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Don’t Leave Me Hanging: The Utility and Danger of Cliffhangers in Fiction

The King forlornly dangles off the edge of a cliff, his son and heir a witness to the uncle’s ultimate betrayal … 


You might recognise this scene from The Lion King. We later learn that Mufasa, the king of the lions, had indeed died. But what if the story ended before we discovered this? How would we feel if the story stopped here, with the most literal of cliffhangers? Scar’s devious plan seems likely to succeed, and he could now become the king! Few watchers of the 1994 Disney classic would enjoy an ending where Scar lived happily ever after, so they might hope that Mufasa would escape from the jaws of danger. If the story ends on this cliffhanger, the audience exists in the grey, between two possibilities, where Mufasa both lives and dies. This feels dramatic and full of potential. Tempted by this feeling, many budding writers mistakenly view cliffhangers as a go-to tool for spicing up their stories. They also like the fact that they can end their stories without really having to resolve their complicated plots. However, cliffhangers should be used very rarely.


Cliffhangers are dramatic story devices that rob the audience of a satisfying resolution. The need to have a conclusion to a story, a game or a conversation, basically anything that has a narrative, is strongly ingrained in the human psyche. The human desire for resolution makes cliffhangers a double edged sword. A bad cliffhanger fails to give closure; a good cliffhanger provides several possibilities for closure. A cliffhanger may leave some plotlines open to interpretation, but a change must still occur, a meaning must still be attached, proof that after everything that happened, something is different. Otherwise, the absence of difference will leave the audience frustrated and wishing they’d spent their time reading or watching something else.


Happily ever after may be seen as a boring cliché, but there is a reason it has proved so popular after centuries and is so sought out across a variety of media. It gives the audience proper closure on a narrative and makes the interaction with the story feel satisfying. This feeling can still be obtained with a cliffhanger, if you write it carefully and thoughtfully, setting up a strong hint of the real ending. If you are still interested in using cliffhanger(s) in your writing, think of the Roadrunner’s nemesis, Wile E Coyote. When Coyote is left running on thin air and drops a second later, we may not see where he lands, but we know, once again, it’s not good news for Wile.

For more tips from our teaching team on succeeding in writing and everything else, see the rest of this article series here.