This article will explore the cliffhanger, as a screenwriting mechanism, and how best to deploy it in your screenplay.
We’ll examine the following:
- What is a Cliffhanger?
- What Effect Does a Cliffhanger Have? Why Use One.
- What is an Example of a Cliffhanger?
- What Films and TV series feature Cliffhangers?
- And How Do You Write a Good Cliffhanger? The 10 Essential Steps.
What Is A Cliffhanger?
“A cliffhanger is a type of narrative or a plot device in which the end is curiously abrupt, so that the main characters are left in a difficult situation, without offering any resolution of conflicts”
Why Are Cliffhangers Used?
A Cliffhanger Can...
- Add suspense and tension
- Provide a shock moment
- Engage the audience
- Change the seemingly conclusive narrative
- Leave the audience wanting more
- Give the audience a question left unanswered- why has it been left open-ended?
What is an Example of a Cliffhanger?
- A major character death – death tends to be a frequent choice to shock the audience and twist the narrative
- An accident or event
- A divorce/ separation
- A couple getting together (then perhaps something goes wrong)
- Characters deciding to leave
Films and Television shows use cliffhangers to hook and shock viewers. However, they are arguably best used and most effective in television series, typically the drama/thriller genre.
Cliffhangers in Television:
Cliffhangers are frequently used in Television shows. This is primarily due to the format of television – the function is to continually keep audiences hooked and interested in the show and generate buzz.
Cliffhangers in Films:
Many films employ cliffhangers at the end of the narrative. Admittedly, some films do this more successfully than others. Typically, it is franchises that make use of cliffhangers. This is understandable as it’s an effective way to make the audience eagerly await its sequel and keep audience excitement and interest.
Examples Of Famous Film Cliffhangers Include:
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
- Gone Girl
- The Birds
- The Dark Knight
- Avengers Infinity War
- The Hunger Games – Catching Fire
- The Italian Job
- Shutter Island
- Avengers End game
- Source Code
- A Quiet Place
- Lost In Translation
- Pirates Of The Caribbean (2006)
What A Good Cliffhanger Should Include…
We Have Created Eight Essential Steps To Follow To Write A Convincing Cliffhanger.
SPOILER ALERT * Due to the very nature of cliffhangers, spoilers are ahead*
STEP ONE: A Cliffhanger Must Serve A Purpose And Function…
It may seem obvious, but this is an essential stage to focus on. The worst uses of cliffhanger endings appear in narratives in which the writer didn’t know how else to end the film so decided to leave it open-ended without any development. Your cliffhanger must be valid and make sense. It must serve a purpose.
Avengers Infinity War:
- In Avengers Infinity War, the impact of the cliffhanger pays off and functions very well. The purpose of the ending and the function of the cliffhanger is to shock (and grip) the audience.
- The film ends with the supposed elimination of half the world’s population and half of The Avengers (and the supporting superheros) are wiped out.
- Given that the function of The Avengers is to protect the world, the cliffhanger’s purpose is to alarm and concern the audience. Are The Avengers over? How will they defeat Thanos now half the team and population have been wiped out?
- The cliffhanger works extremely well at adding in a twist to the typical superhero narrative. In the previous films, the team have defeated the obstacle and enemy, ending the films with a resolution. However, the cliffhanger emphasises the lack of uncertainty about the future of The Avengers.
- It functions to entice the audience to want the sequel to find answers.
Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring:
- Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring’s cliffhanger ending is extremely sudden. It functions well at both surprising and confusing the audience. The cliffhanger’s purpose is to engage the audience in the journey Frodo and Sam will be going on.
- The film suddenly ends mid-scene. There is a cut suddenly as the characters begin their journey to Mordor.
- This works effectively at hooking the audience. It functions to make them question what will happen next. It keeps them eager for the next instalment in the franchise.
- This cliffhanger is an example of one which typically frustrates and aggravates audiences. This is deliberate. The ending is sudden and lacks any warning. We have started the journey with them and want to continue with them until they reach their destination.
- The writer wants to provoke this reaction from audiences to generate buzz and excitement for the sequel.
- In Gone Girl, the film ends on the cliffhanger ending of the audience not knowing what Nick will do.
- The film ends with Nick talking with Margot unsure on what to do next. It functions to make the audience guess what will happen next. It also makes the audience fear for Nick. We are aware of the threat staying with Amy poses, so the unresolved ending is ominous.
- Unlike franchise films which end on cliffhangers but plan to resolve this in the following film, this is a stand-alone film. The cliffhanger functions on a more ominous level.
- In BBC’s Sherlock, the cliffhanger of Sherlock jumping to his death functions as a means of surprising its beloved fans. It’s purpose is to create the ‘shock-factor’ amongst the audience and fans. It calls into the question the likelihood of a subsequent series if the protagonist has died.
- It leaves the audience puzzled, how will Sherlock solve this case if he is dead?
- In Killing Eve, the cliffhanger endings (the endings of all three series) function in a similar way – to shock and entertain audiences.
- Series One’s cliffhanger ending of Eve stabbing Villanelle shocked audiences because we assumed she killed the series’ villain and central character – calling into question if there would be a following series.
- Series Two’s ending of Villanelle’s shooting Eve had the same effect as above. The function again, to call into question their relationship and the likelihood of a following series.
- However, Series Three’s ending of the two going their separate ways is ominous. Its purpose and function is to make audiences wonder if the two will reunite again.
The Takeaway: Whether to leave the audience with ambiguity or to keep them hooked for another instalment, the cliffhanger must serve a purpose. The film cannot just end for no reason, with the sole intention of shock.
STEP TWO: Is It An Internal Or External Cliffhanger?
A key factor you should consider then writing your cliffhanger is what type of cliffhanger it is. Is it physical e.g. Does a character die? Is there an accident? Or, is it internal? Has something dramatic just happened and internally altered the protagonist‘s life forever?
- In Avengers Infinity War, the cliffhanger is external. As discussed, the film ends with half of the world’s population and The Avengers team having been physically eradicated. This cliffhanger is external as the characters in the film are physically impacted by the ending.
- There is no question of what happened. The external cliffhanger serves to solidify what happened, making the cliffhanger all the more effective.
- Likewise, in Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, the film ends on a physical cliffhanger. The film stops just as Frodo and Sam are about to start their journey. Here, the cliffhanger is not as dramatic as with the previous example.
- However, it is external because it ends with the two beginning their journey. They are in the middle of physically doing something when the film ends. This physicality makes the ending even more frustrating for the audience.
- Whereas, in Gone Girl , the cliffhanger is internal. By that, we mean we do not know what Nick will do. Is he going to stay with Amy and be trapped? Or will he leave? This ambiguous ending gets audiences thinking, especially since it is a closed-narrative.
- The cliffhanger is internal due to the uncertainty surrounding Nick’s future. Nothing dramatic physically happens. This is an effective use of an internal cliffhanger because the focus is more on the character as opposed to the narrative itself.
- As mentioned, BBC’s Sherlock‘s cliffhanger ends with the death of Sherlock. This cliffhanger is external because Sherlock is physically impacted. The series ends with the central character committing suicide.
- This cliffhanger effectively functions to create a sense of finality to the series and character.
STEP THREE: The Cliffhanger Must Disturb The Narrative Equilibrium…
A central function and purpose of cliffhangers is their need to succeed in disturbing the narrative equilibrium. That’s the purpose of cliffhangers – to dramatically alter the ending the viewers had either hoped for or predicted happening.
Avengers Infinity War
- In Avengers Infinity War, the cliffhanger disturbs the equilibrium as the ‘normality’ of the Avengers winning and defeating Thanos does not occur.
- However, the film ends with the team losing. This breaks the sense of normality in a world in which the audience assume they have the ultimate power.
- It is an effective use of not restoring the narrative equilibrium, as it calls into question the significance and ability of the team and to what extent they will be able to restore normality in the sequel.
A Quiet Place
- Another film which narrative’s equilibrium is disturbed and doesn’t return to normality by the end is A Quiet Place. The film’s premise centres on the characters being unable to speak due to the enemy/monster being attracted to sound.
- By the end of the film, the father of the family sacrifices his life to save his family. However, this does not defeat the ‘monster’, it only momentarily saves the family. Therefore, equilibrium and normality of the characters being able to speak is not restored.
- However, it is important to note how from the offset the characters are unable to speak, therefore the audience’s sense of normality is already skewed. Therefore, the decision to end the film on a cliffhanger, and thus not restoring the equilibrium makes it all the more interesting.
- The audience are left desperately wanting to know what will happen next and if the characters will survive.
- In BBC’s Sherlock, the normality of Sherlock appearing almost superhuman and unable to die is broken. The cliffhanger of him falling to his death destroys all sense of narrative equilibrium. We are left in shock because the show’s protagonist is dead.
- Killing Eve’s cliffhangers also effectively break the narrative equilibrium.
- As discussed, all three series’ endings centre on Eve and Villanelle. Both Series One and Two’s endings, with either Villanelle and Eve being injured, disrupts the series’ narrative perspective of following both characters. In both instances, their survival is put into question.
- Similarly, Series Three’s end disturbs the narrative sense of normality i.e. the attraction and obsession between Eve and Villanelle. The ending with the two going their separate ways distorts the narrative we have been following thus far throughout the series.
STEP FOUR: The Cliffhanger Must Be Developed And Not Rushed:
To write a successful and well-executed cliffhanger, you need to ensure that the rest of the narrative is well-crafted. However, the cliffhanger needs to be well-developed and executed in the right pace. You shouldn’t rush the screen-time/duration of the cliffhanger.
It needs to be developed to gain dramatic effect, especially for the audience.
- In Gone Girl, the cliffhanger ending is drawn out and is effectively left in the hands of Amy. Once she decides to ‘take back control’ over the narrative by returning, the ending of Amy’s return and entrapment of Nick is developed and drawn out.
- For instance, having returned and creating a false narrative that Desi attacked her so she killed him in self-defence, she blackmails Nick. She claims to be pregnant and if Nick leaves her now the world will turn against him. This cliffhanger is drawn out: the couple appear in a press interview discussing their future together.
- Alongside this being shown, the audience witness a torn and distraught Nick with Margot unsure on what to do.
- The ending captures the film’s sense of uncertainty and effectively leaves it for the audience to imagine what will happen next.
- BBC’s Sherlock, the cliffhanger is built up to.
- There first is a scene between Moriarty and Sherlock. Here, he faces his true enemy. The stakes are high and there is a chance for Moriarty to shoot him. However, this is drawn out when Moriarty commits suicide, shortly followed by Sherlock’s call to John where we witness his suicide.
- The phone call between John and Sherlock drags out the scene and functions effectively at building up to the cliffhanger.
- After he jumps, there is a sense of time standing still. This is created through the use of slow-motion and John’s inability to quickly get to Sherlock. Additionally, the use of camerawork makes the cliffhanger all the more effective. For instance, we never actually see Sherlock’s face – this only adds to the drama and chaos of the ending.
- Broadchurch, has well-developed cliffhangers. Typically, the episodes end on an informative, revealing piece of information. These are usually effectively built-up to throughout the episode.
- For instance, throughout the penultimate episode, numerous narrative threads are developed (The investigation with the focus on Ellie and Alec); The trial and the marriage between Mark and Beth deteriorating).
- However, the central set-up was Mark’s trial and his involvement with his son’s death as well as his affair. This is developed throughout the episode, however it ends with him on trial. The episode ends on a cliffhanger in which we do not know if he will go to prison or not.
STEP FIVE: The Rest Of The Narrative Must Be Layered And Have Peaks And Troughs:
As we have already emphasised, the narrative itself needs to be solid and well-constructed.
It is essential that the rest of your narrative is well-developed and layered. The cliffhanger should not be the central focus of your film. It is a key part and needs to be carefully deployed. However you need to make sure that everything building up to it makes sense and is logical.
You should aim to write a complex narrative. Within this, the narrative must include peaks and troughs.
You should be led one way, and then that path should be obstructed, leading the viewer down a new way. This is how a cliffhanger will blend in well and not seem an affectation. It will be another element thrown in to take the audience in a new direction, rather than a sole twist.
Avengers Infinity War
- Given Avengers Infinity War (and Avengers Endgame)’s action genre, it isn’t surprising that the film has a fast-driven, layered narrative.
- The film’s narrative isn’t that complex but it follows several different leading characters and their individual storylines.
- There are peaks and troughs in Avenger’s Endgame. For instance, there are several moments throughout the film which change the dramatic course of the narrative.
- Firstly, there is the struggle to get all of The Avengers together. Once they are prepared to undo time- there is a peak in the narrative.
- However, there is a trough when one of the leading characters is killed off (Black Widow). This is the first real low point in the film. However, it soon picks up as it gives the other Avengers a push to defeat Thanos.
- Another key low point in the film is the death of Tony – one of the (if not the) main Avengers.
- The film is the end of the franchise and ends on a sombre note, but comes to a resolution after the whirlwind narrative.
- Gone Girl is one of the most effective examples of a complex, layered narrative that misleads the audience. The film is structured into two parts: the first section focuses on Amy’s disappearance and on Nick. Amy is described as an innocent woman and Nick as the cheating husband.
- Throughout this section the Nick experiences several highs and lows: He discovered his wife is missing; He becomes the prime suspect; His private life and affair is exposed and he is arrested for Amy’s murder.
- The second part focuses on Amy and her revenge on Nick – here she is painted as the villain.
- The narrative is highly layered and is constantly misleading the audience. It is this structure which highly effective and makes the ending all the more dramatic.
The examples below all have highly complex, and twisting narratives to keep the viewer hooked and engaged in the narrative.
- Killing Eve‘s narrative is layered and complex. This is important in keeping the audience on their toes. The continual shift between characters and perspective (particularly Eve and Villanelle’s) adds depth to the series. It also emphasises the complexity of their relationship, thus the three cliffhanger endings are justified and add narrative depth.
- This is particularly effective in the third series, where the viewer learns a significant amount about Villanelle’s background and her desire to escape ‘The Twelve’ and be with Eve.
- Like most thrillers, Broadchurch has numerous twists and turns throughout to keep the audience hooked and guessing who the murderer is. The several different narrative threads running throughout the show (Ellie’s and her family; Alec’s; the investigation as a whole; Mark’s affair and the family’s breakdown etc) work effectively at presenting the viewer with several different possible outcomes as to who the killer may be.
- This narrative structure is essential to securing interest and making the cliffhanger as effective and dramatic as possible. Throughout each episode these individual storylines are developed further and present twists and turns and possible outcomes which typically tend to be red herrings.
STEP SIX: The Cliffhanger Must Come At The End Of The Narrative:
Perhaps an obvious stage, however, is that to achieve complete dramatic impact, the cliffhanger must come at the end of your narrative.
You need to leave your audience wanting more. This is something you will typically follow up in sequels.
Sequels And Following Episodes
Typically, the structure for television series is to end on some sort of cliffhanger, in which a character reveals or learns something or a dramatic event occurs. This is usually followed up and comes to a resolution in the next episode. This is also the case for film franchises, such as Harry Potter, The Avengers, The Lord of the Rings.
However, this isn’t always the case. Some screenwriters decide to end their film on a cliffhanger and never resolve the ending. This is perhaps a risky move, but in some cases it works well. To achieve this, you need to have a solid grounding and justification.
A narrative which just ends on a cliffhanger for the sake of it will not succeed or have an effective resolution.
Below are some examples of both films and television shows which are both part of longer narratives and are stand-alone films.
- Avengers Infinity War ends with half of the world’s population, including half of the Avengers becoming extinct. This is an extremely effective ending. Up until this point, despite Thanos perhaps the most powerful enemy they have faced yet, there was a strong sense that they would defeat him (because of who they are).
- The moment we see half of the team wiped out, it signals the end of the film which thus ends on a cliffhanger of not knowing what will happen next.
- Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, ends with Frodo and Sam about to start their journey to Mordor. The ending is peculiar, as the film just appears to stop without any sense of resolution. The cliffhanger is that the film stops mid-scene. We don’t witness their journey in the film.
- The ending begs for further exploration.
- Gone Girl’s ending is intriguing. Perhaps not your typical cliffhanger ending. The film ends with Nick trapped married, to a now pregnant Amy, for possibly 18 years. The ending is ominous. We know that she is a psychopath and now Nick has no way of leaving her.
- The ending leaves us guessing what will happen next.
- Will he leave straight away or wait and take their baby and go? Perhaps he will pretend to be happily in love with her or he may murder her? The possible outcomes are endless, which is why this ending is so effective.
- BBC’s Sherlock, the second season ends with the death of Sherlock. This cliffhanger wouldn’t have had the same impact had it been in the middle of an episode. The fact that the episode and series ends on such a significant moment makes it all the more effective.
- Killing Eve, the last series (three), ends on a significant and effective cliffhanger. After two previous series of a cat and mouse game between Eve and Villanelle, the writers choosing to end the series with them going their separate ways is surprising.
- Viewers probably predicted that they would ‘end up together’ so this ending is shocking.
STEP SEVEN: The Cliffhanger Must Support Your Protagonist’s Character Development And Their Arc:
The cliffhanger cannot come out of the blue. Ironically, it sounds as if it is going against its function of shocking the audience. However, to be successful and achieve dramatic impact, it needs to have subtly been built up to.
- Gone Girl‘s ending is peculiar, yet is an extremely effective use of a cliffhanger. Throughout the film, Amy’s danger and psychotic nature was built up to. It is only in the second half of the film, towards the end that the audience witness it firsthand.
- The slow build up and reveal of Amy’s evil and manipulative character is extremely effective in preparing the audience for the ending.
- The second half of the film distorts everything we know about Amy and removes the sympathies we may have had for her (her husband cheating and not wanting a baby with her). Thus, the ending of Amy trapping Nick by publicly stating they’re in love and pregnant together, works as in interesting cliffhanger.
- The cliffhanger serves to develop Amy’s character arc and present her as the real threat. Everything we had previously learnt about her is proven right – she is a deadly psychopath.
- The last episode of season two’s BBC’s Sherlock is an effective cliffhanger which is built up to throughout the series. Due to the constant threat Moriarty poses, it comes at no surprise when Sherlock is faced head to head with his enemy.
- However, due to the nature of Sherlock himself and his super-human abilities, the ending with his ‘death’, does comes as a large shock for the viewer because Moriarty has died- so why does he commit suicide?
- The viewers are left replaying the scene numerous times to find the answer, but like always have to wait till the next series to find out what happened.
- Killing Eve‘s narrative allows for significant character development throughout the series. However, it does focus on Eve and Villanelle’s narratives considerably. Throughout each series, we see both women’s character arcs develop considerably. This character growth is effective in building up to the cliffhangers.
- In Series One, there are hints of obsession and attraction between the two (mainly Eve’s desire and interest in the danger Villanelle presents and the life of a spy), which makes her stabbing of her all the more effective.
- In Series Two, this attraction and obsession heightens. Both characters have been developed further, with Villanelle wanting to be with Eve as a couple.
- During the course of the show, we witness her love for Eve developing, so the cliffhanger ending of her shooting Eve when she rejects her makes sense and is an effective ending.
- In Series Three, their individual narrative arcs develop: there is a strong focus on Villanelle wanting to escape her job, seek her family and love.
- For Eve, it focuses on the deterioration of her marriage and her love/hate relationship with Villanelle.
- The series presents the two frequently on good terms, and at times hints at a possible union, so the ending with them going their separate ways is both shocking and intriguing.
- Broadchurch focuses on two leading characters, Alec and Ellie. Given the nature of the series, there are several revelations and changes in the narrative as it progresses.
- However, these effectively function to create the sense of uncertainty.
- An interesting aspect of the series is Ellie’s relationship with the family of the deceased boy. Her and her family are never considered suspects. Thus, when the series ends with the revelation that Ellie’s husband is the murderer it effectively functions well (there is narrative payoff).
STEP EIGHT: The Cliffhanger Must Hook And Captivate Your Audience. They Must Be Left Wanting More:
An obvious, yet vital element of the cliffhanger is its impact on the audience. You must ask yourself, what is it you are trying to achieve by ending your narrative on a cliffhanger?
Despite not all narratives having sequels, there is a significant amount of films and television shows that do choose to end on cliffhangers as a means of hooking the audience and preparing them for what’s to come. The next film will offer a sense of resolution and answer the cliffhanger.
- Avengers Infinity War: The film ends with half of the Avengers team and the world’s population eliminated.
- The ending is highly effective because key, leading characters have supposedly been killed. The audience are literally left amazed and eagerly want to know what happens next. Most importantly, will they defeat Thanos and bring everyone back.
- A Quiet Place’s ending is an effective example of a cliffhanger which leaves audiences hooked and desperate to learn what happens next.
- The ending effectively captivates and hooks audiences as it ends (similar to Lord Of The Rings) mid-story. By that I mean, the ‘monster’ hasn’t been defeated and the family are not yet safe. The audience are eager to see what will happen to the family and if, like the father, they too will die.
Due to the nature of television and the need to keep audiences hooked, endings to television episodes are extremely important.
- BBC’s Sherlock. A key and effective example of a cliffhanger ending is the end of Series Two. It ends with Sherlock jumping off the top of a building to his supposed death. This ending had a dramatic impact due to the protagonist, and central character of the series dying.
- Fans were left shocked and eager to see how the next series would explain this cliffhanger. Surely a show called Sherlock can’t kill off the character of Sherlock? So how did he escape?
- Killing Eve carefully ends their series with enticing and gripping cliffhangers. At the end of series one, we see Eve stab Villanelle; The end of series two ends with Villanelle stabbing Eve and series three ends with the two going their separate ways.
- Each series ends on a dramatic and shocking cliffhanger, leaving audiences stunned and keen to find out what happens next.
- The end of season three is particularly effective. The audience is left questioning what will happen between Villanelle and Eve.
- After having a discussion about their obsession with one another, we see them decide to go their separate ways. This is an interesting way to end a series which centres on their relationship and obsession with one another.
- Broadchurch is slightly different. Considering Broadchurch (Series One) has a set number of episodes, the cliffhangers work most effectively at the end of each episode.
- For instance, at the end of each episode the writers leave us with a shocking revelation or new information about the case. This effectively hooks audiences and entices them to watch the next episode.
- The most effective example of this can be seen at the end of the series’ penultimate episode ends with Joe Miller on trail for the death of Danny. However, the defence shift the blame onto Danny’s father, Mark (who had been having an affair), leaving the audience left gripped to find out who is culpable.
A Final Note…
Key Points To Remember About Cliffhangers:
- The cliffhanger should be abrupt and disturb the narrative equilibrium. It should surprise the viewer.
- It should come at the end of the narrative.
- Make it so the viewer questions everything they have seen and heard already (their prior knowledge).
- A cliffhanger is an unanswered question. Whether not answering it or answering it in a subsequent installation, it needs to be a question worth knowing the answer to.
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This article was written by Milly Perrin and edited by IS Staff.