Just ahead, you’ll find some of the most gripping cliffhanger examples from literature, television, and film.
Some of these examples are bursting with edge-of-your-seat action, and others are shrouded in mind-boggling mystery.
(We’ve even thrown in a few examples from psychological thrillers to keep you on your toes).
And to round things out:
We’re revealing our top tips on how to write a cliffhanger that’ll keep your fans obsessed with your story.
So, if you’re addicted to the words “… to be continued” or you just want to know the secrets behind creating a spellbinding cliffhanger, let’s start the show.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
What is a Cliffhanger?
A cliffhanger is a carefully crafted scene ending that leaves the audience with more questions than answers.
This creates a sense of suspense, anxiety, or drama such that you are compelled to find out what happens next.
The more abrupt or shocking the plot twist is, the more riveting the story becomes.
Why Use Cliffhangers?
One of the most important things for a creator to do is establish a loyal audience.
And no literary tool works harder to achieve that goal than the cliffhanger.
Whether we find our hero hanging from a literal cliff edge or facing a metaphorical choice from which there is no coming back, cliffhangers trigger our emotions and keep us glued to the action.
Strategically placed at the end of a scene, book chapter, serial episode, or film, these moments turn an average viewer into a dedicated patron, replaying the cliffhanger over and over for the thrill of it.
Knowing how and when to use a cliffhanger is a skill every creator can cultivate. There are cliffhanger examples for every age group and creative genre on the market.
Let’s take a look at some examples from books, TV, and films so that we can see the major types of cliffhangers and how they enhance the audience’s experience.
Examples of Cliffhangers from Literature
The classic literary example of cliffhangers comes from One Thousand and One Nights by Muhsin Mahdi, where a woman must tell an amazing story every night to postpone the death of her queen, and keep the king coming back for more and more stories.
Now that we’ve gotten the origin story of the cliffhanger covered, let’s dive into some modern examples.
(We’ll also review the essential how’s and why’s of this important creative device).
1. The Da Vinci Code
Few authors have a command of the cliffhanger better than Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.
This fast-paced story jumps between competing storylines, each chapter leaving you hanging and the next sending you down a different trail in the story.
The Da Vinci Code is a classic race against time, with chapters that leave you breathless, and constantly turning the page – a great example of cliffhangers in action.
The end-of-the-world thriller, Zoo, by James Patterson is another excellent cliffhanger example because it keeps you turning the page wondering which animal might attack next, or which character is going to die.
Progressively killing off characters leaves the reader with uncertainty over who might be next and what the fate of survivors will look like as they try to resolve the impending crisis.
3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Six books into the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince delivers a breathtaking cliffhanger example when suddenly the beloved Headmaster of Hogwarts is killed.
The unexpected loss of a main character at the end of the book nearly guarantees the clamor that will arise as fans await the next book’s arrival on store shelves.
4. The Silent Patient
Not all cliffhangers are action-packed endings.
If you’re looking to experience a cliffhanger with a psychological afterburn, then look no further than The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.
The rotating viewpoints between an obsessed therapist and a patient who refuses to speak spiral into an ending you won’t soon forget.
It’s pure cliffhanger magic!
5. The First Phone Call From Heaven
Last but not least for our literary cliffhanger examples comes Mitch Albom’s novel, The First Phone Call From Heaven.
Throughout this story, you can’t help but feel the growing sense of foreboding in your gut as the plot leads you through the most unthinkable miracle of being able to talk to a dead loved one.
As reality and unreality clash in a small town gripped by a modern miracle or a heart-breaking hoax, the cliffhangers keep you reading until the novel’s intense conclusion.
Cliffhanger Examples from Film
It should come as no surprise that The Da Vinci Code, Zoo, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince are also movies. The cliffhangers in these books lend themselves well to visual expression on the big and small screen.
From tension-building plot twists to movie finales that leave people ready to binge-watch another feature film on Netflix, cliffhangers are a creator’s gateway drug to a loyal fanbase.
While you may be able to guess most of my top cliffhanger movie examples because of their franchise status, check out my last surprise movie example that left us all hanging without an answer in sight.
6. The Lord of the Rings
The magic of the J.R.R. Tolkien book series comes alive on the big screen thanks to the work of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.
In the first movie, we find the wizard Gandalf literally hanging from a cliff in the mines of Moria*. Just when we think Gandalf has defeated the Balrog, a plot twist finds him clinging for life on the edge of doom.
His loss will surely impact the important mission of the fellowship and the mystery of what happens to him is not solved until later in the book and movie series.
This is sheer cliffhanger brilliance.
Watch the clip here:
7. Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back
One of the greatest cliffhangers in the Star Wars film series comes to us in the second feature, The Empire Strikes Back.
When Darth Vader fights Luke Skywalker and tempts him to join the “dark side”, no one saw the famous Darth Vader line coming, “No, I am your father.”
The psychological twist of our white-knight hero, Luke, being born of the master-villain, Darth Vader, wraps up the second movie and leaves all Star Wars fans thirsting for more.
Check out the scene in all its glory:
8. The Matrix
The Matrix, released in 1999, was an unprecedented breakthrough in cinematography, animation, and scene transitions for action movies. But, what made the movie all the more memorable was the cliffhanger ending.
After Neo defeats Agent Smith, the audience listens to a phone call Neo makes into the Matrix. The war against the machines is only just beginning.
The uncertainty of what happens next for humanity as they battle the machines is enough to bring millions of fans back to watch the next film.
Watch the clip here:
9. The Twilight Saga
Cliffhangers don’t always just involve hero-action and death-defying events.
The Twilight Saga highlights a love triangle cliffhanger between the main characters Bella, Edward, and Jacob that kept viewers coming back for more.
Being torn between two lovers is a classic cliffhanger plot twist that can help strengthen any story. And in Twilight’s case, needing to know who Bella truly loved carried fans through three painfully mediocre vampire movies.
The power of cliffhangers, right?
And here’s a wrinkle in the cliffhanger technique that’s not used often enough.
Not all cliffhangers get answered by a sequel.
At the end of the 2010 thriller Inception, creator Christopher Nolan leaves us with Dom Cobb’s spinning top. We only know if Cobb is awake or still dreaming if the top falls over…and we never get to see if it does.
Watch the brilliant ending of this sensory masterpiece here:
Examples of Cliffhangers from TV
Cliffhangers work just as well for generating a loyal following in a TV series as they do on the big screen.
By crafting scenes that purposefully leave out key information, the season finales of TV shows have thrilled audiences for decades.
Let’s start with the most famous TV series cliffhanger of all time and then explore a few more examples of how the cliffhanger plot twists compel viewer devotion.
11. Dallas – “A House Divided”
The TV series that set the industry standard for the word “cliffhanger” is none other than Dallas.
In Season 3 – Episode 25, “A House Divided”, the whole world was left wondering:
Who shot J.R. Ewing?
Frantic and fanatic fans were left dangling for months waiting for the next Dallas season to begin.
TV viewing was never the same again.
Watch the greatest cliffhanger in television history here:
And as an added bonus, watch the big reveal to find out who really pulled the trigger:
12. Game of Thrones
The TV series, Game of Thrones, has many cliffhangers throughout the seasons, but Jon Snow’s assassination in the final episode of Season 5, “Mother’s Mercy”, is considered one of the best.
Leaving a main character wounded in the snow as the season ends is a sure-fire way to create an audience eager to return next season.
The death of a main character is an unexpected cliffhanger plot twist that can propel your work from ordinary to extraordinary.
13. Star Trek The Next Generation
Main characters don’t have to die to create a cliffhanger effect.
In Season 3 of Star Trek The Next Generation, sci-fi fans are left hanging in the final episode “Best of Both Worlds”.
Does the famed starship captain Jean-Luc Picard assimilate to become a Borg? Tune in next season to find out if he boldly goes where no one has gone before . . . or not.
Check out this celebrated sci-fi cliffhanger here:
14. Grey’s Anatomy
TV dramas can also make good use of thrilling season finale cliffhangers.
The long-running medical drama series, Grey’s Anatomy, shakes loyal viewers to the core in Season 8 when the life of not one, but six doctors hangs in the balance.
Who would have ever guessed that a plane carrying a whole team of life-saving superhero doctors would crash?
And who could guess the consequences that unfold in Season 9?
At this point it may seem prudent to ask, “Can there be too many cliffhangers?”
The TV series 24 proved the answer to this question is an emphatic “No!”
Not only is each episode of 24 packed with drama and mystery, but every episode ends with a cliffhanger.
Since each season represents one day – 24 hours – in the life of lead character Jack Bauer, nine seasons of 24 represents a ticking-clock cliffhanger of epic proportions!
7 Tips for Writing Cliffhangers That’ll Keep Readers Hooked For Life
Ready to take your creative work to the next level with cliffhangers?
Use these tips to tap into your audience’s sense of anxiety, curiosity, and danger.
1. Leave a character twisting in the wind
Channel your inner Luke Skywalker, Jean-Luc Picard or Neo and leave your audience to guess what will happen next in the lives of your enigmatic hero.
2. Create unrequited or uncertain love interests
Remember the power of the Twilight Saga love triangle in captivating a broader audience for these films than would be expected for a typical vampire story.
3. Let the clock count down
Few things build tension faster than a ticking clock. The cliffhanger effects in 24 and The Da Vinci Code stand as great templates for adding cliffhangers to books, films and TV series.
4. Throw in a plane crash
As far as cliffhangers go, the unexpected accident twist in a plot can send your characters into unforeseen and unforgettable directions that your audience will love. Channel your best Grey’s Anatomy plot twist to keep your fans hanging on the edge of their seats.
5. Unexpectedly kill someone important
The loss of a key character unexpectedly has created cliffhanger legends from Dallas and Game of Thrones, to Harry Potter and made-for-TV series like Zoo. Use this cliffhanger technique to shake up your fans and show them you mean business when it comes to captivating their attention.
6. Defy reality by challenging what is real
Few cliffhanger tricks create a longer afterburn than the psychological mind-tricks of re-defining reality. Take a page from Inception, The Silent Patient, or The First Phone Call From Heaven to really mess with your audience’s sense of reality as they venture through your work. The creative rewards of a dedicated fanbase are worth the effort.
7. Last but not Least, dangle someone from a Cliff
Even the master Tolkien dangled the wizard Gandalf from a cliff. When all else fails, make the cliffhanger literal so there can be no question in the mind of your audience what you were intending.
To dangle a character from a cliff is to engage in the finest form of literary imitation of the greatest writers of all time. Use the method well.
Cliffhanger Examples To Multiple Your Success
No writer, creator, or film director starts from scratch.
Using cliffhangers in your work, modeled from creative rockstars, can propel you from anonymity to fame in a heartbeat.
Studying the work of those who have gone before you can make your cliffhangers as potent and gripping as possible.
It’s time to go forth and create your own cliffhanger examples!