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Cliffhanger Copout


(permanent link) added: 2010-08-30 07:51:39 sponsor: SeanMurrayI (last reply: 2010-08-30 07:51:39)

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"The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out, but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned, and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn't cheer. I stood right up and started shouting, 'This isn't what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn't fair! HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE COCK-A-DOODIE CAR!'"
-- Annie Wilkes, Misery

Cliffhangers tend to be a vital part of any serial story. They stop the action or drama right when tension is at its highest, leaving an audience on the edge of their seats in anticipation of a conflict resolution and wanting to stick around to see what happens next.

The best cliffhangers pick up the story right where it left off and provide a clear resolution based off of everything that was shown to have occurred to viewers in the previous installment. And then there's these...

Unfortunately, sometimes writers may discover that they've written themselves into a corner with no way to resolve a cliffhanger based on how the prior episode, chapter, film, or story ended. When this problem arises, the writer may make a saving throw to cheat his way out of the problem in one of a few ways:

  • Facts about a character's circumstances are suddenly Hand Waved between installments (i.e. The hero tied to a chair in a building rigged to blow up who wasn't able to even break his bonds prior to the building exploding at the conclusion of one episode is seen breaking free and escaping at the beginning of the next before the bombs go off). Depending on the circumstances, this can lead to some pretty glaring Plot Holes.
  • What is seemingly promised to happen at the conclusion of one installment turns out to be something else entirely or an Unreveal at the beginning of the next chapter.
  • More egregiously, the Story Arc before the cliffhanger is aborted and/or explained away as "All Just a Dream."

If handled well enough, most viewers may not notice it, or even care all that much if they take the MST3K Mantra to heart. If not, a lot of people are going to feel duped and not very pleased with what they were rewarded with for their dedicated viewership.

See Also: What Cliffhanger? when circumstances surrounding the cliffhanger are deliberately vague and without any sense of drama or suspense to motivate viewers to stick around for more.

Has nothing to do with the movies Cliffhanger or Cop Out.

Also, this being an Ending Trope, be prepared for **Spoilers Ahead!**

Examples

Film
  • Misery actually has two In-Universe examples of this. Annie was telling the story about her favorite cliffhanger serial from when she was a kid, quoted above, to Paul Sheldon after he did a similar thing while writing the manuscript for Annie's personal Misery novel.
  • And, of course, Annie is clearly referring to the old Rocketeer serial (a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo, if you will), which was a repeat offender of this practice.
  • Re-Animator ends with Herbert West being strangled by a the intestines of a reanimated corpse and left for dead while the sequel, Bride of Re-Animator, begins with him right back at work without any explanation for how he escaped his fate. In turn, Bride of Re-Animator ends with Dr. West getting crushed to death by falling rocks while the next sequel, Beyond Re-Animator, shows him getting arrested following the events of the previous movie and not showing any signs of physical injury from the previous conclusion.
  • The Batman cliffhanger serials of the 1940s were very much guilty of this time and time again. For instance, Chapter 13, "Eight Steps Down," ends with Batman stuck in a Death Trap where spiked walls are closing in on him which is cut away from just before the walls are about to crush our hero with no hope in sight for rescue. Then, the beginning of Chapter 14, "The Executioner Strikes," shows Robin appearing much earlier during the same scene with more than enough time to slip Batman a crowbar to brace the walls moving in. In turn, the conclusion of Chapter 14 shows Batman locked in a box and dropped in an alligator pit only for the next chapter to show that Robin managed to break Batman free in secret much earlier and replace him with a hapless mook.
    • The conclusion of Chapter 10 and beginning of Chapter 11 show something very similar to what's described in the page quote, with Batman miraculously jumping out from a car before it careens off a bridge and bursts into a fireball.

Live-Action TV
  • A number of cliffhangers on Heroes would pique viewers' interest that one thing would happen and then would give them something entirely different. The episode "Truth & Consequences" from Volume 2, for example, ends with Hiro charging at Peter, who refuses to believe Hiro's claims that Adam Monroe is dangerous and is even willing to protect him, suggesting that the two characters were going to fight each other. The beginning of the following episode, "Powerless," shows Hiro, after his charge, deciding to just teleport around Peter and try and talk to him some more to convince him that Adam is evil.
  • The original Doctor Who programme did this many times. The most famous is probably from "Dragonfire," in which The Doctor dangles himself over a precipice because the episode was coming to an end, and just...climbs out of it next episode.
  • The Time Tunnel sometimes changed the context in which a cliffhanger took place at the beginning of the next episode. For example, you find that the heroes weren't in as much danger as you thought they were, or, at least, that it was a different kind of danger than you thought.
  • Near the end of the 4th season finale of The X-Files, the audience sees Mulder alone in his apartment, crying hysterically with his gun in his hands. We cut away just before hearing his gun go off. The next scene is a flash forward in which Scully has apparently been called to his apartment to identify the body of a white male who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She identifies it as Mulder. The next season begins by revealing that Scully was lying, the body is not Mulder's, and the whole crying holding his gun thing was not related to anything.
  • The first season of Prison Break ended with the main characters surrounded by cops, from every direction. In the beginning of the second season, it looked more like a semicircle, and they got away by... running. Really fast.
  • Episode Two in the first season of Twin Peaks ends with Agent Cooper having a dream from which he learns the identity of who killed Laura Palmer. Cooper immediately wakes up from the dream to call up Sheriff Truman that he knows who the murderer is but teases that the answer could "wait 'till morning." Come the next episode that takes place that following morning, Cooper recaps all the events from the dream that ended with Laura Palmer whispering the name of her killer in his ear. Then, once he's asked who the killer is, Cooper nonchalantly responds "I don't remember."
  • Reno 911! ended every season with a cliffhanger, and more often than not would start the next season with a cop out.
    • Season 1 finale: Jones Faking the Dead causes all the deputies to kill each other in surprise.
    • Season 2 finale: All the deputies are sent to prison.
    • Season 3 finale: Despite the deputies' attempts to get a stay of execution from the governor, Trudi's serial killer boyfriend is about to be put to death, but just as they're about to do the execution the phone in the chamber rings. Meanwhile, firefighters pry open Garcia and Dangle's squad car after a horrible blizzard left them stuck, and we see them say "Oh my God..."
      • Season 4 premiere: "Hello? No, you have to dial nine first." The firefighter's response was prompted by Dangle and Garcia huddled together naked, "for heat".
    • Season 4 finale: Dangle is about to enter into a gay marriage-analogue with another man when Garcia comes in, professes his love, and steals him away.
      • Season 5 premiere: He was just kidding, and would like to remind Jim that gay marriage is illegal.
    • Season 5 finale: All the deputies are riding on a squad car they decorated as a float as it drives into a massive fireball. The final shot is of a police funeral.

Video Games

Western Animation
Do We Have This? Needs More Examples, Rolling Updates
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