Who wants to hang off cliffs anyway? (cliff-hangers in story telling)

The word cliff-hanger conjures up images of actor Sylvester Stallone hanging precariously off mountain tops, doing his very best to simultaneously save and end people’s lives. The whole movie is based on the literal concept of suspense as Stallone literally hangs off cliffs. Unfortunately, Stallone movies rarely enter into serious debates about literature. Hollywood has a penchant for turning something metaphorical, simplifying it and making it literal. Stallone was an excellent choice.

Dickens, the great English novelist was the master of the cliff-hanger. There is no evidence to suggest he ever climbed or hung off any precipices, but to many, he has greater mastery of cliffhanging than Stallone. To earn his keep as a writer, he had to understand and execute on paper the concept of suspense, and turned to the cliff-hanger. Many of Dickens’s greatest novels including Great Expectations and Oliver Twist employ cliff-hangers at the culmination of ever chapter. The reader, in the final section of the chapter, learns something new, or has been given the clues to something new, and wants to follow up the information. There is nothing conclusive and the story could go either way, hence the concept of hanging off a cliff. The reader doesn’t know yet, but the author hints at some more possibilities.

In the Victorian era, many novelists produced their novels in serials. This meant that a chapter of a novel would be published perhaps once or twice a month. Many famous novelists from the Victorian era would be employed by serial magazines and would submit a chapter from their current novel for the general public to read. If the public liked what they were reading, and their publishers knew this to be the case, then the next month an avid reader would have the chance to find out what Oliver Twist, or Pip in Great Expectations had been doing. The cliff-hanger, at the end of each chapter, a moment of suspense and intrigue, would leave readers hanging, itching for the next instalment of their favourite novel.

In many respects the cliff-hanger in Victorian magazines used by Dickens is found in today’s TV serial culture. Dramas are often separated into episodes over a period of days, weeks and sometimes months. Inevitably, the producers of the shower are keen for people to keep watching, again and again. The episodes are constructed so that they will end, somewhat abruptly, leaving the audience in suspense, wanting more.

To employ a cliff-hanger an author often reveals a new piece of information, usually directly related to one of the main characters at the end of a chapter. Crime novels frequently make use of cliff-hangers by releasing a new clue to solve the crime, at the culmination of a chapter. Great crime writers like Dashiell Hammett made extensive use of this. However, the cliff-hanger is not strictly related to a bygone era. Populist novels today still make effective use of them. Whilst the cliff-hanger has now become something of a cliché in “serious” literary terms, it is still very much at play in “popular” fiction.

In today’s book culture the cliff-hanger is used differently. Rarely will people read a single novel in instalments as in the Victoria era. They are produced as a single construct, the completed form in paperback or increasingly digital form. However, some of the most popular novels of the past 20 years have made exceptional use of cliff-hangers to keep readers come back, not for the next chapter, but for the next novel. Think of a novel like Harry Potter. Who hasn’t heard of Harry Potter? Lines of people in cities, especially in England, but also in other countries, wait in the middle of a freezing evening, for shops to open up the next morning so they can get their hands on the next part of the series.

Writers looking to employ cliff-hangers need to be careful they are not overly melodramatic and keep the tone of the overall narrative. A lot of populist fiction from the last thirty years forces them into the ends of chapters to try to create a sense of suspense. Outlining your novel, before writing it, splitting it into chapters with signposts for the cliff-hanger give you a much better chance of the reader taking you at face value, without the obviousness of what is coming next.

Use a cliff-hanger if you are making a:

  • Mid 90’s Hollywood film involving Stallone
  • Serial book
  • Teen drama
  • Crime novel