Friday, June 3, 2011

The Art of the Cliffhanger

When I write, I often reflect on ways to end my chapters with cliffhangers.  From my own experience as a bookworm, I'm sold on a cliffhanger if it keeps me glued to my seat even when I really need to get up and pee. Instead of giving away a bunch of book spoilers here and potentially annoying a bunch of readers, I'm going to illustrate some elements of solid cliffhangers by dishing on TV shows I've watched. The concepts behind these TV cliffhangers can very well be used in writing:

1. Introduction of a threat or dilemma
Season finales for television shows are a goldmine for cliffhangers. Here's what happened at the end of this recent season of Desperate Housewives: At the Solis house, Carlos kills Gabby's creepy stepfather and the rest of the housewives help him cover it up. Minutes later, the  rest of the neighbors arrive to have dessert at the Solis house. As guests nibble on cheesecake, the camera pans to a big wooden chest in the living room where the body is being kept.
The cliffhanger: What happens if Carlos and the housewives get caught? Each of these people  have a lot to lose if their role in this crime is uncovered. Still, Carlos could truthfully argue he was protecting his wife from an attack.

2. Unexpected twists
Speaking of season finales, this season of Gossip Girl ended with a few twists. Turns out Serena's cousin Charlie isn't really Serena's cousin Charlie, but some con artist named Ivy that Lily's sister hired. Turns out that Vanessa is turning on Dan to make a quick buck off his  secret novel by pretending to be his agent- there has to be a law against stealing someone's book manuscript and "representing" it without the author's permission. Turns out that someone- Blair or Serena- is pregnant. My guess is that it's Blair because she'd just hooked up with Chuck. Unless (and this is VERY WISHFUL THINKING) Blair hooked up with Dan right around that same time and they just haven't aired that footage yet.
The cliffhanger: What is Ivy's plan for returning to New York's Upper East Side? What will the fallout be when Dan's book comes out? And does Blair really have a bun in the oven?

3. Awkward situations
If there was ever a show stocked with awkward situations, it would be Friends. Some of the most talked-about episodes ended with an uncomfortable situation  featuring minimal dialogue over just a few seconds.

Here's another season finale: Ross is about to marry Emily, and he says Rachel's name at the altar instead.
The cliffhanger: The officiant asks Emily something like, "Should I go on?" Awkward!

Then there's the time when Joey and Ross chat at Central Perk about Joey wanting to date a friend's ex-girflfriend. The Cliffhanger: Ross turns to leave and Joey calls out, "It's Rachel." Awkward!

4. Foreshadowing
I never watched Dallas, but I hear the "Who Shot JR?" mystery strung viewers along in one heck of a cliffhanger. What I did watch back in the day was Twin Peaks when the show's pilot kicked off with its "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" mystery. Just typing the name of the show brings me back to  FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper's recorder ramblings and his giddiness over good coffee, Julee Cruise's breathtaking songs, guys in leather jackets, young Audrey's knotted cherry stems, and the slow, deliberating beats of the soundtrack in the background.  The pilot episode opens with the tragic and grisly image of Laura Palmer's corpse wrapped up in plastic. It ends with Laura Palmer's mother having some nightmare where she's visualizing her daughter's killer still being out there, foreshadowing this person will kill again.

The cliffhanger: Danger still lurks in Twin Peaks. Who killed Laura Palmer, and who will die next?    

So here are just some stuff I've noticed about cliffhangers on TV that can also be applied to cliffhangers in books. If anyone wants to share any other ideas behind effective cliffhangers or dish on the shows I mentioned here,  feel free to comment.


Anonymous said...

These are all awesome examples of how you keep people coming back for more. I loved this season's ending of Merlin--the king appears to have lost his mind, the villain is dead, but her sister's powers have manifested and she will surely seek revenge, Arthur has come into his power and is openly in love with Gwen. Tons of conflict and possibilities for next season. :)

Vampire Diaries has this cliffhanger thing down pat too. Within an episode they have so many highs and lows that keep you glued to the tv. With a book,I don't think each chapter can end with a season finale cliffhanger, but you can adopt Vampire Diaries style of ending early and coming in late so that the person is drawn right into each scene and can't wait to see what happens next.

Cynthia said...

Kourtney, thanks for your examples and your cliffhanger tips.

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