Whether writing book and crafting an exciting cliffhanger for the end of a chapter or creating an audio drama series that needs a compelling season finale episode, writing an exciting story break can be challenging. I remember listening to a Stargate Atlantis commentary where one writer handled the season finale and another picked up the next season’s opening episode and they were chuckling about all the impossible situations written into the finale that had to be resolved. Returning to my trusty Netflix queue here are some examples of writing cliffhanger episodes.
Warning: Brief descriptions are included. Spoiler alert.
Character driven, grief
Being a miniseries, every episode ends dramatically to keep viewers for the next part, since they are each longer in length than a normal tv series. Gwendolen is a beautiful young woman plagued by a suitor she despises, especially when finding out he has a mistress with whom he fathered several children. When her family’s fortune vanishes, Gwendolen is forced to accept the proposal and is momentarily cheered up by his grand house. The cliffhanger appears when the mistress sends her a note, warning her that the man she married is a heartless beast. Overcome by what she has done and can look forward to, Gwendolen collapses to the floor of her lush parlor in tears of despair. Since we’ve been with the character for hours, it is difficult not to feel for such a beautiful woman thrown into a life of misery. The audience wants to watch the next episode in the hopes that something will improve for her, and that there will be a way out. It is very much an emotion-driven character reason for the cliffhanger—we care about Gwendolen and want better for her.
(The Great Game)
Suspense/plot driven, life and death standoff
At the time of season one there was no guarantee the show would be renewed, yet it ended with such an intense cliffhanger that the internet went into panic mode for a month afterward. A friend I watched it with was almost hopping up and down with fury that there would be such a long break before we found out what happened next. After an intense psychological buildup through a series of potentially violent situations that Sherlock must think his way out of, they end with a confrontation between Sherlock Holmes and his arch enemy Moriarty. During a final face-off, Sherlock desperately tries to save his friend and himself from being shot. The tension is created partly through setting—an abandoned swimming pool at night—and the constant barrage of action throughout the episode ending in a somewhat quiet situation. The writing becomes a personal conversation within an extremely stressful situation as Sherlock finally thinks his way out. Just when we all thing the situation is resolved—BOOM in the last 5 seconds comes an intense realization that they are in even more danger than before. Basically the viewer is sent onto a roller coaster of tension, allowed to feel safe, then thrown right back in again. It is the sort of cliffhanger that sets the heart pumping and desperate to know what happens next.
(Lay Down Your Burdens part 2)
Plot driven, worry about future, game changer
In itself a part two episode, the end of Season 2 brought an unexpected twist to the story at the end which completely changed the nature of the show. Most of the episode centered on a political controversy fueled by the question of settlement. Mankind had been forced to evacuate into space on the run from the robotic Cylon race. Upon finding a habitable world, many wanted to stop running, and they ended up the dominant voice. Using a time cut to one year later, the well established settlement is suddenly overrun with Cylons. It is a rather quick reorientation leading to the cliffhanger, yet it avoids having to cover a potentially boring year of people building huts and so forth. Sometimes it is worth doing time cuts in order to keep dramatic tension going or move to another important moment in the story quickly without losing your audience due to boredom. There is not an immediate life and death situation, rather the potential for one later. It is a combination of caring about characters enough to want to see them unharmed and worry about potential conflict that makes the cliffhanger meaningful.
Character/plot driven, grief, defeat
One of the best shows at the dramatic ending is Stargate, although they tend to use complex sets of cliffhangers leaving various sets of characters in different potentially dangerous situations. This particular episode had all the usual elements—part of the team trapped on an enemy mothership in immediate danger, another part trying to save an alien race from extinction, etc. What was different in this case was that all the plot threads were resolved near the end, leaving our team back in the safety of a briefing room. Boring right? Compared to the usual Stargate fare it was, but what I appreciated is that it has the sort of deadened long-term worry to it. Instead of explosions and running around, the episode comes to a very quiet close in the final section as the team realizes that now they must face an enemy with technology more powerful than any they have encountered before, plus two of their team members dead. Down to only three they sadly shuffle down corridors and try to have a celebration dinner for their victory that feels anything but. Basically it is very much a defeat in a way. This is an intriguing way to cliffhanger. Sometimes throwing every scary plot element you can think of into the script isn’t the best way to leave an audience wondering what will happen next. The raw ache of sadness can be just as compelling with characters people care about.