A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in which a movie, novel, or other work of fiction contains an abrupt ending, often leaving the main characters in a precarious or difficult situation, or with a sudden shock revelation. This type of ending is used to ensure that, if a next installment is made, audiences will return to find out how the cliffhanger is resolved. The phrase comes from the classical end-of-episode situation in silent film days, with the protagonist left hanging from the edge of a cliff. Some serials end with the caveat "To be continued", or "The End?" (the series finales for Duckman, and Clone High parodied this caveat). In television series, the following episode usually begins with a recap (AKA a "previously").
The term 'cliffhanger' is considered to have originated with Thomas Hardy's serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873. At the time newspapers published novels in a serial format with one chapter appearing every month. In order to ensure continued interest in the story many authors employed different authorial techniques; in the aforementioned novel Hardy chose to leave one of his protagonists, Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock that has been dead for millions of years. This became the archetypal — and literal — cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.
Once Hardy created it, all serial writers used the cliff-hanger even though Trollope felt that the use of suspense violated "all proper confidence between the author and his reader." Basically, the reader would expect "delightful horrors" only to feel betrayed with a much less exciting ending. Despite the rhetorical distaste all serial authors used the cliffhanger and Wilkie Collins is famous for saying about the technique: "Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait – exactly in that order."
Collins is famous for the Sensation Novel which heavily relied upon the cliffhanger. Some examples of his endings include:
"The next witnesses called were witnesses concerned with the question that now followed--the obscure and terrible question: Who Poisoned Her? (The Law and the Lady) "Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?" "Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in white. Drive on." (The Woman in White) "You can marry me privately today," she answered. "Listen--and I will tell you how!" (Man and Wife)"
This anticipation and conversation inducing authorial technique would often be very contrived as the only purpose was to maintain interest in the monthly serial. Therefore, these were regularly removed from the plot when the serial was published as a full novel.
The cliff-hanger was converted into film and is best known from the very popular silent film series The Perils of Pauline (1914), shown in weekly instalments and featuring Pearl White as the title character, a perpetual damsel in distress who was menaced by assorted villains, with each installment ending with her placed in a situation that looked sure to result in her imminent death – to escape at the beginning of the next instalment only to get into fresh danger at its end. Specifically, an episode filmed around the New Jersey Palisades ended with her literally left hanging over a cliff and seeming about to fall.
Although a cliffhanger can be enjoyable as a page turner at the end of a chapter in a novel, a cliffhanger at the very end of a work can be frustrating. Cliffhangers can build anticipation (and, subsequently, profit) for sequels. However, if no sequel follows, effective suspension of disbelief can leave the audience or readership wondering what happened in the work's fictional realm. Sometimes (for example at the end of Blake's 7) that goes so far that people write fan fiction (or even publish a novel) deciding what happens next.
In the US it was the phenomenal success of the "Who shot J.R.?" season ending cliffhanger on Dallas, which closed the show's second season, that led the cliffhanger to become a popular staple on television dramas and later situation comedy series as well. Another notable cliffhanger was the "Moldavian Massacre" on Dynasty in 1985, which fueled speculation throughout the summer months regarding who lived or died when almost all the characters attended a wedding in the country of Moldavia, only to have revolutionaries topple the government and machine-gun the entire wedding party. The "Best of Both Worlds" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1990 is also cited as a reason that season-enders are popular today.
The two main ways for cliffhangers to keep readers/viewers coming back is to either involve characters in a suspenseful, possibly life-threatening situation, or to feature a sudden shocking revelation. The 2003 Season Finale of Home and Away features an example of both a shock cliffhanger (in the revelation that Angie Russell was Tasha Andrews' mother) and a suspense cliffhanger (the Sutherland family trapped in a mine shaft).
Cliffhangers are also used to leave open the possibility of a character being killed off due to the actor not continuing to play the role. The aforementioned Star Trek season finale worked around the possibility of Patrick Stewart's contract expiring. Between seasons, his contract was renewed and as a result, the character of Captain Picard survived the cliffhanger.
Cliffhangers are also sometimes deliberately inserted by writers uncertain of whether a new series or season will be commissioned, in the hope that viewers will demand to know how the situation is resolved. Such was the case with the second season of Twin Peaks, which ended in a cliffhanger similar to the first season with a high degree of uncertainty about the fate of the protagonist, but the cliffhanger could not save the show from being canceled, resulting in the unresolved ending. Due to the multi-part storylines becoming the norm in comics (instead of self-contained stories) the cliffhanger has become a genre staple.
Commercial breaks can be a nuisance to script writers because some sort of incompleteness or minor cliffhanger should be provided before each to stop the viewer from changing channels during the commercial break. Sometimes a series ends with an unintended cliffhanger caused by a very abrupt ending without a satisfactory dénouement, but merely assuming that the viewer will assume that everything sorted itself out.
Sometimes a movie, book, or season of a television show will end with the main villain and a second, evidently more powerful villain makes a brief appearance and becomes the villain of the next film. A good example of this is the anime version of Viewtiful Joe which ends with Captain Blue being defeated and returned to normal and then the episode ends with a large space craft approaching Earth.