A little while ago on my “Serials are a feature, not a bug” post, Jen Twimom mentioned as part of a larger comment that:
I have never been a fan of serials because I do NOT like cliffhangers.
So I reassured her that there were no cliffhangers in my serial, except:
there might be one at the end of part VII. But it leads into the last part! So I think I should be forgiven.
But I might be a liar? Or I might not. I think it depends on whom you’re asking. I’ve been a little bemused while reading reviews for the first parts of The Kraken King, because some readers have mentioned that they like how the parts don’t end on a cliffhanger … and others have mentioned that the cliffhangers are killing them. So I wonder if readers are defining cliffhangers differently from each other.
For me, a cliffhanger is a stop in the story at the moment of peril — and when I told Jen that I didn’t include any cliffhangers (except in Part VII), that’s what I meant. I always think of cliffhangers as the Batman ending, like in the TV shows from the 1960s. Batman and Robin would be tied up and facing some imminent death, then the episode would end and the famous “Tune in tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!” message would appear. So while the characters might not literally be hanging from a cliff, their lives are hanging in the balance, and we need to pick up the story at the same scene in the next episode or there is going to be a huge gap in the narrative (because we need to know how they escape).
But I think there’s another type of device that is also often called a cliffhanger, and that is ending an episode/installment of a series (or a serial) with a moment of significant change in the overall story arc. One example of this is the episode in Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy and Angel have sex for the first time, and he loses his soul. He wakes up at the end of the episode and we know that SOMETHING has happened, but we really don’t fully know what yet. That, to me, is not a cliffhanger — we don’t know what is going to happen, and the questions aren’t answered or resolved, but nobody’s life is in peril. And that change begins a new plotline that continues into the next episode and is finally resolved at the end of the season.
I don’t know, though — would you call that ending a cliffhanger? What is the most common use for the term now? A moment of narrative change, a revelation, or high drama — or a moment of peril?
Or does the time period between the releases make a difference, too? Because now that I’m thinking of it, KMM’s Fever series is well known for ending in cliffhangers. I haven’t read them yet, but I’m curious: Are they moments of peril with a life hanging in the balance? Moments of sudden change? And did the year-long wait between installments in that series make a difference when considering whether it’s a cliffhanger or not (compared to, say, the week-long wait for a TV show like Buffy or Batman (or The Kraken King?))
Another example might be the British Sherlock series (SPOILERS AHEAD). In my mind, Series 1 ended on a cliffhanger with Moriarty holding a gun on Watson and with a bomb strapped to his chest, and we had to pick up the story a year later at that same scene. But although Season 2 ended with Sherlock’s “suicide,” and with Watson crying in a cemetery, that isn’t a cliffhanger. There were a ton of unanswered questions (still unanswered), but we were able to pick up the story again in Series 3 after a lot of time had passed. And the end of Season 3 has another shocking moment — Moriarty! — and a new batch of unanswered questions, but again, it feels like another narrative change/lead-in device for the next episode rather than a cliffhanger.
But I don’t know. Maybe my definition is too strict and doesn’t reflect the general usage? How do you define a cliffhanger ending?
What would you call the end of THAT EPISODE of The Good Wife this season (you know which one I’m talking about.) Was it a cliffhanger when Alicia answered the phone? Or would it have only been a cliffhanger if the episode had ended with Kalinda in the courtroom?
What about the latest season finale of The Walking Dead?