Oh no, Captain Heropants is dangling from the edge of a cliff! I have to keep reading to see what happens to them. Except… that’s the last page? There’s no more??? I’ve been cliffhanger-ed!
A cliffhanger is any ending where an urgent conflict remains unresolved. Please note, the word “urgent” is important there. That’s how you tell the difference between a cliffhanger and an ongoing plot. The Star Trek episode Best of Both Worlds ends part one on a cliffhanger when Riker orders Worf to fire Team Good’s experimental new weapon at the Borg ship. Will the weapon work? Will the Borg strike back? Will the newly assimilated Picard be killed? We don’t know, and we have to wait three months to find out!*
In contrast, The Empire Strikes Back does not end on a cliffhanger. The conflict over Han getting captured is over: the good guys lost. We know they’re going to launch a rescue mission, but that hasn’t started yet. The overarching plot of defeating the Empire remains, but it’s not a threat to our heroes right this second.
Cliffhangers have a well deserved reputation for being annoying, but why are they like that? What makes people groan when their favorite novel ends on a cliffhanger and they have to wait two years for the sequel? What types of cliffhangers are most annoying?
Fortunately, I’ve got the answers, in the form of five types of cliffhangers that annoy everyone.
Spoiler Notice: The Last of Us, Foundation, and Stranger Things 4
1. Any Kind of Cliffhanger
While there are a lot of things writers do to make their cliffhangers especially bad, we should acknowledge up front that there’s no such thing as a non-annoying cliffhanger. There are only stories that are otherwise good enough for us to forgive their cliffhanger endings.
The defining feature of a cliffhanger is that they deny the audience satisfaction. Satisfaction is the feeling you get when problems are resolved, for good or ill. The heroes win the day through cunning and grit, or they fall prey to their own hubris. Either way, the urgent conflict is resolved, and the audience can move on with their lives. They’ll pick up sequels simply because they liked the first installment, and they look forward to round two.
This is not the case with cliffhangers. A cliffhanger means that if the audience wants to resolve the built-up tension, they have to buy the sequel. This is not a pleasant experience. It’s like watching someone cook a meal for you, the delicious smells wafting into your nose, only to have the food whisked away before you can take a bite. No one likes being strung along.
In fact, people dislike it so much that any mistakes near the cliffhanger seem worse by association. The film Eternals has one such combo: After the heroes win the day, their former boss* shows up to kidnap them, creating a cliffhanger over whether they’ll be okay. This is really annoying because the attack was easily predictable, but the heroes didn’t take any precautions. At first, I assumed this problem was part of the cliffhanger, but it’s a separate issue. It’s just more irritating because it coincides with a cliffhanger.
If cliffhangers are so widely known as annoying, why do writers use them? It’s to make the audience come back for the satisfaction they were denied. Wouldn’t it be better to trust that they’ll come back because the story is good? Yes, but a lot of writers apparently lack that confidence. And I can’t say it doesn’t work. I can only advise that authors put long-term enjoyment before a cheap trick. Cliffhangers may work in the short term, but the more you use them, the more annoyed your audience will get.
And those are only the problems with regular cliffhangers, the ones that don’t do anything extra annoying. What happens when cliffhangers get even worse? Read on to find out.
2. The Conflict Is Resolved Offscreen
At the end of The Last of Us’s sixth episode, Joel is in big trouble. He’s taken a really gnarly stab wound and soon falls off his horse due to either blood loss or shock. He then loses consciousness, and he’s fading fast. Only 14-year-old Ellie can help him, and she has no idea what to do. There’s no one else around and not even shelter nearby. It looks like Joel is about to die, and then the episode ends. Ugh. Oh well, it’ll be interesting to see how we get out of that next time!
Surprise! We do not see how they get out of it. Instead, episode seven starts with Joel and Ellie in an abandoned house. Joel is lying on a mattress and has somehow regained consciousness. He’s still in a bad way, but not nearly as bad as in the previous episode, where he looked to be halfway through death’s door.
This raises several questions. How did Ellie get Joel into the house without aggravating his wound, and even more importantly, why does his wound seem less severe now than it was before? The only way I can think of to get Joel into the house would be dragging him. That’s not something Ellie could have done easily,* and it would not be good for the big hole in his abdomen. The answer to how this happened appears to be “by being offscreen for a while.”
This kind of cliffhanger usually happens when the writer is so focused on getting their audience to come back that they create a problem they don’t know how to solve. Or, they don’t know how to solve it in the time they have before the next big plot point. For The Last of Us, episode seven is mostly taken up by Ellie’s flashback story, so there were only a few moments at the beginning to address Joel’s injury.
The effect is two pronged. First, confusion. When a major conflict is resolved offscreen like this, it leaves the audience wondering if they’ve missed something. Second, frustration. That cliffhanger conflict is a promise, and we expect authors to keep their promises. Once an author starts resolving problems offscreen, any conflict can be magically whisked away without explanation. Why bother investing in the plot at that point?
It’s super tempting to end a story like this. Creating a thorny conflict is easy, and the difficulty of resolving it won’t hit until later. But authors must be strong. Either plan ahead so you know how to satisfactorily resolve the conflict, or go back and revise once you see there’s a problem. The baseline cliffhanger will still be annoying, but at least you’re not making it worse.
3. There’s No Resolution
The second episode of Foundation is split between at least two separate plots, but we only care about the one that takes place aboard the spaceship Deliverance. This one ends with math genius Gaal walking in to find her boyfriend Raych having a civil discussion with her mentor, Hari. And by “civil discussion,” I mean Raych brutally murders Hari with a knife. Then, Raych grabs Gaal and hustles her into an escape pod, launching her out into the great unknown.* Episode over.
Oh boy, so that’s a bunch of stuff to resolve next time, right? We have obvious issues like whether Raych will kill anyone else on the ship and what happens to Gaal’s escape pod, but just as importantly, why did Raych murder Hari in the first place? The two were close, Raych was even Hari’s adopted son, so that’s a pretty big plotline.
Too bad! You didn’t come to this list for skillful resolutions; you came to be horrified by the cliffhangers that writers inflict upon their audiences. Episode three has nothing to say on any of these points. Instead, we jump forward in time and follow a different group of characters. There’s nothing about the murders or what happened to Gaal. Same with episode four, until finally, at the very end, we cut to a mysterious ship discovering Gaal’s escape pod.
This variant takes all the cliffhanger’s main source of annoyance and dials it up to 11. Now, it’s not enough to come back and watch the next episode or read the next book. We have to stick with the story until the writer finally deigns to give us a bit of closure as a treat. How long will that take? Who knows! In Foundation, it’s nearly three episodes before anything from the initial cliffhanger is addressed and much longer before we get a full conclusion. There’s no way to predict how long an author will keep us dangling, assuming they remember to resolve the issue at all.
For cynically minded writers, this might sound like a win-win. Just introduce a cliffhanger early, and string the audience along until you’re done with them. What are they going to do, stop reading or watching? Then, they’ll never find out what happened! It’s a perfect plan.
The only downside, besides making your audience mad, is that the longer you wait to resolve something, the greater chance that they’ll stop caring. By the time Foundation gets around to explaining that the murders were part of some nine-dimensional chess game Hari was playing, it doesn’t matter anymore.
Occasionally, an author will employ this kind of cliffhanger because they aren’t sure how else to introduce a long running problem. Good news: To do that, all you need is to break the big problem into smaller problems that can be resolved as the story moves forward. If Raych’s motivations are supposed to be a big question for us to wonder about, the story should have a character investigating them, getting steadily closer to the truth as the big nine-dimensional chess reveal approaches.
4. It Wasn’t a Big Deal
The novel Red Seas Under Red Skies begins with a flash-forward scene. Protagonist Locke is in a standoff with some bad guys where everyone is pointing loaded crossbows at each other. That’s bad, but then Locke’s best friend, Jean, also points a crossbow at him. Betrayal! The obvious explanation is that Jean’s just pretending so he can get an advantage on the bad guys, but the narration tells us that’s not true, because he hasn’t given the secret hand signal to indicate a double cross.*
That’s where the flash-forward ends, leaving us to guess at what the heck is going on. Did Jean really betray Locke? If so, why? If not, is someone pretending to be Jean? This setting has powerful wizards, so anything’s possible. After most of the book has gone by,* we finally catch up to that scene and get the big payoff: Jean did give the double cross signal; Locke just missed it. Oh. Okay. So, no big deal? Move along everyone, nothing to see here.
This type of cliffhanger is especially galling because if we follow the author’s directions and stick with the story until the promised payoff, we still get nothing. We could have just put the story down after the initial ending and gotten the same result. Instead of delaying the satisfaction, there simply is no satisfaction.
Why would an author do this? In this specific case, it’s to cover for a slow opening. The first few chapters are mostly taken up by Jean and Locke planning to rob a fantasy casino, a conflict with little in the way of stakes or urgency. The betrayal flash-forward at least gives us the impression that something exciting will happen later.
More broadly, it’s what happens when a writer isn’t interested in properly resolving a conflict, but knows that they shouldn’t just say the solution occurred offscreen. Don’t worry about that problem; it was no big deal. Never mind that we only thought it was a big deal because the author positioned it as such.
There’s also a heavy scent of subverting expectations in false cliffhangers like this. Proper subversions can be very satisfying, but they’re also difficult. It’s much easier to simply promise something cool and not deliver. It’s true, that’s not what we were expecting. In the same way that when we bite into a delicious-smelling steak, we’re probably not expecting it to be completely bland and flavorless.
All we get in exchange for this fizzled flash-forward is a short sequence where Locke realizes he should have trusted Jean more. I’ll be honest: I can’t remember if that’s part of a bigger character arc. Even if it is, the cost isn’t worthwhile. If it’s not part of an arc, it’s just a random scene with no useful purpose.
5. Progress Is Undone
The fourth season of Stranger Things is all about our heroes trying to defeat Vecna so he can’t open a bunch of gates between Hawkins and the Upside Down. This is no easy feat, but with dedicated teamwork, they get it done. Eddie and Dustin distract Vecna’s physical security while Max and Lucas lure him into a mental confrontation. Nancy, Robin, and Steve then confront Vecna’s physical form. They shoot him, stab him, and set him on fire. Finally, Eleven uses her powers to defeat Vecna inside Max’s mind. Hopper and Joyce even manage to help all the way from Russia, in vague and poorly explained ways.
The victory is not without cost. Eddie dies, and Max is left in a coma. But at least Team Good has won: Hawkins is safe from Vecna and his inter-dimensional gates. Oops, never mind: Vecna opens the gates anyway, and now the Upside Down is flooding through. Everything’s about to be overrun by monsters, and you’ll only have to wait three or four years to find out what happens. Joy.
Unlike the other entries on this list, we don’t yet know how Stranger Things 4’s cliffhanger will resolve, but that’s actually irrelevant. The damage is already done; nothing the heroes did mattered. Despite being defeated at every turn, Vecna accomplished his objective anyway. It’s good that this show uses so many D&D metaphors, because this is what it feels like when you score a critical hit on the boss, only for the DM to hastily scribble in some additional hitpoints behind the screen.
This final type of cliffhanger happens because writers want to have their satisfaction cake and eat it too. A good ending resolves conflict and tension so the audience walks away feeling like there was a point to what they just watched or read. Cliffhangers prevent conflict and tension from being resolved, making them antithetical to satisfaction. But what if you just resolve the main conflict and immediately unresolve it? You could have both, right?
It won’t surprise you to hear that the answer is no. The second event overwrites the first, leaving all the problems of a regular cliffhanger with the additional issue that now the main plot feels pointless. This isn’t the heroes failing; it’s the heroes’ success being undone by authorial fiat.
The tragic part is that previous seasons of Stranger Things knew how to get around this problem. Each of them ends with Team Good defeating a minion or minions of the Mind Flayer, which in turn appears to be the show’s ultimate big bad. This simple but reliable strategy means we get the satisfaction of resolving a season-level plot while keeping the series-level plot open. Season four almost does the same thing, but then it reveals that Vecna is actually the big bad. The Mind Flayer is a construct he created, for reasons.
So now Vecna is the presumed big bad for season five, but he’s already the villain in season four, so… I guess the writers had no choice but to use him as the villain who gets defeated and also the villain waiting in the wings to fight later. Or, and hear me out, they could have just kept the Mind Flayer as the big bad.
The common thread that all these annoying cliffhangers share is dishonesty. They promise something and don’t deliver it, usually in the form of poorly resolving a conflict or not resolving it at all. All I can say is: don’t lie to your audience.
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