The Term “Cliffhanger”, To Refer To A Suspenseful But Unresolved Ending Originated With?
Answer: A Victorian Novel
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, a cliffhanger is a plot device that we’ve all experienced at one time or another. Cliffhangers are a plot device found in episodic TV shows and serialized fiction that hinge on putting one or more characters in a precarious and suspenseful position in order to hook the viewer or reader into continuing to consume the media. Who can resist tuning in next time to see what lies behind the door the protagonist just opened (but which clever camera work didn’t reveal to the viewer)?
Make no mistake about it, the concept of the cliffhanger has been around for centuries. Perhaps one of the most famous historical examples of a cliffhanger is the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights. The collection of stories is linked together through the narration of the protagonist Scheherazade who ends each story she tells the king on a cliffhanger in order to delay her execution.
But the term “cliffhanger” can be traced back to a particular serialized Victorian-era novel: A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy. The novel was published in serialized format (as was common during the time) between September 1872 and July 1873. In one of the serialized chapters, one of the protagonists, Henry Knight, is left literally dangling from a cliff face.
Image by C.C. Pierce/Wikimedia.