A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.
The phrase is believed to come from the end-of-episode situation in adventure silent films of the early 1900s days, with the protagonist literally left hanging from the edge of a cliff, although the oldest usage the Oxford English Dictionary has is from 1937. Some serials end with the caveat "To be continued," or "The End?" In television series, the following episode usually begins with a recap sequence.
The idea of ending a tale at a point where the audience is left in suspense as to its conclusion (which, in most cases, is then given at another time) may have been a staple part of storytelling for almost as long as the idea of stories have existed. It is a central theme and framing device of the collection of stories known as the One Thousand and One Nights, wherein the queen Scheherazade, who is facing a morning execution on the orders of her husband, King Shahryar, devises the solution of telling him a story but leaving it at a cliffhanger, thus forcing the king to postpone her execution to hear the rest of the tale.
The term 'cliffhanger' may 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. To ensure continued interest in the story, many authors employed different techniques. When the novel was serialised in Tinsley's Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873, Hardy chose to leave one of the main protagonists, Henry Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock. 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 relied heavily upon the cliffhanger. 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)"
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