What Is a Cliffhanger? Definition & 15+ Examples

Have you ever been so engrossed in a story that you forget about the world around you? Have you ever found yourself unable to put down a book, binge-watching a show or movie, only to be left hanging at the end of a chapter or episode?

You lose track of time, forget to eat, and stay up way too late just to find out what happens next. And then, just when you think you have everything figured out, the story ends on a cliffhanger!

You’re left hanging, with unanswered questions and a desperate need to know what happens next. That’s the power of a good cliffhanger.

Cliffhangers have been used as a storytelling technique for centuries, creating suspense and keeping audiences engaged. As a powerful tool in the hands of skilled writers and creators, cliffhangers have the potential to leave an indelible mark on our minds and hearts.

In this article, we’ll explore the definition and examples of cliffhangers and why they’re such an effective storytelling technique. Let’s take a closer look:

What Is a Cliffhanger?

A cliffhanger, typically found in drama and storytelling, is a plot device employed by writers to leave their audience in suspense. It often occurs at the end of an episode or chapter, where a pivotal and unresolved situation leaves the audience questioning the outcome.

The primary objective of a cliffhanger is to generate a strong desire in the audience to find out what happens next. This element of suspense encourages readers or viewers to engage with the following episode or chapter.

A successful cliffhanger will create a memorable moment that resonates with the audience while also maintaining excitement in the storyline.


The term “cliffhanger” originates from the 1936 serialized novel A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. In the story, a character is left hanging from a cliff, creating a literal and intense suspenseful moment that defined later uses of the word in storytelling.

Cliffhangers are commonly found in various forms of storytelling, such as television shows, novels, and movies. They can take several shapes, such as:

  • An unresolved conflict between characters.
  • A shocking revelation or plot twist.
  • A life-or-death situation faced by a character.

Historical Origins of Cliffhangers

The concept of the cliffhanger has a rich history in literature and storytelling, with numerous examples throughout time that have captivated audiences and left them craving more.

One Thousand and One Nights

One of the earliest examples of cliffhangers can be found in the collection of Middle Eastern folktales known as One Thousand and One Nights.

In this series of interconnected stories, the clever Scheherazade tells her husband, the malicious ruler Shahryar, a new tale each night, always stopping at a suspenseful moment before dawn.

Scheherazade’s cunning narrative technique not only captivates her audience, but also saves her life, as Shahryar postpones her execution each day to hear the continuation of the story.

Thomas Hardy and a Pair of Blue Eyes

Another early example of a cliffhanger can be found in the 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes by English author Thomas Hardy.

Near the end of the novel, one of the characters, Henry Knight, is left hanging on the edge of a cliff, creating a heart-pounding suspenseful moment. This iconic scene not only left readers hooked, but also inspired the term “cliffhanger” itself.

Vintage Serials

Cliffhangers became a popular feature in serialized literature during the 19th and early 20th centuries. As weekly and monthly print publications gained popularity, authors would often use cliffhangers at the end of each installment to encourage readers to purchase the next issue to find out what happened to their favorite characters.

This narrative technique helped to build a sense of anticipation and excitement around each new installment, ultimately boosting sales and reader engagement.

Modern Entertainment

In recent years, the cliffhanger has continued to evolve and adapt to new forms of media. Television shows, films, and even video games frequently make use of cliffhanger endings to keep audiences engaged and eager to see what happens next.

From season finales of popular TV series to unexpected twists in blockbuster movies, the cliffhanger remains a powerful storytelling device that keeps audiences talking and theorizing long after the credits roll.

Audience Engagement

One of the driving forces behind the enduring popularity of the cliffhanger is its ability to engage audiences on an emotional and intellectual level.

By leaving a story unresolved or presenting a surprise twist, the cliffhanger triggers the audience’s curiosity and sparks discussions and speculation as fans share their thoughts and theories about what will happen next.

This sense of community and shared investment in a story can help ensure the continued success and popularity of a particular book, television show, or other forms of media.

The Role of Cliffhangers in Storytelling

Cliffhangers play a vital role in storytelling, as they create intrigue and tension within a narrative. They can be found in various types of stories, such as novels, films, and television series.

Utilizing cliffhangers effectively can heighten a work’s emotional impact and ensure that the reader or viewer remains engaged in the story.

Influence on Characters and Plots

Cliffhangers often lead to significant changes in the characters and the direction of the plot. By leaving the characters in a precarious situation, the storyteller forces them to:

  • Confront their fears.
  • Test their limits.
  • Reveal their true nature.

Furthermore, the uncertainty surrounding the characters’ fate can create unexpected twists that keep readers and viewers guessing.

Creating Suspense and Engagement

One primary objective of incorporating cliffhangers is to build suspense and increase audience engagement. A well-crafted cliffhanger captures the reader’s attention, compelling them to continue with the story and anticipate what might happen next.

By presenting unresolved conflicts and unanswered questions, cliffhangers foster a sense of curiosity and urgency.

Narrative Tension

In storytelling, narrative tension is a crucial element that holds the reader’s interest. Cliffhangers contribute to generating and maintaining this tension, as they often result in conflict escalation or the emergence of new challenges.

The reader, eager to see how the characters tackle these obstacles, becomes more invested in the story’s outcome.

In summary, cliffhangers effectively contribute to storytelling by influencing characters, plots, and the overall narrative pacing. They create suspense, foster engagement, and build narrative tension, keeping readers eager to uncover more information and remain emotionally invested in the story’s resolution.

Types of Cliffhangers

Cliffhangers come in various forms and can be used to create suspense and keep the reader invested in the narrative. This section will explore different types of cliffhangers, providing examples and explanations for each sub-genre.

Plot Twist

A plot twist cliffhanger alters the expected direction of the story, catching the reader off guard. This type of cliffhanger often redefines a character’s motives or reveals hidden information.

An example of this can be found in the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, where the readers discover that the protagonist’s wife has faked her disappearance and framed him for her murder.

Emotional Cliffhangers

Emotional cliffhangers evoke strong emotions in the reader by creating high-stakes conflicts or relationships. These cliffhangers typically end with unresolved emotional issues or intense confrontations.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, the emotional cliffhanger occurs when Dumbledore dies, leaving the reader with numerous unresolved feelings and questions.


An anticipation cliffhanger encourages readers to speculate about future events. It doesn’t necessarily present a sudden or shocking moment, instead opting to build tension through the unknown.

An example is the end of a chapter where a protagonist opens a door, but the reader must wait until the next chapter to find out what lies beyond it.

Unanswered Questions

Unanswered-question cliffhangers leave readers craving more information, making them eager to continue reading. These cliffhangers frequently involve leaving a character’s fate unknown.

For example, in A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, a character is pushed out of a window, and the reader must wait until the following chapter to discover if they survived.

Sudden Danger

Sudden danger cliffhangers abruptly place characters in perilous situations. These cliffhangers create a sense of urgency and require the reader to continue reading to discover the outcome.

In Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, characters encounter unexpected threats throughout the story, such as the iconic scene where they are trapped in a car with a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Incomplete Resolution

Incomplete resolution cliffhangers present a temporary resolution within the story, only to reveal that the characters have not yet overcome the main conflict.

For example, in The Maze Runner by James Dashner, the protagonist escapes the maze, but the reader soon learns that there are larger conspiracies at play, leaving a sense of undone resolution.

Unexpected Twist

Unexpected twist cliffhangers present an unforeseen turn of events in the story, diverging from previous expectations. These twists often involve significant changes to the plot or characters.

An example can be found in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, where the reader learns that the protagonist and his alter ego are the same person.

Did You Know? Arthur Conan Doyle's The Final Problem shows a cliffhanger, where Sherlock Holmes confronts Professor Moriarty.

Cliffhangers in Literature and Television

Cliffhangers have captivated audiences in both literature and television. As a potent narrative device, they engage readers and viewers by leaving them in suspense, eager to find out what happens next.

Famous Literary Cliffhangers

Throughout the history of literature, authors have utilized cliffhangers to keep readers engaged and eager to continue with the narrative.

One of the most memorable literary cliffhangers can be found in Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. At the end of the book, a major character is left in a precarious situation, leaving readers in shock and eager for the next installment.

Another popular example is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; many of its novels end with suspenseful events that motivate readers to eagerly await the subsequent book.

Impact on Television Series

Just as in literature, cliffhangers have a powerful effect on television series. They entice viewers to tune in and continue watching, creating a strong attachment to the storyline and characters.

The use of cliffhangers in television shows often heightens the drama and shock value, making for more engaging narratives. Television series such as Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad have effectively used cliffhangers to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, generating anticipation for the following episode.

This narrative technique is particularly common in season finales, as it ensures that viewers will return when the show resumes.


Although more typical in literature and television series, cliffhangers can also be found in movies. They are particularly useful when the film is part of a larger narrative or franchise.

Using a cliffhanger can generate excitement for future installments while deepening viewers’ engagement with the storyline and characters.

For example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe often employs cliffhangers at the end of individual films, creating anticipation for the next installment in the interconnected series. This approach to storytelling keeps viewers invested in the overarching narrative and generates interest in upcoming movies.

Examples in Literature

Cliffhangers are a powerful technique used by authors to maintain interest and suspense in their stories. They can be found in both classic and contemporary works of literature.

Classic Literature

Many classic works of literature feature cliffhangers to engage readers and keep them turning pages. For example, Charles Dickens is known for incorporating cliffhangers into his serialized novels. The Pickwick Papers and The Old Curiosity Shop are notable examples of this technique.

In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens builds suspense by leaving his protagonists in precarious situations, such as Samuel Pickwick’s trial for breach of promise. The novel’s serial format heightened the anticipation for the next installment, capturing readers’ attention and their imaginations.

Contemporary Literature

Modern authors continue to use cliffhangers to captivate their audiences. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a prime example. The novel’s twists and turns keep readers guessing throughout the story.

As the search for the missing protagonist, Amy, evolves, the truth about her disappearance is slowly revealed, culminating in an ending that leaves readers questioning the characters’ true motivations.

Did You Know? One of the most famous cliffhangers in literature is from Charles Dickens' serialized novel The Old Curiosity Shop, where readers had to wait for the next installment to find out if the heroine, Little Nell, had died.

The Psychology of Cliffhangers

Cliffhangers have a profound psychological impact on their audiences, enhancing anticipation and increasing emotional investment in the story. By ending a story or episode on an unfinished note, writers effectively pique their audience’s curiosity, encouraging them to return for more.

Audiences find themselves deeply involved in the narrative, thanks to the unresolved conflicts and unanswered questions left hanging. This emotional investment compels them to seek resolution, driving them to seek out subsequent installments in a series or eagerly anticipate the next episode of a television show.

The Role of Dopamine and Other Brain Chemicals in Response to Cliffhangers

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward-seeking behavior, plays a crucial role in the response to cliffhangers. When an audience member is presented with a suspenseful narrative, their brain releases dopamine as part of the natural response to suspense and reward-seeking.

As a cliffhanger builds tension and leaves questions unanswered, the dopamine release strengthens, providing a sense of pleasure and satisfaction as the individual anticipates a resolution in the future.

Dopamine and other brain chemicals contribute to the delight and excitement that accompany a well-crafted cliffhanger, which in turn drives the continued interest in the story.

Did You Know? The film Inception ends with a cliffhanger, in which the audience is left questioning if the protagonist is still dreaming or not.

Cliffhangers as a Marketing Strategy

Cliffhangers can be a powerful tool to maintain the interest of an audience and drive consumption of content. This marketing strategy has been employed in various forms of media, including television shows and serialized novels.

By leaving readers and viewers eager to know what happens next, content creators can make their work more enticing and, in turn, boost audience engagement.

Commercial Breaks and Television

In the world of television, cliffhangers are often strategically placed moments of suspense or surprise that occur just before a commercial break. This technique aims to keep viewers engaged and less likely to change the channel during the advertisement break. By doing this, the show retains its audience and increases the likelihood of continued viewership.

Furthermore, cliffhangers can drastically increase anticipation for upcoming episodes, creating a buzz around the series and encouraging viewers to remain loyal to the show.

This not only benefits the television show itself but can also boost advertising revenue through higher ratings and increased demand for ad slots on the show.

Encouraging Readership in Serialized Novels

Serialized novels have also employed cliffhangers as a means to keep readers engaged and eager for the next installment. This strategy has been used by authors for centuries to maintain their readership and generate income through the regular release of new chapters or sections.

By including a cliffhanger at the end of each installment, authors ensure that readers stay invested in the story and are more likely to continue purchasing subsequent parts.

In addition to stimulating consistent readership, cliffhangers in serialized novels can also help generate word-of-mouth marketing. When readers are left with burning questions, they are more likely to discuss the story with others and encourage them to read the series as well.

This organic promotion can lead to greater overall interest in the author’s work and encourage new readers to start the series.

Cliffhangers in Various Genres

Cliffhangers are a versatile narrative technique that can be effectively utilized in different genres, evoking various emotions and responses from readers. In this section, we will explore the use of cliffhangers in mystery and thriller, fantasy, and drama genres.

Mystery and Thriller

In the mystery and thriller genres, cliffhangers are crucial in keeping readers on their toes and creating tension. They often involve the sudden introduction of a new clue, a shocking discovery, or a twist that leaves the protagonist’s life in danger.

For example, let’s consider a protagonist like Henry Knight, who is investigating a series of crimes in a small town. A cliffhanger could occur when Henry is about to uncover vital evidence and suddenly finds himself trapped in a dangerous situation with the criminal.


Cliffhangers are also prevalent in the Fantasy genre, where they can add depth and excitement to character relationships, quests, and overarching storylines. Popular Fantasy series such as The Empire Strikes Back and Game of Thrones have used cliffhangers effectively to maintain reader interest across multiple books:

  • The Empire Strikes Back by George Lucas, the second movie in the original Star Wars trilogy, ends with one of the most shocking revelations in cinematic history: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.
  • Similarly, Game of Thrones employs cliffhangers by leaving the fate of beloved characters uncertain, such as in the notorious Red Wedding scene.
Did You Know? The season five finale of the TV series Game of Thrones also ends with a cliffhanger, where Jon Snow is betrayed and left for dead.


Lastly, in Drama, cliffhangers tend to focus on interpersonal relationships or self-discovery, often leaving the audience to wonder what decision a character will make or how a relationship will evolve.

For instance, in a dramatic story, we could see two characters grappling with a moral dilemma, where the outcome could alter their lives forever. The cliffhanger would leave readers eager to find out which path the characters ultimately choose and how it affects their journey.

Famous Authors and Their Use of Cliffhangers

Throughout literary history, numerous authors have mastered the art of keeping readers hooked with cliffhangers. This section will explore how renowned authors William Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling, and George R.R. Martin have utilized cliffhangers in their works.

William Shakespeare

One might be surprised to find that William Shakespeare, the bard of Avon, was a notable user of cliffhangers in his plays. Shakespeare’s works relied heavily on suspenseful, emotional storytelling, often culminating in thrilling cliffhangers to enthrall audiences.

One such example is The Tempest, where Shakespeare leaves the fates of certain characters uncertain until the very end. The suspense is maintained throughout the play, only revealing the true motives and outcomes in the final act.

J.K. Rowling

Famed for her immensely popular Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling knows how to keep her readers on the edge of their seats. Rowling incorporated cliffhangers to maintain suspense and anticipation throughout both individual books and the series as a whole.

For instance, at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, readers were left wondering about the fate of Hogwarts and the wizarding world after an unfortunate series of events that occurred at the conclusion of the book. This cliffhanger drove readers to eagerly await the release of the final installment in the series.

George R.R. Martin

Well-known for his A Song of Ice and Fire series, later adapted into the hit television show Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin is highly skilled in crafting gripping cliffhangers. His narrative style, which features rapidly alternating character viewpoints, lends itself to creating suspenseful moments at the end of chapters.

An example from A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series, showcases Martin’s ability to leave readers in anticipation. At the end of a particular character’s chapter, a significant plot twist takes place, leaving the reader in suspense regarding the consequences of the event and necessitating further reading.

The Cliffhanger Contest and Outcome

A cliffhanger contest is an event where writers and storytellers compete by presenting their best cliffhanger endings. The goal of the contest is to showcase talent and creativity in crafting suspenseful and engaging stories that leave the audience on the edge of their seats.

The judging process for such contests mainly focuses on evaluating participants’ grasp of the cliffhanger concept, originality, execution, and the emotional impact of their stories. Writers who effectively use cliffhangers to build tension and anticipation are more likely to secure favorable outcomes in these competitions.

At the end of the contest, the outcomes are announced, typically recognizing winners in different categories such as:

  • “Best Overall Cliffhanger”
  • “Most Original”
  • “Best Use of Suspense”

In addition, these talented writers might also receive prizes that could include scholarships, cash, or publication opportunities.

Amateur and professional writers alike are encouraged to participate in these contests, as they can serve as a platform to fine-tune their storytelling skills and receive feedback from peers and industry professionals.

Examples of organizations that host cliffhanger contests include:

  • Literary magazines
  • Writing communities
  • Film festivals

Participants can find information about these contests by browsing the internet, joining local writing groups, or attending writing-focused events.

Criticisms and Potential Pitfalls

Frustration and DisappointmentUnsatisfactory resolution of the story
OveruseCliffhangers become predictable
EngagementAudience loses interest

Frustration and Disappointment

One of the major criticisms of using cliffhangers is the frustration and disappointment readers or viewers may experience when a story is not resolved satisfactorily. This can occur when the resolution of a cliffhanger does not meet the expectations built up over time, leading to dissatisfaction.

Audiences invest time and emotional energy into stories, and unresolved cliffhangers can make them feel like their investment has gone unrewarded. This can lead to negative feelings towards the story, author, or creators, and may even discourage them from engaging with future works in the series.

Lack of Engagement Due to Overuse

Another criticism with cliffhangers is their potential for overuse. When cliffhangers are employed excessively, they can become predictable and even formulaic. As a result, their dramatic impact is diminished, and audiences may lose interest.

Cliffhangers should be used judiciously in order to maintain their effectiveness. They should be a carefully considered storytelling technique that propels the story forward and keeps the audience engaged, rather than a gimmick used for easy tension-building or manipulative emotional hooks.

Tips for Using Cliffhangers Effectively

Practical Advice for Writers

  1. Build tension throughout the story. This can be achieved by placing the characters in perilous situations or by introducing unexpected twists and turns in the plot. Ensure that the stakes are high, and the consequences of failure are severe.
  2. Create an emotional investment in the story. Develop well-rounded characters that the readers can relate to and care about. This will make the suspenseful moments even more impactful and keep the audience engaged and eager to find out what happens next.
  3. Resolving the cliffhanger in a satisfying way is also important. The resolution should be logical, believable, and rewarding for the readers who have been kept in suspense. Avoid making the payoff feel rushed or contrived, and instead tie it back to earlier events and themes of the story.

Points to Ponder

When incorporating cliffhangers into your storytelling, consider the following pro tips and insights:

  • Space out cliffhangers strategically throughout the story to maintain interest and keep the pacing balanced.
  • Experiment with different types of cliffhangers, such as physical, emotional, or narrative, to add variety and prevent predictability.
  • Remember that cliffhangers are not limited to the end of a chapter or section; they can be placed within a scene or even in the middle of the dialogue to maintain momentum.
  • Cliffhangers can be effective in various genres, from mystery and thriller to romance and science fiction. Don’t be afraid to try them outside of the traditional suspense genre.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are cliffhangers only used in literature and television?

Cliffhangers are commonly used in literature, television, and movies, but they can also be found in other forms of storytelling, such as comic books, podcasts, and even video games.

How can a writer effectively use a cliffhanger?

To use a cliffhanger effectively, a writer should create genuine suspense and make the delay between the cliffhanger and the resolution worthwhile, building anticipation and inspiring the audience to continue with the story.

Can cliffhangers be harmful to a story?

When overused or not resolved in a satisfying manner, cliffhangers can be harmful to a story. The audience may lose interest or feel manipulated if the resolution is not worth the suspense it created.

Are there any drawbacks to using cliffhangers?

The main drawback to using cliffhangers is the potential risk of overusing the technique or providing unsatisfying resolutions. This can result in audience disappointment and affect the long-term success of a story.

Why do creators use cliffhangers in episodic storytelling?

Cliffhangers are valuable tools in episodic storytelling, as they maintain viewer interest and create a sense of urgency in continuing the narrative. They encourage audience members to return for the next installment and generate discussion between episodes.


Cliffhangers play a vital role in storytelling, creating suspense and anticipation that keep audiences engaged. This narrative device has been used throughout literature, film, and television with great success.

The versatility of cliffhangers allows writers to explore a variety of creative approaches in crafting their stories. From dramatic events to subtle hints of what’s to come, the possibilities are endless.

Whether you’re a writer, a reader, or a viewer, understanding the role of cliffhangers in storytelling can enhance your appreciation of the medium. It is important for writers to experiment with cliffhangers in their work, as this can lead to the creation of memorable and compelling narratives.

So, go ahead and experiment with cliffhangers in your writing. Challenge yourself to keep your readers on the edge of their seats, and remember to resolve them in a satisfying way.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

As you found this post useful...

Share it on social media!

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?

Photo of author
Jessa Claire is a registered healthcare provider. Music lover. Daydreamer. Thalassophile. Foodie. A hardworking Capricorn. Most days, an incurable empath. An old soul. Down-to-earth. Vibrant. When she's not writing, she can be seen relaxing with headphones on or engrossed in her favorite fan fiction book.