Commentary: Are Cliffhangers A Cheap Trick?

by Frank Martin

Hooking the reader or audience for the next installment is not always easy. The end of a TV episode is seen as a natural break. It’s a chance for the viewer to assess their commitment to the story and if they wish to continue. In order to accomplish this, writers lean heavily into the cliffhanger. This unresolved and open-ended question leaves a hole in the viewer’s mind. And logic abhors a vacuum. We need to know how a situation ends. But is a cliffhanger a cheap trick in order to keep the audience engaged? If so, then what is the proper way to maintain an audience’s involvement?

There is no one right answer to this question — just as there is no one right way to tell a story. In truth, cliffhangers and endings exist on a spectrum. And the way in which endings play out is different based on format. For instance, in a full season of network television that consists of roughly twenty episodes in a “monster of the week” type format (something like early X-Files or Fringe), the episodic plot might have a clean resolution, yet the show may also have a tease that leads into the next episode or a larger story. Is that considered a cliffhanger? Probably not, but it is a tool used to keep the storytelling momentum going.

Ultimately, there is nothing inherently wrong with using cliffhangers. But a story is certainly stronger without them. The reason a viewer heads into the next episode, especially in the age of binge watching, is to “see what happens next.” And the strength of a story is dependent on how that anticipation is invoked based on the ending of the previous installment. For instance, if a gun is fired and it is never revealed what happens afterwards, that is a fairly cheap cliffhanger in order to hold the viewer. But if the gun is fired and the viewer is able to see the aftermath and feel its impact before the episode ends — and if the viewer still wants to see what happens next — then that is a strong story with the ability to hook its audience without the need to leave them hanging.

%d bloggers like this: