A Cliffhanger ends an Act Break, episode, or even a whole season (or a film or novel in a series) with some or all of the main characters in peril of some kind and the audience is made to wait for the outcome. The To Be Continued caption is often used here. Typically the longer the viewer is made to wait, the larger the seeming peril. Indeed, this can be a Downer Ending to the part just finished — although many apparent perils and catastrophes are not as serious as they appear. It is a rare Cliffhanger that will cut back simply to watch 'em fall.
A Cliffhanger can also be centered around surprising revelations; either one just made, or one being saved for the 'hanger's resolution.
Named for the old Saturday matinée film serials which would frequently leave a character literally hanging from the side of a cliff, revealing how the character escaped in the next episode.
The season type of cliffhanger has a flaw: if the show gets canceled, the cliffhanger stays unresolved. A few such cliffhangers are listed below. It is by far, the very worst thing a producer/studio/company can do to its fans and viewers alike, since it leaves their work incomplete and unfinished, ultimately resulting in a unsatisfying experience. This is not to be confused with a Bolivian Army Ending, which is an intentionally unresolved cliffhanger as an ending. If this happens, the cliffhanger may be resolved in a movie or miniseries later on. Of course, even if the writers do plan on resolving a cliffhanger, they might keep us waiting at a Cliffhanger Wall while they tell other stories within the work's universe for some last-second worldbuilding (or to stall for time while they think of a good conclusion). Should any of these occur... well, that's why we have Fan Fiction.
Stories need not end with just one cliffhanger; there can be one for every independent plot thread if the writers think the audience will stand for it.
Beware of these being executed badly. When a cliffhanger is so deliberately vague that it's not even suspenseful enough to hold a viewer's interest until the next chapter, the audience may ask "What Cliffhanger?" A Cliffhanger Copout is when a creator deliberately messes with a story's continuity of events when resolving a cliffhanger or outright refuses to reveal a piece of information that is promised at the end of one chapter to the next. A lampshaded, immediate resolution would be To Be Continued... Right Now.
This site contains a comprehensive list of unresolved cliffhangers.
Compare No Ending. Super-Trope of Second Chapter Cliffhanger, when the middle installment ends in a Cliffhanger with several Plot Threads still unresolved. See also Bolivian Army Cliffhanger, Left Hanging, Literal Cliffhanger, and Sequel Hook.
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- Statler: Gee, Waldorf. I wonder why the story ends in a cliffhanger?
Waldorf: I don't know. But good thing the story has a strong grip!