Cliffhangers: An Effective (Yet Frustrating) Tool

Fang Fang/TBL Illustration

Bailey Emanuels

If you’ve ever watched The Walking Dead or Grey’s Anatomy, you know that cliffhangers are terribly frequent occurrences. Whether they leave with the question, “Who did Negan kill?” or “Did Derek Shepard cheat on Meredith?” cliffhangers have viewers and fans alike begging for more. While the issue may not be relevant to Netflix binge-watchers, it still begs the question for most: are cliffhangers just a cheap tool for getting viewers to come back?

Regardless of a complex plot and relatable characters, cliffhangers almost always guarantee one thing: the viewers will come back to find out what happens. They bring the audience to the most climactic and suspenseful part of the show and then make them wait until next episode or season.  

Not only are they effective in terms of getting viewers to come back for one more episode, but also they create a long-term fandom. Browse the internet and you are guaranteed to come across blogs, fandoms and forums dedicated to fan-fiction and predictions about what the post-cliffhanger future may hold. Thus, cliffhangers are effective in not only bringing back viewers for one more episode, but also for future seasons because of the way in which they create long-term fans.

So, yes, cliffhangers are an extremely effective tool designed to create more money and long-term viewers. Because of this, TV producers are bound to use them any time they can, including outside the realm of TV drama. One would think that a producer with integrity would secure fans with other captivating aspects  plots, characters and humor  not with this “easy-way-out” type of “fan-securing” device. So, are cliffhangers just cheap tools? To answer this, we must first dig a little deeper.

Cliffhangers leave viewers with a sense of uncertainty, usually due to a negative occurrence. More often than not, they leave us with questions of ambiguity in the face of an unwarranted occurrence, rather than with hopeful questions about a fresh start. It could be because viewers are more reactive to these types of endings (or lack thereof), which helps to explain why producers might play with this theory and employ cliffhangers more frequently.

Human beings are also naturally drawn to a sense of certainty and the comfort that comes with it—one that entails a mostly worry-free future. Cliffhangers plague the audience with a sense of uncertainty and a desire for the opposite giving them no choice but to anxiously wait for the next week’s episode.

Producers use both ideas theories in employing cliffhangers. They play with our comfort for certainty and easy situations and instead do the exact opposite. Although some may view cliffhangers as cheap, the nature by which they operate is smart and indisputably effective. It keeps us coming back for more and only makes us love the show a little bit more, despite the minute hatred we feel when they arise.

So the next time The Walking Dead ends on a cliffhanger, halt your frustration by remembering how smart it is to make us so uncertain, and in the meantime, wait for that next season.