Really? The Cliffhanger Ending

We all love sequels. You can lie to yourself, but you cannot lie to me. We are all suckers for continued adventures of our favourite characters, otherwise there would be no series for Harry Potter, Twilight, Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Godfather, Indiana Jones, etc. Heck, we would not even been graced with Sex and the City 2 and Iron Man 2, nor would people be excited for The Hangover 2 and speculating about a Thor 2. Contrary to popular belief, movie companies are actually big faceless companies that are more concerned with making money than pandering to our tastes. I could go on but I think even you are understanding that Hollywood would not be making all of these sequels unless we wanted to see them and regardless of your taste in movies, there are sequels you know and love.

I like sequels more than the average person, as you might have noticed from my extremely popular Movie Sequel Mondays series. So here I am, a sequel aficionado (thanks spellcheck!) that is completely at peace with follow ups intended solely as cash-ins, yet I am opposed to the most obvious sequel foreshadowing: the cliffhanger. Cliffhangers can be very effective ending techniques, but more often than not, they are copout endings tossed in under the illusion that if the movie makes enough money they are prepped to carry on the story.

First, let’s look at a good example of a set up sequel: Urban Legend. This delightful horror movie ended with the big reveal that the killer was not dead and appeared to be starting up again with a new group of friends/victims. Urban Legend: Final Cut picked up right when the original cliffhanger left off by… completely ignoring it. This type of sequel is generally reserved for action and horror movies, where we get an entirely new cast and story that have no need for a cliffhanger to be made.

For the sequels that do manage to bring back some of the same characters, they rarely pick up near the end of the last movie. You can more or less expect the characters to be emotionally/physically exhausted by the trials of the previous movie, so naturally the sequel will take place long enough after the events to give allow for some offscreen character development. In this case, the cliffhanger is essentially useless in that it not only cannot be an urgent incident, but it also removes any mystery around a new antagonist, being that we already know the old one is still around.

Then we have all of the sequels that do not get made. Some of them may originally look like they should be the launchpad of a blockbuster series, oh hi Waterworld, while others really do not have any right expecting anyone would bother with a sequel, sorry Fire Serpent. These movies are particularly frustrating because they leave the viewer with that awful aftertaste that they spent two hours getting invested in a story only to have it completely invalidated in the last 5 minutes.

We are now stuck with the seemingly insurmountable problem of Hollywood wanting more money, us wanting continuing series, but generally lame cliffhangers. Thankfully, source of anything worth knowing comes through for us again. Yes, I am talking about television. Television has been pumping out effectively cliffhangers for decades. Be they season ending bombshells, to single episode arcs affecting a season long story, to every commercial break cliffhanger ala Prison Break, television has pretty much perfected them.

What is the secret to television cliffhangers? Contained story arcs. TV shows can contain several levels of story arcs, from season long to commercial break long. The rule of thumb being the intensity of the cliffhanger should inversely proportional to the length of the story arc. If you build up an emotional response, you better pay it off before those feelings fade away. Longer story arcs need more carefully planned cliffhangers that focus on multiple potential outcomes rather than immediate danger. Just as Prison Break did great with the commercial break danger, Lost did great for the potential outcome discussions. The next key point for cliffhangers is that it should connect to the story but it should not be part of the main plot.

Cliffhangers should open or contribute to a new arc, leaving us with at least one satisfyingly complete viewing experiences. Or hey, just give us more empty, self-invalidating stories because we keep on paying to watch them.

Your pal,