The Age Old Art of Using Cliffhangers to Build Suspense


I remember renting a reel-to-reel projector and the entire 1943 black and white Batman serial from the library when I was a kid. The scene I remember most vividly was near the end of one episode–Batman and Robin were knocked unconscious by the villain and put inside a car set to go over a cliff. The camera froze with the car stuck in free-fall. The next episode began with the car in the seconds before it went over the cliff. Given the change in camera angle, the audience saw the dynamic duo waking up and jumping out of the car in the seconds before it took a nosedive.

Back in the day, a nickel bought you a day at the movies. You’d buy your ticket and watch a number of newsreels, short films, cartoons and serials before the feature. Serials were a great way to get patrons coming back week after week without changing the main feature. The excitement was not in wondering if Batman and Robin survived, but how.

Cliff-hanger endings abound in today’s television serials as well. Take the mid-season cliff-hanger of Arrow, for example, which saw a beaten and bloodied Arrow get shot with an arrow through the heart, and fall off a cliff. Arrow must survive, I mean, without Arrow the person, there can be no Arrow the television series. The idea is that viewers can look forward to see how Arrow will defeat his Kobayashi Maru (his no-win scenario). This is a brilliant tactic on the part of the writers. So much time goes by between the fall finale and the second half of the season, viewers might lose interest. A high-stakes cliff-hanger generates social media buzz, keeping the discussion going over the hiatus, mouths salivating as viewers eagerly await the next episode, tweeting about it all the while.

Writers of serials such as these are experts in two invaluable literary devices: conflict and suspense.

Without conflict there is no story. In order for people to buy into the story, the conflict must be high stakes–earth shattering, paradigm altering, life-or-death–or the viewer won’t care. If Arrow had ended with an internal conflict over choosing a new costume design, I wouldn’t be writing about it here. A writer may create an interesting character, but without learning how that character overcomes obstacles, there is no story.

Suspense is what keeps people coming back for more. When reading a novel, it’s the difference between a page-turner and a sleeper, making me wish for the sequel or throwing it out before I’m half-way through. In novels, cliff-hangers occur at the end of a chapter, keeping the reader reading into the wee hours of the morning in spite of her knowing the alarm goes off 6 a.m. sharp. The idea is to generate enough suspense that, instead of putting the book down between chapters, the reader can’t help but turn the page to find out what happens next.

As a writer of novels, I study movies and television as text. If it works on the screen, it’s bound to work in my writing. And what I’ve learned from these and similar “texts” (and what I hope you’ll take away from this article) is:

there is no story without conflict;
conflict is the gateway to suspense;
a cliff-hanger ends the conflict just prior to its climax;
high-stakes cliff-hangers build suspense; and
resolve the previous chapter’s conflict at the start of the next chapter and begin building toward the next.

Stephen King once said, “In writing you must kill your darlings.” I propose that if you stop just short of killing your darlings (at least until your next chapter), you will pen high-stakes cliff-hangers that build suspense, and keep your readers coming back for more.

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