Into the Action – Hanging off the Cliff

It’s been a bit since I talked about action, which I should say is a gaff on my part.  I mean, my primary works are bathed in the essence of the action/adventure piece so you would think I’d have more to say on it.  So, today’s Into the Action will look at that tried and true plot device, the Cliffhanger.

To be precise, a Cliffhanger is the story technique where characters are set up in a dangerous or dramatically tense situation at the cusp of resolution then ending the chapter or scene right at that point.  Later on in the book, or perhaps in the sequel, the situation will usually be picked back up and resolved.  Sometimes, this resolution happens ‘off-camera’ and the scene is resumed with the characters dealing with the aftermath of the situation.

The purpose of the Cliffhanger is to build dramatic tension first and foremost.  With the resolution of a situation hanging in the air, the reader is pulled along the story to find out how the situation plays out.  Especially in a serial work, this technique can keep readers coming back for installment after installment, eager to find out how the latest near-death situation was averted … or who died.

Just like any other plot device or story technique, Cliffhangers can be used poorly.  Most often this is the case when there is no dramatic tension built up in the scene in the first place.  If the reader has no investment in the drama of the situation, he/she won’t care how it concludes, so the timing of the conclusion doesn’t matter one bit to them.  A Cliffhanger should only be used after there is a solid investment in the action as it is.

Another way to cheapen the effect of a Cliffhanger is to invoke one in a situation that, while dramatic, has no real consequences to ‘failure’.  If there is no danger, no matter how invested the reader is or how dramatic the scene may be, there isn’t much need for a Cliffhanger.  Note that danger constitutes more than physical harm.  There are plenty of emotional and spiritual dangers out there, and all could be turned into a workable Cliffhanger.  The one way an inconsequential Cliffhanger might work is in a comedy piece, using the pointless Cliffhanger as a bit of a spoof of the action/adventure genre.  For the most part, though, stick to the danger.

Can you overuse Cliffhangers?  Certainly.  The truth is that you can overdo just about any kind of plot device, no matter how cunningly wrought.  As someone who loves to use them, there are definitely times where they are unnecessary, no matter how dramatic the situation.  Sometimes, it’s best just to resolve things and keep a traditional narrative flow.  It will make the Cliffhangers ‘pop’ all the more when shown in comparison to a normal resolution.

What do you think?  Do you like to incorporate the Cliffhanger structure into your works?  Outside of raw action sequences, how can Cliffhangers be put to good use?  Comment and discuss below!

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6 comments

  1. I’m puzzled. If “resolution happens ‘off-camera’ and the scene is resumed with the characters dealing with the aftermath of the situation,” wouldn’t that qualify as a poor use of a cliffhanger? Can you direct me to an example that wouldn’t come across as a cop-out by the writer?

    1. While I can’t bring up any examples off the top of my head, I’ve seen it written well. Now that I think about it, though, the times I’ve seen it written well I recall were uses of the concept in other comedy and deconstruction pieces. That may be why I have good memories of it but, on the surface, it defies the usual good writing instincts.

      1. Whether cutting to the aftermath means the characters are sighing with relief because they got out of that situation by the skin of their teeth, or it means that the last man standing is bemoaning the fate of his sidekick and that he has to go it alone from there, it would seem that the writer either couldn’t figure out how to get the action to that point, or else he got bored with it and couldn’t be bothered to finish up properly. In anything other than very broad comedy that the reader goes into knowing not to take anything seriously, it just wouldn’t work. It’s kind of like an actor breaching the Fourth Wall: it took being Groucho Marx, to get away with it.

        1. You’re most likely right.

          Really, the more I think about what I wrote there, the less sure I am that I should have. Hindsight being 20/20 and all. It’s certainly never been a version of the cliffhanger I’ve ever used personally … I can only wonder if it was a bit of faulty memory that I thought I had ever seen a good use of that.

          *shrugs* Ah well, we’re only human. 🙂

          1. It’s not necessarily a faulty memory. In less knowledgeable days, we might have overlooked that kind of dodgy plot device, in a story that had enough other barbs on the hook to keep us on the line. I’ve read remarks by writers expressing their disappointment in re-reading old favorites, once they’d begun writing.

            I think some writers also try to manufacture cliffhangers out of fragments of scenes, particularly when they’re juggling too many subplots. This may be wash-over from motion pictures that jump around between different action scenes that are supposed to be going on simultaneously. It doesn’t work reliably on the silver screen, either. There’s a limit to how many plates a juggler can keep in the air – and then he has to get them all down successfully.

            1. Well said, both about the advancement of our perceptions and juggling too many plots.

              You’re right. I’ve had the same thing happen recently when looking back at previous favorites that I haven’t read or watched in a while.

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