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Explanation of the Literary Device 'Cliffhanger' with Examples

Neha B Deshpande
A 'cliffhanger' is a literary device, wherein the plot has an abrupt end, to arouse curiosity in the minds of the audience. The story is usually followed by a sequel.
"Writing simply means no dependent clauses, no dangling things, no flashbacks, and keeping the subject near the predicate. We throw in as many fresh words we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don't always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive.... Virtually every page is a cliffhanger--you've got to force them to turn it."~"
― Dr. Seuss
Imagine a situation: you take a book from the library, and read the whole story, not realizing that couple of last pages are missing from the book. Err, this situation will leave you tragically impaired! No, I'm not exaggerating, we all want to know how the story ends.
You'll curse your fate, and go to lengths to find another copy of the book just to know how the story ended. No one wants to hear an unfinished story. If any movie leaves the plot open, you immediately rush for the sequel, or at least try to know what happens, by hook or crook.
In gossip groups, you'll overhear many conversations that involve, "What happened next in that series? I missed that episode!" So, isn't a situation of an unfinished story as equivalent to leaving the viewers hanging on a cliff?

What is a Cliffhanger?

A cliffhanger is a literary device, in which the story has an abrupt ending, leaving loose threads or unsolved mysteries. Cliffhangers can be intentionally embedded in the story to keep the audience spellbound under the magic of the characters.
Once they relate to the characters and the storyline, they will want to know how the story progresses, and what changes happen in the lives of the characters. Wicked device, but yes, it is a smart tactic to keep the viewers enthralled and glued to the series. Why will you return to watch the series again, unless there is some unfinished business?
To raise excitement, intrigue the viewers, and to succumb to their curiosity, this is a clever tactic indeed. Fans of Harry Potter have known how difficult and painful it was to wait for the new series.
Now, it is George R.R. Martin who is toying with his readers, who are expectantly waiting for the next book in the 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series, praying that he does not kill any of their favorite characters. Some interesting television serials have a wonderful storyline with effective cliffhanger endings.
However, some cliffhangers are left intentionally unsolved, leaving a scope for imagination for the audience. They have to be introduced as per the demand of the story. Over-usage of cliffhangers can spoil a good storyline, and instead of intriguing, make it monotonous and boring for the readers.

Why are Cliffhangers Effective?

  • They keep the audience wanting 'more'.
  • Increases the chances of audience watching/reading the sequel.
  • Increases the 'suspense' element, making the story more interesting.

Examples of Cliffhangers

In Television Series

'How I Met Your Mother'

The whole series was a cliffhanger, with the 'mother' kept as a mystery till the very end. Viewers were confused with the love triangle of Robin, Ted, and Barney. Though there were chances of Robin getting married to Ted, it was later revealed that she actually got married to Barney.
There were other love interests of Ted, which again kept the viewers intrigued. Though the mother was unveiled at the end of the series, the viewers associated with the characters as they matured throughout the series. One of the best cliffhangers, I would say!


One of the most crucial cliffhangers in one of the hugely popular series 'Friends', is in the Season 4, when Ross accidentally takes Rachel's name at the altar of his wedding instead of his bride's name Emily, much to the surprise of all the viewers. However, the next season revealed that Ross and Rachel do not get married.


In the Sherlock series, made infamous by the talented actor Benedict Cumberbatch, viewers are left to bite their nails, when Watson witnesses a giant leap by Sherlock. Did Sherlock commit suicide? Is he dead? Why did he take that big leap? It was a big, painful wait for the audience to see their beloved Sherlock safe and alive.

In Movies

'Kill Bill Vol 1'

The 'Bride' is out to seek vengeance against the murderers who killed the people present at her marriage rehearsal and put her in a comatose condition for nearly four years. She is out to kill her ex-beau Bill, who is the mastermind behind this killing.
Though she tells Bill she is pregnant with his child, he shoots her and leaves her to die. Four years later, when she recovers from the coma, she is on a killing spree.
The cliffhanger of the movie is when Bill reveals to the 'Bride' that her daughter is still alive. This left the viewers dumbfounded, as to how her daughter survived all this while.

'Before Sunset'

This movie is beautifully crafted around the lives of two people. In the prequel 'Before Sunrise', two strangers, Jesse and Céline, spend some time together in Vienna, and agree to meet each other after 6 months. In the movie 'Before Sunset', they meet again. Jesse is an author now, is married, and has a kid. Jesse has to board the plane in an hour, and they decide to spend that time together.
While they talk, their memories of old romance rekindle, and the film ends with Céline saying that he might probably miss the plane. The audience is left to wonder whether he will go back to his wife or decide to be with Céline. Of course, in the movie 'Before Midnight', the status of their relationship is revealed.

In Books

Why Do Authors Use Cliffhangers?

Authors use cliffhangers so that the story is left open, and they can develop a plot on the basis of the loose ends. On the other hand, it keeps the readers intrigued, and to satiate their curiosity, they'll definitely buy the sequel! However, in books, cliffhangers can tend to be a bit annoying for the readers, especially if the author never decides to publish the sequel.

'Harry Potter' Series

The Harry Potter series is full of cliffhangers. With every book, the readers are left to wonder whether young Harry will be defeated by Lord Voldemort, will more friends die protecting Harry, and whether Harry can locate the horcruxes.

'A Song of Ice and Fire' Series

Well, spare the pivotal characters of the series, that's what readers pray to George R.R. Martin. But the author proceeds to mercilessly kill the characters of the series, anytime, without hesitation.
Many loose threads are left dangling by the author, as readers wait for the forthcoming book. Fates of Arya Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys, etc., all are in his hands, while fans are still hanging on the cliff!
Cliffhangers have a pivotal role to play in literature. Of course, some cliffhangers have boomeranged and proved to be extremely bad and a huge turn-off for the audience.