What new looking cliffhangers can you create that fit your story? (Images courtesy of the author.)
ART OF STORYTELLING | 19 Types of Cliffhangers
Scene Cliffhangers To Keep Them Watching
By Sherri Sheridan
Cliffhangers are visual and emotional mousetraps. How do make viewers worry about what will happen next and want to keep watching? Leave everything hanging with uncertainty in dangerous situations. Modern films often have cliffhangers every scene and they are used heavily in TV series when cutting between multiple characters.
Each scene is going to have its own beginning, middle and climax ending. Another thing scenes often do is end each section with a cliffhanger. Some of these surprises are bigger than others. The idea is to get the audience to worry about that character in the back of their minds while watching the next part of the story unfold.
How do you create a scene cliffhanger? Look at the cause and effect between scenes first. What scene is coming up next for this character? What is the most dangerous or uncertain situation you can leave them in between scenes? How can you cut the scene mid climax?
Cliffhangers are a combination of high stakes, danger, twists, conflict, scene reversals, unknowns and shocks. Focus on having the characters accomplish the scene goals first, then have their exit be the cliffhanger, with another bump of surprise. Or cut in the middle of the action.
Build the tension of the scene to a breaking point then cut to the next one. Start the next scene in the middle of a hot mess then leave those characters in danger too. Use different types of cliffhangers to keep them from feeling repetitive. Ask yourself what types of situations you had to wait to find out about and use those ideas.
(1) Leave Character in Danger Mid Climax. The movie, “Cliffhanger,” literally got its name from leaving characters hanging off a cliff. What new ways could you leave the characters in danger at the end of each scene? Look at location and genre elements.
(2) Show Character Thinking About A Choice. Maybe she is sitting on park bench thinking about whether or not to get on a plane after meeting an old lover. Does she get on the plane? Do not show the outcome of the big choice.
(3) Shocking Information Revealed. A character could be told someone is alive who they thought was dead at the end of a scene. Or maybe that the plot goal object is a fake.
(4) Character Finds Something. Do not show what the character does with information or object. Reveal that information later in a shocking way. He finds a key and at the very end a door is blocking an exit that the key fits.
Show a character finding something precious at the end of a scene.
(5) Dead Monster Is Still Alive. Have the bad guy pop up and attack at the end of a scene when we think he is dead or gone.
(6) Visual Big Twist. Do not show everything. If an accident happens make it look like the characters are dead but in the next scene they are found alive. Or there could be an explosion at the end of the scene and we do not know who lived or died.
(7) End Scene with A Big Twist. Someone dies suddenly or an accident happens.
What happens next after this UFO shows up? I do not know but I want to find out. Cliffhangers should be WOW shots that look good.
(8) Emotional Squeeze. Place character in impossible situations then have some crazy thing happen that saves them at the last minute. Do not save them all the way. Leave a little danger and uncertainty at the end of each scene.
(9) Walks into Great Danger. Do not show what happens next until the scene ten pages away. They could be walking toward an enemy for a sword fight. Or show two groups of battle ships that are closing in on each other.
Setup characters being chased by mountain men running out of food. They come upon this shack. Cut as character walks up to shack as we wonder if occupants are friend or foe.
(10) It’s A Trap! Show character calling someone asking them to do something. At the end of the scene show another character pointing a gun to their head while on the telephone. This tells us a trap is being set and makes us worry.
(11) Character Runs Out of Money, Gas or Air. Leave character in perilous situation where they have run out of some really important need. Make it life threatening if they do not get this thing right away. No water or gas in the middle of a hot desert.
(12) Character Does Worst Possible Thing. Have someone take action that results in a terrible situation. Stupid character throws last of drinking water on camping fire. Leave the scene after the smart character sums up the imminent danger.
(13) We Can’t Hear You. Have the character whisper something important into another character’s ear that the viewer cannot hear. The reaction of the listener will provide a clue as to what was said.
(14) Surprise Character Saves Day. Have a supporting character pop up at the last moment and shoot the bad guys. Leave the scene in the middle of a battle.
(15) No Way Out. Show the character surrounded by the enemy with no escape possible.
(16) We Got You. How can you show the character being captured at the end of the scene by security, police, aliens, enemy or secret trap?
(Character gets bit by a cobra and is dying. Ticking clock type of death moment. Some miracle happens that saves them four scenes later.
(17) Conversational Cliffhangers. Cut to another scene in the middle of a heated argument or big question. “Did you kill him?” Let us hear the answer later.
(18) Waiting for Information. Show characters finding out about a big accident but not knowing if their family survived.
(19) Partner Double Crosses Character at Key Moment. Betrayal by supporting characters.
See if you can end each scene with a visual cliffhanger. Use different ideas since you can only do the same thing once or it gets boring.
Sherri Sheridan is a leading world expert in teaching story to digital filmmakers, animators, screenwriters and novelists. New book coming soon “Filmmaking Script to Screen Step-By-Step” with an app. Other books include “Maya 2 Character Animation” (New Riders 1999), “Developing Digital Short Films” (New Riders / Peach pit / Pearson 2004) and “Writing A Great Script Fast” (2007). Sherri is the CEO and Creative Director at MindsEyeMedia.com and MyFlik.com in San Francisco.
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