creative writing

Cliffhangers and When Not to Use Them


I was inspired to write this post after thinking on the frustrating Season 6 finale of The Walking Dead. I don’t want to move anywhere near spoiler territory, so you can look that up independently should you choose.

If you’re an aspiring author and decide you want to write a cliffhanger, I urge you to stop and think twice, even if you’re penning an adaptation of a Sly Stallone film.

Cliffhangers can be a powerful tool to evoke tension and emotion in your readers if utilized correctly, but have the potential to backfire and cause massive amounts of ire and ill will should you misuse (or be perceived as misusing) them. In the latter situation, you run a high risk of your audience accusing your writing of being lazy/sloppy, poorly thought out, or some sort of attention/cash grab. That is nowhere you want to be, so I’m putting a few points below to ponder on before attempting one.

  1. Is this a situation that demands immediate resolution? – Meaning, if you don’t see the event through to the end, will your audience feel tense, or just cheated?
  2. Can you resolve it in an adequate timeline? – My main gripe from the stated example above. You risk losing the emotional impact of the event, and maybe your audience, if you make them wait months (or years) for a conclusion.
  3. Have you provided adequate resolutions to other conflicts in your story? – Again, you don’t want your readers to feel cheated, and everything shouldn’t be held in the highest level of suspense, so make sure you provide them adequate conclusions to other events in your story so a natural sense of catharsis can take place.

Hopefully this short list will help you temper the use of cliffhangers in your writing so they’re only brought out after heavy consideration.

Have you ever written an effective cliffhanger ending? If so, let me know about it down in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Cliffhangers and When Not to Use Them”

  1. Your points are well made. I definitely think cliffhangers are overused. I prefer something similar…which may not actually have a name, but I think it’s fairly common in fantasy, particularly journey series. The characters have reached a narrative plateau, and pause to recognize both how far they’ve come, and how far they still have to go.

    For example, in a series called the Belgariad, one of the stories ends with the characters setting sail on a boat, while the next book opens with them landing on the next leg of their journey. The ending hints that “more is still to come”, but also recognizes that the “more” is still a ways off, and “this” makes for a natural stopping point along the way.

    There’s still the pull to continue onward, but it’s not nearly as immediate or urgent, in contrast with stories like the Walking Dead, which frequently like to pause on the most unstable of situations. It’s the difference between “5 more minutes” and “This is going to take a while”.


    1. I’ve never heard “narrative plateau”, but I really like that term. And yes, that’s really the balance I think series should strive for. A satisfying end point that still remains open for another potential story.

      Liked by 1 person

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