Cliffhanger Clarification

Okay, guys, I try not to use this space just for venting (like the rest of the world, I have a personal Facebook account for that), but there’s something that’s just been driving me nuts, and THE PUBLIC MUST KNOW.
Endings. I want to discuss the difference (OMG THERE IS ONE) between three non-traditional devices for ending your story: the twist ending, the open ending, and the cliffhanger.

(Note: This post includes unapologetic spoilers for the movies Ghostbusters, The Sixth Sense and Inception, because if you haven’t seen those by now, come on, what are the chances?)

Let’s talk cliffhangers first, because that’s the term I see thrown around with abandon, and about half the time people are using it wrong. A little background: You may or may not be aware that the term “cliffhanger” originally comes from the old serial short films that were shown in front of the feature film back in the 30s and 40s. These were quick movies that usually ended with the hero in extreme danger—sometimes they were literally dangling off the side of a cliff, much like this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.18.05 AM

Another example: Pauline in The Perils of Pauline would sometimes end her short film tied to train tracks while an oncoming train approached. She would be screaming for help, the train was creeping toward her ever so slowly, and then suddenly, roll credits. Will Pauline make it? Will she escape the train tracks? You’ll have to come back next week to find out.

The entire format of the serials was designed like that: to get people to come back for more next week. The cliffhanger ending, then, was designed to pull readers/viewers back for another installment by leaving the A storyline unresolved.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Every book or movie has several different storylines in play, and the biggest one is commonly called the A story. There is also a B story (or main subplot), and most of the time there are also smaller subplots that you might call storyline C, D, E, etc.

For example, the A story in the original Ghostbusters is our four guys stopping the supernatural threat from Gozer. The B story is probably Venkman trying to romance Dana. Then there are a number of smaller subplots, such as Janine’s misguided flirtation with Egon and the sad life of the little accountant, Louis. As in most great storytelling, all of these stories interact and intertwine with each other (Louis has a huge crush on Venkman’s love interest Dana, Dana is being controlled by Gozer, etc), but at the end of the day it’s all at the service of the A storyline. That’s the most important plotline, and therefore it’s the one our filmmakers must resolve in order to avoid a cliffhanger. You can actually get away with not resolving some of the minor subplots (for example, Janine never “gets” that Egon isn’t interested in her, and we don’t really care), but the A storyline is the Big Deal. It is the log line, the elevator pitch, the Thing That Must Be Explained in the Movie Trailer.

A cliffhanger, then, is when the A storyline is simply not resolved at all, like when we end the serial not knowing whether or not the main character Pauline will survive her most recent peril.

Train tracks! Why did it have to be train tracks?!

Train tracks! Why did it have to be train tracks?!

Cliffhangers aren’t done much in film anymore, and when they are, it’s because everyone knows there’s going to be a sequel. Where you usually see cliffhangers these days is on television, because it’s the perfect format for this device. Soap operas, for example, are all about cliffhangers, because that will make viewers come back tomorrow. How to Get Away With Murder is an enormous fan of cliffhangers, as is  One example from a couple of years ago is Arrow, when the main character Oliver Queen is stabbed multiple times and then pushed off the edge of a cliff. (Get it? Cliffhanger?) Of course, we’re all pretty sure the Green Arrow isn’t actually dead —the show is called Arrow and he’s the main character—but we always knew Pauline would survive, too. The point was to cut the story off before its resolution, to keep viewers engaged in getting more. That’s the essence of a cliffhanger.

Not a cliffhanger so much as a simple Unhappy Ending. It happens sometimes, guys.

Not a cliffhanger so much as a simple Unhappy Ending. It happens sometimes, guys.

Now, I said earlier that a lot of people mistakenly believe things are cliffhangers when they’re not. This is usually because they’re confusing cliffhanger with twist ending. I understand why —both devices can leave the audience flummoxed and wanting more– but there’s a very distinct difference. A cliffhanger is when story A is left unresolved. A twist ending is when story A is completely resolved, but then something we thought to be true turns out not to be. Roll credits.

The best example of a twist ending is, of course, The Sixth Sense. Story A is about Malcolm (Bruce Willis) finding redemption for his past mistakes by helping Haley Joel Osment’s character Cole come to terms with his gift. And that storyline gets completely resolved: Cole learns to listen to what the ghosts actually want, and finds out that he can exorcise them by helping them move on. This brings Cole peace, which is all Malcolm ever wanted. And just when we, the audience, are feeling at peace ourselves, knowing the story was wrapped up, we suddenly get the twist: Malcolm was dead all along. He is one of Cole’s ghosts, and his quest to help Cole is his unfinished business. So something we thought to be true—Malcolm is a living psychologist in an unhappy marriage—turns out not to be true at all.


How to Tell Your Shrink He’s Dead – a new level in social awkwardness.

HOWEVER, this does not mean that story A isn’t wrapped up. It is. The twist doesn’t take away from story A; it enhances it. So the audience gets to have the resolution and the surprise, which is pretty damned brilliant.

My own first novel, Dead Spots, has a twist ending. Obviously I’m about to mention a spoiler, so if you haven’t read it, I’d be really grateful if you skipped to the next paragraph. Seriously, skip down. You’ll thank me later…. Okay, the A story in Dead Spots is finding out who is killing supernatural creatures in Los Angeles. In that way most of the book is a pretty typical whodunit: Scarlett and her erstwhile sidekick Jesse run around LA questioning people and looking for clues, and by the end they learn who is responsible and they stop that person. This A story is completely wrapped up, but then we get the twist: Scarlett’s dead mentor Olivia, the woman who killed her parents and ruined her life, is not only still alive-ish, but she is a vampire, which shouldn’t be possible. So not one, but two things we thought were true aren’t: Olivia survived and a null has become a vampire. Whaaaaat? It’s a twist ending (not on the level of The Sixth Sense or anything, but I like it), not a cliffhanger, because we find out who the main killer is. The “whodunit” is resolved.

Which brings me to the third non-traditional ending. An open ending is one in which story A is more or less resolved, but ambiguously. In other words, the story could go one of two (or even more) ways, and the audience must choose which one to believe. For example, at the end of American Psycho, audiences have to decide how much of Patrick’s killing spree was real, and how much was just fantasies in his head. You can watch that whole movie and walk away thinking Patrick Bateman is the world’s most prolific serial killer, or you can walk away thinking Patrick is an incredibly creepy wimp who acts out murder fantasies in his head but never actually commits a crime. Either answer is right. Neither answer is right. The filmmaker leaves it this way on purpose, to allow the audience to make up their own minds.

I don’t personally care for open endings that much, but my biggest complaint with them is that how much they’re overused. When it comes to open endings, horror movies in particular are guilty of too much of a good thing. They LOVE to end with the Carrie-style open ending: is she really alive after all? Or was that just a nightmare from one of her victims? We don’t knoooooooooow!

Of course, now that I’ve trashed open endings, I feel obligated to bring up my favorite open-ended film from recent years: Inception. This is one of the rare cases where an open ending feels both brilliant and organic to the story. At the end of Inception, Leo DiCaprio’s character leaves his special is-this-reality detector spinning and goes off to join his children. The audience is left to decide if the top keeps spinning, meaning Leo is still inside of a fantasy, or if it stops, meaning this is reality and Leo gets his happy ending.

I've heard people argue for hours over whether or not the top stops.

I’ve heard people argue for hours over whether or not the top stops.

The reason I find this ending brilliant is that it’s used to make a point: it doesn’t matter. Leo no longer cares whether or not the world around him is “real” —for him, being with his kids in any layer of reality is all that matters. This adds a whole other dimension to the film’s message, and no other ending would work as well here.

And there you have it: cliffhanger, twist ending, open ending. I get that these endings can get confusing, and that the differences between them can be subtle. The end of Blade Runner, for example, could be considered both a twist ending and an open ending: story A about catching Roy Baty and the replicants does get resolved, but we get to decide whether or not we think Deckard and Rachel will escape (open ending) AND we have to consider that maybe Deckard was a replicant all along (possible twist ending). But for some reason it’s important to me that the entire world doesn’t simply toss the label “cliffhanger” on any ending that requires some effort to understand. I could give you a whole speech about the importance of preserving linguistic differentials, but let’s just be honest with ourselves: this is a pet peeve of mine. Thanks for listening.

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One Comment

  1. Great job, Melissa. I know this post was prompted by irritation, but it’s a handy reference that stands on its own merit. You might even consider re-titling it for better SEO, because I’d love to see it get more attention.

    On a personal note, this helped me analyze exactly what I’ve done with my story “The Author Collector”, coming out this Saturday. I’ve been a little nervous about the ending, because it falls into one (or two) of the above categories. The examples you gave makes me feel a little better, knowing that my story sits in good company with Bladerunner and Inception. Some readers may still be upset with me, but hey… you can’t please them all. Heh.

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