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Cliffhanger Meaning and How to Use in Narrative

In a writer’s toolbox, there is a tool that never gets old and is still infallible today for generating suspense in readers and viewers: the narrative technique of the Cliffhanger.

You have certainly met it at the end of a chapter of a novel or at the end of an episode of a TV series. You must have cursed the suspended state in which it left you, but you couldn’t help but start reading the next chapter or click play on the next episode!

So, let’s see how this technique works and how to use it effectively in your stories.

Cliffhanger meaning

Let’s try to understand the meaning of Cliffhanger, starting with its definition.


What is a Cliffhanger?

A cliffhanger is a narrative device where a story, typically at the end of an episode, chapter, or installment, leaves the audience in a state of suspense or anticipation by presenting an unresolved or dramatic situation. This technique encourages readers or viewers to continue engaging with the story to find out what happens next.

A cliffhanger is a storytelling technique that abruptly ends a scene, chapter, or episode at a moment of heightened tension or suspense, leaving the audience in a state of uncertainty and anticipation.

The term “cliffhanger” originated from early 20th-century film serials, where characters would find themselves literally hanging off cliffs, their fate unknown until the next installment.

Since then, the term has come to encompass any unresolved plot point or unresolved conflict that leaves the audience eagerly awaiting the next installment or resolution.

The History and Origins of Cliffhangers

The origins of the Cliffhanger can be traced back to the 19th century when it first gained popularity in serialized novels.

Authors such as Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas would release their stories in installments, often ending each installment with a gripping cliffhanger, ensuring readers eagerly await the next installment.

This technique was further popularized in the early 21st century with the advent of film serials, where each episode would end with a cliffhanger, compelling audiences to return for the next installment.

With the advent of streaming platforms and binge-watching culture, cliffhangers have taken on new forms and adapted to new mediums. Showrunners and writers now have the luxury of crafting narratives that span multiple episodes, seasons, or even entire series.

This evolution has led to increasingly complex and interconnected narratives, where cliffhangers serve as the connective tissue that keeps audiences engaged and invested. From the shocking endings of shows like “Lost” to the binge-worthy cliffhangers of “Stranger Things”, modern storytelling has embraced the power of the cliffhanger to captivate and enthrall audiences in new and exciting ways.

The purpose of using Cliffhangers in storytelling

The primary purpose of using cliffhangers in storytelling is to create suspense and tension, compelling the audience to continue engaging with the narrative.

By leaving unresolved plot points or conflicts hanging, the storyteller instills a sense of curiosity and urgency in the audience, driving them to seek the next installment or resolution.

This technique not only keeps audiences engaged but also allows for the exploration of complex and multi-layered narratives, as cliffhangers provide a natural break in the story where new threads can be introduced.

The impact of cliffhangers on audiences

The psychological effect of cliffhangers on audiences is profound.

Cliffhangers tap into the basic human need for closure and resolution, leaving the audience in a state of uncertainty and anticipation. This creates a cognitive dissonance that drives individuals to seek answers and resolution, as the brain craves closure to restore a sense of equilibrium.

This neurological response further strengthens the audience’s emotional attachment to the narrative and compels them to continue engaging with the story as audiences become deeply attached to the characters and their fates.

Cliffhangers also generate discussion and speculation among audiences as they eagerly dissect and analyze the possibilities of what may happen next. This engagement and anticipation contribute to the overall enjoyment and immersion in the narrative, making cliffhangers a powerful tool for storytellers.

Common examples of Cliffhangers in literature, film, and television

Cliffhangers have become a staple in various forms of storytelling, from literature to film to television.

In literature, authors such as J.K. Rowling with her Harry Potter series, and George R.R. Martin with his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series have masterfully employed cliffhangers to keep readers hooked. Whether it’s a beloved character’s fate or a major conflict’s resolution, these cliffhangers leave readers eagerly turning the pages, desperate to know what happens next.

In film, directors like Christopher Nolan have skillfully utilized cliffhangers to create suspenseful and memorable moments. One notable example is the ending of “Inception”, where the protagonist’s fate is left uncertain, leaving audiences questioning the nature of reality and eagerly anticipating a sequel that may or may not come.

Television series like “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” have also left audiences with shocking and unexpected cliffhangers. These unresolved moments have become waterCliffhangerussions, generating buzz and anticipation for the next episode, season, or series finale.

Tips for incorporating Cliffhangers into your writing

To incorporate cliffhanCliffhangerour stories, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Plan ahead. Outline your story and identify key moments where cliffhangers can be effectively employed. Consider your narrative’s overall pacing and structure to ensure the cliffhangers feel organic and impactful.
  2. Build anticipation. Throughout your narrative, gradually escalate the tension and suspense, creating a sense of anticipation for the climax. This will make the cliffhanger ending even more impactful.
  3. Leave breadcrumbs. Plant subtle hints and foreshadowing throughout your narrative to create a sense of anticipation and build up to the cliffhanger. This will make the resolution even more satisfying for the audience.
  4. Focus on emotions. Engage the audience’s emotions by putting your characters in dangerous or emotionally charged situations. This will heighten the stakes and make the cliffhanger ending more emotionally resonant.
  5. Leave room for imagination. While cliffhangers leave unresolved plot points or conflicts, providing enough information for the audience to speculate and theorize is essential. This will keep them engaged and excited for the next installment.
  6. Know your audience. Understand the expectations and preferences of your target audience. Tailor your cliffhangers to resonate with their interests and desires, keeping them engaged and eager for more.
  7. Experiment with different types of cliffhangers: Explore various techniques, such as raising the stakes, introducing unanswered questions, or revealing shocking twists. This will help you find the cliffhanger style that best suits your story and resonates with your audience.

The pros and cons of using Cliffhangers in storytelling

Like any storytelling technique, cliffhangers have their pros and cons.

On the positive side, cliffhangers keep audiences engaged and invested in the story, driving them to seek out the next installment or resolution. They create suspense, tension, and anticipation, enhancing the overall enjoyment of the narrative.

However, cliffhangers must be used judiciously. If overused or poorly executed, they can leave audiences frustrated and dissatisfied. The balance between leaving the audience wanting more and leaving them feeling cheated is delicate.

Additionally, cliffhangers can create a sense of narrative fatigue if used too frequently or predictably. It is important for storytellers to strike a balance and consider the overall pacing and structure of their narrative when incorporating cliffhangers.

Each book will have a lot of cliffhangers, because I like that.

Kevin J. Anderson

Use bibisco and its innovative novel planning software to create your Cliffhanger

Create captivating cliffhangers effectively using bibisco novel planning software.

With bibisco’s user-friendly features, craft suspenseful moments that will keep your readers eagerly anticipating the next twist in your story.

Narrative Techniques Series #13: Cliffhanger - bibisco's project explorer - bibisco blog | useful resources by your novel writing software
bibisco’s project explorer


The narrative technique of the cliffhanger has stood the test of time and continues to captivate audiences across various mediums.

Whether in literature, film, or television, cliffhangers have the power to create suspense, tension, and anticipation, leaving audiences eagerly awaiting the next installment or resolution.

So, the next time you find yourself enthralled by a gripping cliffhanger, take a moment to appreciate the artistry and skill that goes into crafting such a captivating narrative device.

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