Earning Your Cliffhangers

Screen Junkies’ recent video on the Top Ten TV Show Cliffhangers got me thinking about the cliffhanger as a storytelling mechanism.  As classic a move as it is, it’s still risky.  Done well it can be game-changing; done poorly, it plays as a cheap trick.

Let’s say you’re the IT guy in your average American corporate workplace.  The dress code is business casual, which translates to the same pleated J.C. Penney khakis and button down shirts responsible for the downfall of sartorial standards for the modern American male.  After years of reading GQ on the toilet at home, you finally get up the courage to wear a suit to work.  So you show up Monday with a Mens Wearhouse special and, to your surprise, everybody asks you who died.  When they find out that you didn’t go to a funeral that morning and that, in fact, you wore a suit to work because you think you’re that awesome, the heckling begins, and suddenly you’re known throughout the company as the Duke of Fucking Windsor.

It’s not that the IT guy can’t pull off wearing a suit to work.  It’s that in addition to doing it with dead-certain confidence and a healthy dash of style, he’s got to lay a foundation first.  He can’t just bust in looking all Mad Men–or, worse, looking all Rudy Giuliani–and expect to start getting propositioned over the Keurig machine.  He’s got to start slow, go from pleated to flat-front–make the jump from Sketchers to Florsheim before he tries on the Aldens.  Spend more than ten dollars on a haircut and buy some socks that aren’t white.  That way, when he finally does work up to the slim-fit, double-vented Milan-cut suit with a handmade linen pocket square, he’s given people some time to adjust.  Then instead of guffaws, he gets jealous whispers.

OK, maybe that’s unrealistic.  Chances are you’re still going to be the Duke of Fucking Windsor.  But my point is, you need to earn a cliffhanger, just like you need to earn sartorial respect.

Screen Junkies made a great list, and I suggest you watch it.  I’m going to disagree slightly with them on one, however.  Battlestar Galactica (the reboot) has a number of great cliffhangers, but my favorite comes at the end of season one.  You already know what I’m talking about: the Galactica and the human fleet are still at Kobol, trying to decide between colonizing it and continuing the search for Earth.  Commander Adama has just ordered President Roslin arrested for treason, after she secretly convinced Starbuck to steal the captured Cylon Raider and return to Caprica for the Arrow of Apollo.  The Cylons have caught up to the survivors over Kobol, and battle ensues.  In a daring attack, Boomer (the Galactica iteration), lands her raptor on the Cylon Basestar and destroys it, after learning once and for all that she is indeed a Cylon.  She returns to Galactica, where Adama holds out his hand to congratulate her.  Her Cylon programming taking over, she takes out her weapon and fires two rounds into Adama’s torso.  Cut to credits.

BSG 1x13

It’s an incredible scene.  But much like the related action of killing off characters, it’s only powerful because of the strong foundation that the writers have laid.  A lot of dramatic tension and characterization over the course of a whole season of television went into creating that scene.  It works because of the general excellence of the storytelling: we feel for these people, we’re horrified at what they’ve survived; we’re rooting for them despite overwhelming odds.  We’ve also become very invested in these characters.  Commander Adama is the valiant, wise military commander we all hope would be in charge in circumstances like this: a man bred for war, a man whose flaws make him a bad family man but a great general.  He’s pulled the dregs of humanity out of the fire time and time again, and always made it look easy, always kept it together.  He’s a father figure for the entire crew of the Galactica, for all of humanity, really: he can be hard and determined and unforgiving, but he can also be compassionate and self-analytical when necessary.  He’s not afraid to admit it when he’s made a mistake.  It feels a lot of the time, watching the first season, that Adama is holding things together single-handedly.  And then one of his own officers puts him on the ground.

We’re left wondering whether Adama survives.  It’s shocking, and traumatic, and creates a feeling of desperation and hopelessness in the viewer: where do we go from here?  How can we go on without Adama?  Who else has the grit to get the job done?  Ron Moore and his team earned that cliffhanger.  They established Adama as a person, someone we’d fear to lose, and then, in true expert style, took him away from us.

But what if it had been Colonel Tigh that Boomer gunned down?  Sure, Tigh’s a great character too; in the first season in particular, he’s one of those guys you love to hate.  A useless drunk who’s not qualified for his rank or position.  If he’d been blown away you’d probably have thought: eh.  No great loss.  Moore and co. took away our favorite character at a vital point in the story, and gave us no indication of whether or how he’d survive.  And, importantly, it left us wanting more than simply to know the answer: it left us wanting to see and experience the aftermath.  Does Adama survive?  How?  What does he do afterward?  What are the consequences for him, for Boomer, for humanity?

Conversely, when cliffhangers don’t work, it’s a much less visceral experience.  George R. R. Martin has written some great cliffhangers, but he’s also written some crappy ones.  It’s a danger of overusing the form: eventually you’re going to miss.


The example that comes to mind with Martin is the way he leaves Arya Stark’s character at the end of A Feast for Crows.  Having fled Westeros for Braavos, Arya comes to the House of Black and White to train as an assassin.  She essentially gives up her identity as Arya Stark and becomes Cat of the Canals.  That old identity asserts itself, however, when she runs into Dareon, sworn brother of the Night’s Watch and erstwhile traveling companion of Samwell Tarly, who is on his way to Oldtown to become a maester.  Presuming that he’s abandoned his post on the Night’s Watch, she kills him as punishment.  She returns to the House of White and Black and is given a glass of milk to drink.  She wakes up the next morning blind.

Admittedly, A Feast for Crows isn’t Martin’s best work.  And there are logistical reasons why the book ends as it does: due to the problems surrounding the writing of Crows and its sequel A Dance with Dragons, what was originally one large book was split into two smaller ones.  So it is entirely possible that Arya’s ending changed as a result of the years-long editing process.  That said, when we finally learn what happened to Arya in Dragons, the result is fairly anticlimactic.

It turns out the potion only made her blind temporarily, as punishment for her transgression.

Now, maybe it’s just me; maybe other readers thought this was a great cliffhanger.  Maybe it’s just that the years between Crows and Dragons created an artificial sense of importance that wasn’t intended to be attached to Arya’s blindness.  But the way it felt to me was Martin was messing with us, and not in a fun way.  He left us thinking Arya might be blind forever, only to come back years later in the sequel and essentially say “oh, yeah, that was totally just a red herring.  She was blind for a few days.”

That’s not a cliffhanger I can get behind.  That’s a cliffhanger for the sake of having a cliffhanger.  That’s a cliffhanger that might be acceptable between two episodes in the middle of a TV show season, but not one that I find acceptable between two major volumes of a large work.

The good news about cliffhangers is that readers have an excellent nose for bullshit: they know when they’ve been played and when being left hanging actually serves the story.

So remember, writers: earn your cliffhangers.  Don’t taunt your audience.  Look what happened with Lost.

What are some of your favorite cliffhangers?  Which worked, and which didn’t?  Why or why not?