Thoughts on Cliffhangers

Cliffhanger: A suspenseful situation occurring at the end of a chapter, scene, or episode (source).

For months I’ve been promising a post on cliffhangers. You’ve been waiting, eagerly, like a kitten ready to pounce… and now it has finally come. Did you anticipate it? Was it a good cliffhanger?

I apologise that it’s taken so long, and for the never-ending stream of Dad-jokes which I have floating around in my head. There’ll be more in future posts, undoubtedly (I can’t turn them off).

Logo_of_the_100I wanted to write about cliffhangers after (re)watching The 100 on Netflix. It’s a great dystopian series.

(Side note: I complained a while back about some flaws with The 100. One of the things I’ve come to realise recently is that nothing is perfect. A great TV show that runs for multiple seasons will have bad episodes. The 100 starts out really promising, but takes some mis-steps along the way. Nothing or nobody ever measures up in every aspect (including myself), so we just have to take the good with the bad. And so I’m learning to appreciate the bits that worked well and not be disappointed that it wasn’t perfect).

Background: The 100

The basic premise of The 100 is the remnant of humanity live on a space station called The Ark following a nuclear event on Earth. However, unbeknown to most, The Ark is running out of oxygen. In an attempt to give themselves longer to solve the problem, 100 incarcerated teenagers are sent down to Earth – which may or may not be survivable yet. The 100 is the story of the teenagers surviving Earth, and all it throws at them.

Full of Cliffhangers

(Spoilers). The 100 has episode-after-episode (especially in the first season) where you just have to keep watching. It nails the concept of cliff hangers.

  1. E01: the plucky teenagers cross a river en-route to a needed food supply. They’re happy to be on the planet and enjoying nature. (After all, they’ve only ever known a sterile space station). They cross a river ‘Tarzan-style’, cheering jubilantly that they made it across. There’s love in the air and excitement and then a spear comes hurtling out of the trees and skewers Jasper in the stomach.
  2. E02: The adults aboard The Ark watch as the teenager’s bio-wrist bands indicate they are dying en-mass. Belamy, the bully is exerting his control over the teenagers. In the last seconds of the episode we see the teenagers being watched by a savage (“Grounder”) in the trees.
  3. E03: The protagonist (Clarke) makes up with best friend Wells, who for years she thinks has betrayed her. In reality his lies have been protecting her from the truth. Wells is on guard duty when a young girl sits down next to him. They have a little chat and then Charlotte stabs him in the neck and hums to him as he bleeds-out.
  4. E04: Clarke and her new flame Finn “get together”, just as Finn’s girlfriend, Raven, is coming down from The Ark. It’s going to get pointy in a way that a love-triangle does, with 3 points to stab and 3 edges to cut.
  5. E05: The Ark’s oxygen supply is worse than expected. They plan to kill off more people in a “malfunction”, when the truth comes out. Volunteers step forward to die so that others may live and are suffocated when the oxygen is turned off. Shortly thereafter, they see a signal from the Earth, letting them know that Earth is survivable (and the people died unnecessarily).
  6. E06: Belamy has a fight with his (loved) sister Octavia, saying things we know he doesn’t mean.
  7. E07: Up on The Ark the ruling council announces (to their members) that while there are 2,237 people on The Ark there is only enough drop ships for 700 people.
  8. E08: The teenagers are getting guns to protect themselves from a Grounder attack. Meanwhile on The Ark it’s revealed the new Council member is the one who tried to have the Chancellor (President) killed in E1.
  9. E09: An effort at diplomacy with the Grounders ends in sparking off a war. The teenagers think help is on its way when a drop ship comes down early, until it crashes into the ground (presumably with Clarke’s mum aboard).
  10. E10: The traitor, Murphy, who¬† they let back into their midst has turned over a new leaf and is helping to heal the sick. Only it’s just a momentary change and he sneakily kills someone in the last seconds of the episode.
  11. E11: Clarke and Finn are captured by Grounders and Monty mysteriously disappears.
  12. E12: The adults aboard The Ark plan to send the satellite down to Earth knowing that 95% of the station won’t survive re-entry.
  13. E13: After winning a big battle with the Grounders, a strange new enemy they’ve only heart of “the Mountain Men” come and abduct all the teenagers. Clarke wakes up locked in a Quarantine Ward, seeing Monty across the hall.

As you can see from this list, almost every episode ends on a cliffhanger, but not all cliffhangers are the same. From this list I can see a few variants:

  • Shock factor – something shocks the audience (this could be a good or bad shock). We’re not expecting Jasper to get speared in episode 1, and it turns the moment of triumph into defeat. And now, having known the danger is “out there” we’re completely shocked when a young girl (one of “their own”) kills one of the strongest teenagers (episode 3). We suddenly realise – again – that there’s more danger than we recognised.
  • Impending danger – could be danger to a character, or danger which threatens the plot (what the character intends to do). The Grounder watching the teenagers from the treeline in episode 2 is menacing. The teenagers are busy partying, not knowing that an enemy is so close by. At this stage we know so little about the Grounders that our lack of knowledge intensifies that fear. When Murphy starts killing sick people we wonder if they’ll discover his duplicity, and who might die first (episode 10).
  • A sense of dread – something bad is about to happen, or has just happened and we wonder what their response is going to be. This can be something that happens in the plot, or with the characters. The love triangle emerging (episode 4) and the “we just killed lots of people needlessly” (episode 5) are both senses of dread.
  • Something amazing – a lot of those above are negative/bad, but we can also be encouraged to keep reading because of something amazing happening. For a bad example, “He picked up a sword, to discover that it was a Sword of Truth”. Now, I have no idea what a Sword of Truth actually is, but I’m sure if I was reading that story I’d be wanting to know.

Notice how the types of cliffhangers are alternated and some are character-based while others are plot-based?

See too how the threat is often escalating (but not always). I agree with the Writing Excuses podcasters that cliffhangers are an ‘occasional device’. If every chapter ends in a cliffhanger it can induce weariness in the reader.

The key point is that all cliffhangers should be executed well. A bad cliffhanger, where you over-build the scenario and then under-deliver is cheating the reader. These should be avoided at all costs. (It would severely aggravate me as a reader… If an author did it to me twice I’d probably put the book down).

 

Based on The 100 I think one of the best places for cliffhangers in a novel is the first few chapters. In doing so, the hook is nicely baited.

Cliffhangers can be internal (in the body of the book) and external (at the end of the book). Great care needs to be taken with external cliffhangers. If you’re using them to bait the reader toward the next book, you need to make sure they won’t have to be waiting too long for you to release the next book.

Got any other types of cliffhangers or examples of good ones to add?