Peter Clines, author of the science fiction graphic novel series Ex-Heroes, reveals his secrets for writing the perfect cliffhanger.
I love a good cliffhanger. One of those moments when you leave the audience dangling with nothing but their own guesses to explain what happens next. I like writing them, reading them, and watching them. A well-done one is wonderful on a bunch of levels.
As my own writing style’s developed, I’ve kind of become a fan of what you could call the “sliding-up-to-the-cliff” cliffhanger, where the reader’s given all the clues and facts and left on their own to make that last, inevitable step.
All that being said, when someone recently asked me about cliffhangers, my mind immediately went to the obvious place. And that place was Doctor Who.
This isn’t much of a shock, in retrospect. While lots of you know the newer show, the original had a very different format. Back in the olden times—when I counted my age in single digits and British sci-fi only came to us through the Boston PBS station—Doctor Who tended to be two hour stories broken up into four half hour episodes. And each of these episodes would end on a big cliffhanger with a shrieking musical stinger.
It didn’t take me long (well, okay, maybe a year or two—again, barely stretching into double digits) to recognize a certain pattern. You could call it a good ground rule for a cliffhanger—our first point. Pretty much every episode would end with things suddenly getting somehow worse. The disintegrator ray makes the robot grow for some reason. The Doctor attempts to distract Sutekh and finds himself severely outmatched. One of my favorites had the Doctor delivering the ominous closing line “I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead I’ve locked it in… with us.”