A cliffhanger is a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment the plot is concluded. The main conflict of a story might be left unresolved, forcing a reader to figure out the ending for themselves. Or, in order to stimulate multiple possibilities since none are addressed.
This device creates suspense at the end of a chapter, book, or even in between pages or sentences. In poetry, this device can be used alongside enjambment in order to encourage a reader on into the next line or stanza. In some cases, cliffhangers work better than others. They can be thrilling and successfully engage with the audience, provoking discussion and speculation.
But, they can also be disappointing. Sometimes seen as an easy way out of a complex plot, cliffhangers might leave a viewer or reader frustrated with what they had invested time into. They might even end up working against the writer.
Purpose of Cliffhangers
As stated above, cliffhangers are used to prolong an audience’s interest in a story. Writers use them to add drama and tension into the plot without which the story might fall flat and become uninteresting to the reader.
Cliffhangers are used to ensure that a reader will come back for more if there is more on offer. Novelists, film and television producers and writers will utilize this device in order to sustain interest in the next book, episode of a television series or the next movie.
Examples of Cliffhangers in Literature
Example #1 The River-Merchant’s Wife by Ezra Pound
In this poem Pound presents a translated letter, by a Japanese poet that describes the relationship between a sixteen-year-old girl and her merchant husband. This poem gives the reader a brief but memorable look into the life of a young woman who nervously gets married at fourteen. She grows to love her husband only to have him leave on a trip. The poem contains her worries and her desire for his return. But, as with all good cliffhangers, the reader is left wanting more. Take a look at these lines from the text:
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.
The device is used in the final lines of the poem. There is no resolution to the central conflict of the story. The young woman’s husband does not return home by the end of the final stanza and a reader is left wondering what her future holds.
Example #2 The Barn by Seamus Heaney
‘The Barn’ is a nightmarish retelling of experiences within a dark and cold barn, filled with foreboding tools and creatures. In this piece, Heaney focuses entirely on the experiences of a single central character. He is in a barn surrounded by grain and farm tools. Everything appears more menacing than it should. Above him are birds and bats and around him rats. All of these creatures set the speaker on edge, creating a tense and painful atmosphere. A reader will feel as though something terrible is about to happen. Take a look at these lines from the last stanza of the poem:
The dark gulfed like a roof-space. I was chaff
To be pecked up when birds shot through the air-slits.
I lay face-down to shun the fear above.
The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats.
The last lines leave a reader needing to know what comes next. The sacks, which are personified into rats, are moving at the speaker as if to attack him. This is entirely in his mind but it doesn’t make it any less real.
Example #3 Age by Philip Larkin
This poem is one that provides a reader with examples of miniature cliffhangers that come between lines and stanzas. ‘Age’ speaks on the difficulties associated with ageing and how the speaker is always going to wonder about their own legacy. Take a look at these lines from the beginning of the poem as an example of how enjambment can work to create a cliffhanger:
My age fallen away like white swaddling
Floats in the middle distance, becomes
An inhabited cloud. I bend closer, discern
A lighted tenement scuttling with voices.
The word “becomes” acts as a cliffhanger of sorts. The same can be said for lines two and three of the second stanza in which “flown / From the nest” is divided up by a line break.