequently characterized by melodrama, ensemble casts, and sentimentality. The term "soap opera" originated from radio dramas originally being sponsored by soap manufacturers.

Bellbird is an Australian soap opera serial set in a small fictional Victorian rural township of the show's title. The series was produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at its Ripponlea TV studios in Elsternwick, Melbourne, Victoria. The opening title sequence was filmed at Daylesford, Victoria.

The reset button technique is a plot device that interrupts continuity in works of fiction. Simply put, use of a reset button device returns all characters and situations to the status quo they held before a major change of some sort was introduced. Typically it occurs either in the middle of a program and negates a portion of it, or it occurs at the beginning, or very end, of a program to negate all that came before it. Often used in science fiction television series, animated series, soap operas, and comic books, the device allows elaborate and dramatic changes to characters and the fictional universe that might otherwise invalidate the premise of the show with respect to future episodes' or issues' continuity. Writers may, for example, use the technique to allow the audience to experience the death of the lead character, which traditionally would not be possible without effectively ending the work.

Russell T Davies Screenwriter, former executive producer of Doctor Who

Stephen Russell Davies, better known as Russell T Davies, is a Welsh screenwriter and television producer whose works include Queer as Folk, The Second Coming, Casanova, the 2005 revival of the BBC One science fiction franchise Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Cucumber, Years and Years and It's a Sin.

<i>Dark Season</i>

Dark Season is a British science-fiction television serial for adolescents, screened on BBC1 in late 1991. Comprising six 25-minute episodes, the two linked three-part stories tell the adventures of three teenagers and their battle to save their school and their classmates from the actions of the sinister Mr Eldritch. It was the first television drama to be written by Russell T Davies, and is also noteworthy for co-starring a young Kate Winslet in her first major television role.

A cold open is a narrative technique used in television and films. It is the practice of jumping directly into a story at the beginning of the show before the title sequence or opening credits are shown. In television, this is often done on the theory that involving the audience in the plot as soon as possible will reduce the likelihood of their switching from a show during the opening commercial. A cold open may also be used to recap events in previous episodes or storylines that will be revisited during the current episode.

A story arc is an extended or continuing storyline in episodic storytelling media such as television, comic books, comic strips, boardgames, video games, and films with each episode following a dramatic arc. On a television program, for example, the story would unfold over many episodes. In television, the use of the story arc is common in sitcoms, and even more so in soap operas. In a traditional Hollywood film, the story arc usually follows a three-act format. Webcomics are more likely to use story arcs than newspaper comics, as most web comics have readable archives online that a newcomer to the strip can read in order to understand what is going on. Although story arcs have existed for decades, the term "story arc" was coined in 1988 in relation to the television series Wiseguy, and was quickly adapted for other uses.

The War Games is the seventh and final serial of the sixth season of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which originally aired in ten weekly parts from 19 April to 21 June 1969.

<i>General Hospital</i> American television soap opera

General Hospital is an American daytime television soap opera. It is listed in Guinness World Records as the longest-running American soap opera in production, and the second in American history after Guiding Light. Concurrently, it is the world's third longest-running scripted drama series in production after British serials The Archers and Coronation Street, as well as the world's second-longest-running televised soap opera still in production. General Hospital premiered on the ABC television network on April 1, 1963. General Hospital is the longest-running serial produced in Hollywood, and the longest-running entertainment program in ABC television history. It holds the record for most Daytime Emmy Awards for Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, with 14 wins.

A plot twist is a literary technique that introduces a radical change in the direction or expected outcome of the plot in a work of fiction. When it happens near the end of a story, it is known as a twist or surprise ending. It may change the audience's perception of the preceding events, or introduce a new conflict that places it in a different context. A plot twist may be foreshadowed, to prepare the audience to accept it. There are a variety of methods used to execute a plot twist, such as withholding information from the audience or misleading it with ambiguous or false information.

Donna Mills American actress

Donna Mills is an American actress. She began her television career in 1966 with a recurring role on The Secret Storm, and in the same year appeared on Broadway in the Woody Allen comedy Don't Drink the Water. She made her film debut the following year in The Incident. She then starred for three years in the soap opera Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1967–70), before starring as Tobie Williams, the girlfriend of Clint Eastwood's character in the 1971 cult film Play Misty for Me.

The Invasion of Time is the sixth and final serial of the 15th season of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which was first broadcast in six weekly parts on BBC1 from 4 February to 11 March 1978. It features the final appearance of Louise Jameson as the companion Leela.

A recap sequence is a narrative device used by many television series to bring the viewer up to date with the current events of the stories' plot. It is usually a short montage of important scenes cut directly from previous episodes, usually short bursts of dialogue, which serve to lay the background for the following episode.

The Mind Robber is the second serial of the sixth season of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which was first broadcast in five weekly parts from 14 September to 12 October 1968.

<i>Bugs</i> (TV series)

Bugs is a British television drama series that ran for four seasons from 1 April 1995 to 28 August 1999. The programme, a mixture of action/adventure and science fiction, involved a team of independent crime-fighting technology experts, who faced a variety of threats involving computers and other modern technology. It was originally broadcast on Saturday evenings on BBC One, and was produced for the BBC by the independent production company Carnival Films. In July 2014, London Live, a local digital terrestrial station in London, began airing a complete re-run from Series 1.

<i>Bleak House</i> (2005 TV serial)

Bleak House is a fifteen-part BBC television drama serial adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel of the same name, which was originally published in 1852–53 as itself a print serialisation over 20 months. Produced with an all-star cast, the serial was shown on BBC One from 27 October to 16 December 2005, and drew much critical and popular praise. It has been reported that the total cost of the production was in the region of £8 million.

"Utopia" is the eleventh episode of the third series of the revived British science fiction television series Doctor Who. It was broadcast on BBC One on 16 June 2007. It is the first of three episodes that form a linked narrative, followed by "The Sound of Drums" and "Last of the Time Lords". The episode serves to re-introduce the Master, an alien villain of the show's original run who previously appeared in the 1996 television movie Doctor Who.

In television and radio programming, a serial is a show that has a continuing plot that unfolds in a sequential episode-by-episode fashion. Serials typically follow main story arcs that span entire television seasons or even the complete run of the series, and sometimes spinoffs, which distinguishes them from episodic television that relies on more stand-alone episodes. Worldwide, the soap opera is the most prominent form of serial dramatic programming. In the UK the serial began as a direct adaptations of well known literary works, usually consisting of a small number of episodes.

Drama (film and television) Film and television genre

In film and television, drama is a category of narrative fiction intended to be more serious than humorous in tone. Drama of this kind is usually qualified with additional terms that specify its particular super-genre, macro-genre, or micro-genre, such as soap opera, police crime drama, political drama, legal drama, historical drama, domestic drama, teen drama, and comedy-drama (dramedy). These terms tend to indicate a particular setting or subject-matter, or else they qualify the otherwise serious tone of a drama with elements that encourage a broader range of moods.

A serial film,film serial, movie serial, or chapter play, is a motion picture form popular during the first half of the 20th century, consisting of a series of short subjects exhibited in consecutive order at one theater, generally advancing weekly, until the series is completed. Generally, each serial involves a single set of characters, protagonistic and antagonistic, involved in a single story, which has been edited into chapters after the fashion of serial fiction and the episodes cannot be shown out of order or as a single or a random collection of short subjects.

References

  1. Some are placed before commercial breaks
  2. 1 2 Snodgrass, Mary Ellen (2009). Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire. New York: Infobase Publishing. p. 292. ISBN   978-1438119069.
  3. 1 2 3 "The curious staying power of the cliffhanger". The New Yorker. 28 November 2017. Archived from the original on 1 December 2017.
  4. 1 2 Grossman, Jonathan H. (2012). Charles Dickens's Networks: Public Transport and the Novel. p. 54. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. 1 2 Allen, Rob (2014). Serialization in Popular Culture. p. 41. Routledge
  6. Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. (2011). Gender in History: Global Perspectives. John Wiley & Sons. p. 86. ISBN   9781444351729.
  7. Mair, Victor H. (2001). The Columbia History of Chinese Literature . Columbia University Press. pp.  797–798. ISBN   9780231109840.
  8. "Cliffhangers poised to make Dickens a serial winner again". The Times. Retrieved 3 September 2021.
  9. 1 2 Howsam, Leslie (2015). The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book. Cambridge University Press. p. 85.
  10. Diniejko, Andrzej. "Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes As a Cliffhanger with a Post-Darwinian Message". The Victorian Web. Archived from the original on 2 February 2017. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  11. 1994 edition, p. 433
  12. Kahn, Eve M "Getting a Close-Up of the Silent-Film Era". The New York Times (August 15, 2013)
  13. Verdon, Joan "A hike back in time to era of silent film" Bergen County Record (March 5, 2012)
  14. Mylonas, Eric (2004). Dragon Ball Z: Super Sonic Warriors. Prima Games. p. 3. ISBN   0761546758.
  15. "Brandweek, Volume 47". Brandweek . Adweek L.P. 47: 79. January 2006.
  16. McNally, Neil (14 October 2013). "Top 10: DOCTOR WHO Cliffhangers". Starburst . Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  17. Jeffery, Morgan (27 June 2018). "Doctor Who producer reveals story behind the show's most controversial cliffhanger". Digital Spy . Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  18. Dave Rolinson (2011). Alan Clarke. Manchester University Press. ISBN   978-0719068317 . Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  19. Martin, Dan (14 June 2013). "The Deadly Assassin: Doctor Who classic episode #8". The Guardian.
  20. Mellor, Louisa (3 September 2013). "Philip Hinchcliffe on producing Doctor Who, Tom Baker, special effects, Russell T Davies, Big Finish audio plays & more…". Den of Geek. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  21. "Dragonfire". BBC Online. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  22. Meisler, Andy (1995-05-07). "TELEVISION; When J. R. Was Shot The Cliffhanger Was Born". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 11, 2013. Retrieved June 14, 2012.
  23. "Movie Legends Revealed: Was 'Back to the Future' Always 'To Be Continued'?". CBR. Retrieved 5 September 2021.
  24. "The IT Crowd: Tramps Like Us". Noise to Signal. Archived from the original on 2013-03-11. Retrieved 2012-11-21.
  25. "…and we like tramps! « Why, That\'s Delightful!". Whythatsdelightful.wordpress.com. Archived from the original on 2012-03-24. Retrieved 2012-11-21.
  26. Ben Falk (2007-08-24). "One of the IT Crowd | Manchester Evening News - menmedia.co.uk". Manchester Evening News. Retrieved 2012-11-21.
  27. "'True Blood' Finale Sets Up More Cliffhangers". Buddytv.com. 2009-09-14. Archived from the original on 2012-10-20. Retrieved 2012-11-21.

Books