There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a story and it just stops. We can argue that a cliff hanger is just that, we stop with our characters on the edge of the cliff about to topple over, as per The Italian Job. However, this is not so, a good cliff hanger is built from the beginning to the end not simply stopped in the middle of the action.
If we consider the Italian Job the original version was made in the sixties where good guys won and bad guys lost. Except, our heroes are a bunch of thieves stealing money and therefore can’t win because they’re not actually heroes. How do we resolve this? We build the story up knowing they can’t win but the audience wants them to, they’re just about to escape when disaster strikes and they are literally left dangling on a cliff. Our ‘protagonists’ haven’t won but they haven’t lost either, the audience can make up their own minds whether they escape or not without the conventions of the cinema of the time being violated.
Fiction today is in a morally greyer area and so the gang could’ve got away with their heist but the film still works in the present day, not because of audience perception, but because the film narrative is set up to finish on that cliff. Arguably the film says throughout that we know these are bad people and the film is a bit of fun so they’re not going to get away with it. Ultimately they are punished for their actions because they, possibly, have to choose between escape and their ill-gotten gains. Like Lord of the Rings, discussed in the previous article, the bad guys don’t get away with their bad behaviour and order is restored. This sort of cliff-hanger, as it allows the audience to form their own ending, is more technically known as an ambiguous ending. The action is constructed to feel like it continues after the story ends but with no anticipation of completing the story for us.
As an example of a dissatisfying cliff-hanger we might consider television shows where a cliff-hanger is set up with the assumption that there will be another series and there isn’t. This is a slightly different form of cliff-hanger because it anticipates the action being continued, the most common form of cliff-hanger. Now, the dissatisfaction of this sort of cliff-hanger doesn’t come from the writing itself but the feeling the story should be continued, which is how the story was designed. Just enough questions are answered but many are left unanswered with the anticipation of continuing the story to answer those questions making the audience want to see/read more of the story.
The desire to read more and the satisfaction of creating an ending are not the same. To create an ending the audience needs a certain amount of information, for example we know in the Italian Job that Michael Cain’s character is the man with the plan and a knack for solving the unsolvable. The audience can therefore, if they wish, conclude that he will get them out of the situation. The cliff-hanger that is designed to be continued usually has an important question that will be answered in the continuation. However, in this version there is usually some important information missing, often hinted at but not given, which prevents the audience from forming a satisfying ending. An example might a crime drama where the police are on the cusp of catching the killer but we don’t yet know who it is. The audience needs a definitive answer rather than concluding for themselves because this is not designed as a ‘maybe, possibly’ question. The story is designed for the detective to solve the case and if they never did the audience would be dissatisfied.
When writing a cliff-hanger the important questions are ‘am I continuing this story?’ and ‘does this feel like an ending?’ No doubt you were a reader before a writer and have read enough endings to know when an ending feels right. Unfortunately no matter how much technical information you have sometimes when it comes to your writing you have to rely on your instincts. These instincts develop through reading and writing and there are no shortcuts in their development.