I hate cliffhangers. There is nothing more guaranteed to drive me into a paroxysm of frustrated table-thumping than a two-parter on TV. Build up of tension is all well and good, and I know I listed cliffhangers as a tool of pacing in yesterday’s blog, but as an audience they drive me up the wall. I’m engaged, in the zone, wound up to a peak of tension, and then… roll credits.
Rage. From a writer’s perspective, though, that reaction is everything you could want. It almost guarantees that they will tune in next week, or storm Waterstones for the hardback of the sequel, or whatever the medium calls for. The reader’s emotion is thoroughly engaged with the story – albeit often in a Hulk-esque way – and they will be back. But the depth of that emotion indicates the power of the tool, and with great power… you know the rest.
Basically, use it once and you’ve got them hooked. Use it twice and they will start to hate you, whilst continuing to love your work. But abuse it and you lose them. In this age of instant gratification, cliffhangers are less welcome than ever and you’ve got to have a damn good reason for employing them.
I’m not saying don’t end on a climax – far from it. But closure is important and that’s the crucial thing that a cliffhanger lacks. You can do teasers for the sequel which are less enraging, and yes, less compelling, because they provide the audience with an emotional ending on some level. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Fellowship of the Ring is a good example of this – plenty of hooks into the next chapter of the story, without driving us demented. Dr Who, on the other hand, is a repeat cliffhanger offender and only escapes having something thrown at it because a) it’s a relatively new TV and b) I have them all on box set and can put the next one on immediately.
Cliffhangers between chapters is fine, by the way, although again be careful of overusing the technique as it’ll start to lose its effectiveness. I’m really just talking about places where the audience will be forced to wait a period of time before getting their next hit. The line between heightened anticipation and irritated disinterest can be very fine indeed.