Movie Philosophy: Cliffhangers

“After investigating all the clues, I have figured out that the murderer… is…”

[To be continued]

Today’s Topic:
Cliffhangers

I’m sure you’ve heard of this word before. There’s a certain image people have in mind when they hear the word “cliffhanger”.

A character (usually the protagonist) seemed to have resolved the plot of the day, the story seems to be wrapping up and then suddenly “BOOM!” a gunshot is heard! And it looks like the protagonist is hit!

Oh no! Will the protagonist make it? FIND OUT IN THE NEXT EPISODE!

There ARE some misconceptions with cliffhangers, though.

Misconceptions

First off, cliffhangers aren’t ALWAYS at the end of the movie itself. Cliffhangers are a big part of literature where it’s used constantly at the end of chapters. That’s because the writers wants the reader to keep reading.

Movies can do the same thing as well. You can end a scene with a cliffhanger to grab the attention of the viewer. Then you can hold on to that tension by delaying the resolution OF that cliffhanger.

Oh no! Will the hero be able to save their best friend? Will the villain find out they’re related to the hero? Will granny finish that apple pie before the guests arrive? Find out in the next scene!

This is why cliffhangers are used in series, since the entire show can be one big story that’s told in episodes. Thus the end of an episode will reel you into watching the next episode.

Another misconception is that cliffhangers have to involve life-or-death situations. That would be WAY too limiting if that was the case. There are many ways to shock people into being interested in the next part of the story.

Finding out that the hero has to take part in one of two very important events can add just as much investment in a cliffhanger than one that questions whether they’re gonna survive because:

  1. It’s not about whether the hero survives, it’s about what direction the plot will go.
  2. When done right it still kinda IS about life because these events might choose the hero’s future.
  3. Let’s be honest, what are the odds of the hero ACTUALLY dying in the first place?

Finally there’s also the common misconception that cliffhangers need to be resolved IMMEDIATELY in the next part.

If you end the first part of your story with the hero still being alive after performing a feat that SHOULD have killed them and the second part starts with them explaining:

A wizard did it.

Hero

It’s not exactly that satisfying, is it?

And if you left people wondering about it for 2 years, letting them speculate for hours on end on how the hero could POSSIBLY have survived it, only to come up with a weak explanation that’s basically a shrug from the writers… well that’s how you end up with angry fans.

Talking trees only happen on Sundays, though.

This pretty much links to my
Writing Philosophy on Tension.

If you are going to bring something shocking to the table and you’re going to leave it unresolved until a certain amount of time, you better make dang sure that the actual answer can live up to it.

The longer you leave it unresolved, the better the actual explanation should be. And for that, you need TIME to explain it.

Hype

But with the misconceptions out of the way, let’s talk about what people DO think about when they think of “cliffhangers”.

Usually what they have in mind are things like the ending of The Avengers, where we get our first glimpse of Thanos, revealing HE was the one behind the invasion of the movie.

It’s a big set-up for the NEXT movie that will feature Thanos. Something that they’ve done for 13!!! movies until FINALLY showing Thanos proper in Avengers: Infinity War.

Now, there are big pros and cons to this.

The biggest pros are basically based on how much hype is behind Avengers: Infinity War as a result. The amount of people TALKING about Thanos was pretty much everywhere. When Thanos finally appeared in Avengers: Infinity War, people didn’t go “Oh, who’s that guy?”.

No, even if you haven’t even SEEN any of the previous movies and went directly to Avengers: Infinity War (which… admittedly is ill-advised) you will KNOW who that purple guy is that’s beating up the Hulk. That… is THANOS, man!

This also results in Avengers: Infinity War being able to skip most of the introductions and immediately start in medias res. No long exposition is needed to explain who Thanos is, we the audience simply KNOW who he is through hype alone.

The biggest cons however are based on how incredibly large that hype actually IS.

I think Avengers: Infinity War is one of the few movies out there that was able to at the very least MEET the hype surrounding it, even if it wasn’t perfect. But it was still a BIG risk.

Most OTHER movies would have fallen flat because it is VERY difficult to meet the hype set up by 13 previous movies. ONE big misstep in the movie, and all that hype would have been wasted.

Of course, another problem these cliffhangers can cause is how the cliffhangers themselves can, admittedly, seem kind of inserted into the movie at the last second, like this scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron:

Let’s be honest, that scene was purely there to set up Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. It could have easily been removed in THIS movie and nothing would be lost.

As a result it can be slightly obnoxious to some people.

And that’s basically one of the things to look out for; don’t abuse the cliffhanger.

Cliffhangers are like screamers in horror movies. They’re there to keep you on edge and keep you aware of what’s going on. It’s easy to point to them as scapegoats to bad movie tropes, but there’s a time and place for it.

But the moment you start abusing it over and over, it kind of ends up irritating people. There’s something of a case of law of diminishing returns, people start becoming LESS invested as a result.

You need to sprinkle those events in key moments to make things effective. There’s a certain amount of salt you should add to the meat. Put too much on it and all you’ll taste IS the salt.

Why yes, I DID just equate movie making to cooking.

Put enough questions in there to make people wonder about what’s going to happen next, but don’t do it too often that people will feel like the plot will NEVER be resolved.

Inherent frustrations

The thing with cliffhangers is that by nature they can be kind of frustrating.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, as beloved as it is nowadays, was HATED back when it first released because it ended with the infamous reveal of Darth Vader’s identity.

Not only that, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite and sent away by Boba Fett, the empire seems to be winning against the rebels as Leia is fleeing from them with Luke and Lando, we’re kept in the dark on who the other last hope is that Yoda referenced. The point is that this movie that ended up becoming the most beloved of the entire franchise ENDED with a cliffhanger.

And yes, THAT got frustrations as well. Because cliffhangers are inherently frustrating and shocking. You are purposefully leaving questions unanswered and tease the audience into watching the NEXT movie. Of COURSE they’d be frustrated.

Which is why it’s always a bit of a risk when you write in a cliffhanger at the end of a movie, especially when there’s no guarantee that that it’s even going to get followed up on.

Same goes for series and season finales. It can be VERY frustrating to have a beloved show end with a cliffhanger that will never be resolved.

Why yes, I AM still bitter about Spectacular Spider-Man’s cancellation. CAN YOU TELL?!

It’s best to write a cliffhanger when you are a hundred percent CERTAIN that the next part is actually coming. Since you can’t avoid the inherent frustrations you’d get out of it, the LEAST you can do is make sure the frustration actually END after a while.

This is the double-edged sword of having a big company backing your movies. Those people can AFFORD having their movies end on giant cliffhangers that make people theorize about it for several years. In fact a lot of the time the cliffhangers happen because the higher-ups want a franchise.

On the other hand, though, they listen to the money. That leads to either no real passion for the franchise they’re trying to start, or they don’t bother too much in the actual movie itself except for how it sets up FUTURE movies. Thus the cliffhanger feels hollow.

It is thus important that if you’re going to end a story on a cliffhanger, at least have an actual STORY with a beginning, middle and end that’s told in it’s entirety in the actual movie itself.

No one likes The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers JUST because it’s the middle of the trilogy, they ALSO like it because it’s a good movie in it’s OWN right.

It’s the movie that got the Battle of Helm’s Deep, after all.

You pretty much want to balance out the inherent frustrations that come with a cliffhanger with the satisfaction of how awesome the movie is on it’s OWN.

That is why in hindsight people suddenly love The Empire Strikes Back, we now HAVE the resolution to all the questions at the end of that movie thanks to Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. So instead of being frustrated by the unanswered questions, we instead appreciate all the iconic things that happened in the movie on it’s own.

Ju-On

I think a franchise that does a pretty good job with cliffhangers is a certain Japanese Horror franchise named Ju-On.

Mostly known as the series of Japanese movies where the third movie, Ju-On: The Grudge, got an American Remake called… well… The Grudge.

The gimmick of the movies is that each of them consists of multiple segments, of which the chronology is left in mystery until we gain more context throughout the movie itself.

Because of the relatively short length of the segments and each of them featuring a different main character, it isn’t as frustrating when they leave something open-ended. You KNOW that another coming segment will add more context eventually.

And since each segment features another main character, the movie can pretty much hold off on resolving the previous cliffhanger as long as they want since there’s uncertainty of whether the CURRENT main character is even going to come ACROSS what happened to the previous main character.

In a fascinating way, this makes it an interesting franchise where a main character’s death is NOT always the end of the story. Cliffhangers don’t usually ask the question of “Did they survive?” and instead asks the question “When did this take place?”

And when you get little scenes in the middle of the segments like for example a character getting a phone call which we saw happen in a previous segment, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction when you realize “Ah hah! This takes place DURING that segment!”

In a weird sense you feel like a detective as you watch these movies, as every open-ended cliffhanger of one segment pretty much becomes a clue for you to figure out the full chronology.

Detective

Some of you might think that the best way to do a cliffhanger would thus be to look back at the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction. Rule 10 in particular talking about how twins or doubles must not appear unless the audience has been duly prepared for it.

So, a cliffhanger simply needs set-up itself, right? It simply needs to be logical based on all that has happened BEFORE the cliffhanger, thus preparing the audience for it!

No. Not exactly.

A cliffhanger is MEANT to be shocking. It SHOULD be out of left-field to surprise the audience. Unlike the big summation at the end of a detective novel, the main goal of a cliffhanger IS to shock you. Cliffhangers don’t RESOLVE things, they IMPLICATE things so that you’d keep watching.

That said, that doesn’t mean you CAN’T have cliffhangers in a Fair-Play Whodunnit. It just means the “clues” and “twist” get turned around in terms of order of appearance.

The actual explanation (or summation) of the crime as a whole needs to be explained close to the end where you can review all the clues that happened throughout the entire investigation.

But nothing is stopping you from having something come out of left-field in the MIDDLE of the story, basically cutting the story in two. First half is BEFORE the shocking event, which becomes a cliffhanger for the detective to resolve in the NEXT half, adding the questions that the detective has to answer before the end of the investigation. It’s good to keep the questions coming in a detective story, after all.

Of course, you gotta make sure the questions are still RELATED to the original crime, otherwise you end up with the same thing as Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem of the cliffhanger feeling like it’s added at the last second with barely any impact on the plot at hand.

Conclusion

Cliffhangers should be used sparingly. There is no use shocking the audience into being interested in the next part of the story if it only ends up frustrating them instead.

In the right hands, they’re a great tool for keeping people invested in the story by making them wonder about what’s going to happen next. In the wrong hands it ends up feeling like the movie or show is constantly teasing the audience into watching the next episode out of obligation because there’s PROMISE of something interesting happening.

If you’re going to write a cliffhanger, make it worth the wait. The longer you make people wait for something to be resolved, the bigger the actual answer would have to be, because it would just be anti-climactic if the answer is either insultingly simple or doesn’t explain anything at all.

“The murderer is Boba Fett.”

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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