[Note: this article will contain spoilers for various TV shows, books and movies – you have been warned!]
Ah, Cliffhangers. The art of leaving right in the middle of the action so that you tune into the next episode or watch the next movie or read the next book. Cliffhangers, by leaving us unresolved with the promise of resolving the story with the following story, have the nature of either infuriating us or making us excited about the upcoming part. We may say we hate cliffhangers but admittedly it makes us can’t wait for what comes next.
We love cliffhangers because of the excitement it brings the next episode. The most famous cliffhanger in LOST, (about a group of airplane survivors on an island, with flashbacks to their lives before the crash) was at the end of the third season when it was revealed two of the characters (Jack and Kate) had actually gotten off the island. The cliffhanger doesn’t resolve how or why they got off the island or even why Jack insists they have to go back, but it nevertheless was a major reveal. The third season finale of Castle (about a novelist, Richard Castle, who trails an attractive female NY detective with the police department, Kate Beckett) finding out that three dirty cops were implicated a conspiracy involving the murder of her mother, and one of the cops was the previously benevolent police chief Roy Montgomery. Roy sacrifices himself and is killed in the process. Then later at his funeral, Kate is shot by a sniper and Castle, while she lies on the ground bleeding tells Kate he loves her. This cliffhanger does well with mixing reveals and putting people in physical peril and emotional peril. In both cases, we are revealed something and in the second, the characters are in peril. We can’t wait for the next episode. Arguably the biggest reveal of all time happens near the climax of The Empire Strikes Back: the leader of the Galactic Empire, Darth Vader, reveals to the hero Luke Skywalker after a lengthy light saber duel that he is Luke’s father. While the movie did ultimately end with Luke in safety, Darth Vader was still out there to defeat. Much was left unresolved. Now Empire is considered the best of the original trilogy, despite the fact that we are left hanging. A good reveal will do that. The best cliffhangers couple moments in peril with a major reveal.4
However, cliffhanger can also frustrate us. Many fans were disappointed with the first season Lost finale. On the island, a metal hatch had been teased for most of the season. A few of the characters had finally opened the hatch but nothing was revealed about what was inside. No reveal led to not happy viewers. Another frustrating cliffhanger happens with many crime-related shows. Circumstances arrive to break up the team. They all go their separate ways and are no longer part of the group. The reason it is a disappointing cliffhanger is because of its overuse. It’s not a big reveal (especially if the show is renewed for next season) because you know that the entire group is going get back together. An example of that is the fifth season finale of NCIS. We hate cliffhangers that are predicable or that don’t have an impressive reveal.
It’s possible that we are so jaded from so many finales that we need a big reveal to keep us satisfied. But nevertheless, we want to find out what happens, regardless of how well the finale is put together. Cliffhangers, good or bad, keep us going for the next part of the story, and we tune in to find out what happens.