Are you dying to find out why most TV shows, comic books, novels, and even some movies end on cliffhangers? Tune in next week! Or now—that works too. io9's Beth Elderkin dives into the thousand-year history behind cliffhanger endings, from the early days of Persian folklore to Charles Dickens, The Perils of Pauline, and even Dallas.
A cliffhanger is whenever an episode of a serial ends in suspense, leaving audiences wondering what comes next. This desire to know more, find out the ending, has roots in our basic psychology. According to the BBC, it’s known as the Zeignarik effect, named after psychologist Bluma Zeignarik. She conducted an experiment in the 1920s where she’d interrupt certain people as they did puzzles, finding that when they were stopped midway through, they were twice as likely to remember what they had been doing in the first place.
The first known example of a serial using cliffhanger endings as a narrative tool would be 1001 Arabian Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian folktales. It centers around a king who marries virgins and kills them the day after their wedding. His latest victim, a woman named Scheherazade, finds a clever way to delay her death. Every night, she tells him a story, and then would start the next one. The king, so desperate to find out how that one ended, would keep her alive another night.
You can thank the Industrial Revolution for that! This period brought changes not just in work, but in leisure. More people found themselves with free time they didn’t have before, and took pride in what they did during it. They didn’t want to spend all of it sitting down and reading a book—that’s so boring.
Thus, serialized storytelling grew in popularity. Newspapers, magazines, other publications would share chunks of stories, on a daily or weekly basis, giving people a chance to reader smaller portions of tales on their own time. Most of these serials have been lost to history, but one edition of the Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals estimated there could be hundreds of millions of stories from that time period.
Writers like Charles Dickens surged during this time period, inspiring rabid fandom that rivals even the most hardcore Game of Thrones fans—check out the video above for some examples. However, the overabundance of demand led to a vast supply of serial fiction. There were simply too many stories! At times, thousands of periodicals were in print simultaneously. As Rob Allen wrote in Serialization of Popular Culture, this led writers like Dickens to turn to cliffhangers to entice readers to come back every week:
The progression through these installments was predicated on a continued, reliable audience for the next installment and was, therefore, bound up in the material consequences of serialization as a mode of production. As a result, serial authors adapted works in progress to better fit the reactions of readers, and they took advantage of the regular breaks in serial publication by ending on moments of particular suspense.
The origin of the term “cliffhanger” is, technically, a little tricky to figure out. It’s clear it stems from the act of hanging off a cliff, but there are a couple times this has happened over the years. For example, a few people think the term comes from the 1914 serial film series The Perils of Pauline, since it shows a character dangling off a cliff—but since that wasn’t the film’s actual cliffhanger ending, doesn’t seem likely.
Instead, most historians think the term stems from Thomas Hardy’s serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, which ran from 1872 to 1873. The twenty-first chapter of the serial, called “On thy cold grey stones, O sea!”, ended with one of the heroine’s suitors dangling off the edge of a cliff as she ran to get help. Here’s a small passage from what could be the first official cliffhanger ending:
‘Elfride, how long will it take you to run to Endelstow and back?’
‘Three-quarters of an hour.’
‘That won’t do; my hands will not hold out ten minutes. And is there nobody nearer?’
‘No; unless a chance passer may happen to be.’ ...
A minute—perhaps more time—was passed in mute thought by both. On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She vanished over the bank from his sight. Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized loneliness.
Not until recently! Cliffhangers grew in popularity for comics right around the turn of the century, mirroring their usage in serial fiction. And movies have been using them since their inception, with serial films and series serving as a staple of early Hollywood. However, it took a damn long awhile for American TV shows to start using them too.
Cliffhangers were popular on shows like Doctor Who, or non-American soap operas, but for decades American shows refused to do them. Mostly avoiding them between episodes, and especially never doing them between seasons. The reason was simple: syndication. Networks like having the option of airing shows out of order, whether during their original run or syndication, and they were afraid cliffhangers would confuse or upset the audience.
All of that changed in 1980 with three little words: “Who Shot JR?” The CBS drama Dallas changed the game when they ended their third season on a massive cliffhanger, often considered one of the biggest in media history. The country spent that entire summer obsessed with solving the mystery of “whodunit.” This one move made it acceptable for other shows to follow suit, and now they’re a crucial part of television—especially thanks to the rise in comic book shows, since comics live and breathe good cliffhangers.
Cliffhangers aren’t always perfect, or even good. Sometimes, the resolution doesn’t beat the setup. But they’re still a fun way for us to engage in a story, as well as other fans. My personal favorite cliffhanger has to be the ending of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, the second book in His Dark Materials trilogy. I’d read it and The Golden Compass back to back—one year before The Amber Spyglass was set to be released. That year was torture! The final month before I could read Spyglass find out what happened to Lyra and Will was probably one of the most stressful in my life. I was like Eric Cartman waiting for the Nintendo Wii... times a thousand. Be sure to let us know your favorite cliffhanger endings in the comments, without revealing what happens, of course! After all, isn’t the mystery part of the fun?