The term “cliffhanger” is considered to have originated with the serialised version of Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, published serially in Tinsley’s Magazine in 1873.
At the end of one instalment, Henry Knight, one of the protagonists, was left literally hanging off a cliff. Readers had to wait for a month to find out whether he survived.
Thirty years later Dickens fans, eagerly awaiting the next instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop, rioted at the New York docks. As a boat from arrived from England, rioters began shouting at the sailors, begging for spoilers.
Beat that, clickbait.
More recently, Dallas fans had to endure months of torment in their wait to discover who shot JR.
Cliffhangers are much harder to deliver these days. In the age of the smartphone, most of the best lines from potboilers wouldn’t work anymore because we have GPS and Google. The world has been scrubbed of mystery, and in the world of the imagination, I think we are a bit poorer for it.
Nicola Solomon, Society of Authors chief executive, said in a talk last year that the fact that people are “multiply connected” in the 21st century, has made many intricate plot twists harder to sustain.In Enid Blyton books, or the works of other classic adventure writers, for instance, constant communications have made simple missed connections and misunderstandings less credible. Characters can just Google their way out of trouble.
Ben Blatt’s excellent book, Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, has a section on cliffhangers. He lists some of the classic lines from Franklin Dixon’s Hardy Boys series:
“I’ve found a buried chest!”
Without warning the trap door was slammed shut and locked from the outside!
It came from the top room of the old tower!
There’s also an amazing revelation about Franklin Dixon in Ben’s book. You’ll have buy it to find out.
Even promotional work for books and films seems to eschew the idea that anticipation is a good thing. When I went to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977, the only promo I’d seen was a small number of pictures in the gatefold sleeve of the soundtrack that had been issued a few months in advance. At my local vinyl record shop, the proprietor had set up an orderly queuing system for kids to look at the well-thumbed sleeve.
Today, trailers are Brodie’s Notes for films. We can watch the 90 second compendium of cuts and get a full sense of the story arc, the best gags, the most expensive special effects. I note that the latest King Kong movie actually shows Kong. That used to be the bit you waited for and paid for.
One of the truths of the horror movie genre is that suggestion is more frightening than a straightforward scare. So too the cliff ledge of anticipation as a dramatic device. The edge of the cliff transports us to the edge of our seats.
The comedian Richard Osman was talking on Twitter last week about airports, the only place in the world where you routinely see people enjoying a pint at 8am.
Airports are a salad of timezones. People from different parts of the day collide to create an environment in which every time exists concurrently. It’s a bit like the world of the Aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse 5. Or in Arri[Spoiler Redacted].
Airports take us back to a time before the industrial revolution. It took the railways and the need for a dependable (and comprehensible) timetable to move towns and villages and their local idiosyncratic timezones onto something standardised. Britain was awash with clocks that reported different times. Our sense of our place in time was completely up to us.
The complex impact of standardised time can be seen, notably in China. Despite straddling more than 2,500 miles of longitude, China has only one timezone. At the height of summer, sunset in Shanghai is at around 7pm. The sun won’t set on the country’s western border until after 10.30. And yet, the local time is the same. It’s as if the day is elasticised. In winter when light’s ambit is reduced, the effect is no less pronounced, catalysing all sorts of informal arrangements at the outer limits.
One of my favourite, and possibly apocryphal, stories from British history is about the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar to achieve consistency in Europe. It required Britain to ‘take a leap’ from one date to another ‘several days later’ overnight to achieve standardisation. There are reports of riots in the streets as people complained about the loss of those several days of their lives.
Today, time is all about immediacy. No queues. Binge watch on demand. Same day delivery. Buy now, pay later. Get a letter to the other side of the world in under a second. Our attention spans have been frazzled by choice and distraction. We’re back to those cliffhangers again – or rather, the lack of them.
When I was a kid growing up in Australia, there was no such thing as the instant gratification of interest free credit. People saved for things or occasionally rented them. When I wanted to get a skateboard, I went to the local shop and put it on ‘lay by’. The way lay by worked was that you choose your item, you pay a deposit, they put it aside and you come back week after week with your pocket money to pay it off. When you have, the skateboard is yours. It took me 12 weeks filled with near-unbearable anticipation. Every week I’d go and pay 75 cents, get a carbon copy receipt from the shop’s handwritten ledger and from time to time ask whether I could just have a look at the skateboard.
Turning to telly, back then there were two TV channels and no video recorder. You couldn’t set your own terms for viewing. You were a slave to the schedule. If you were watching a serial, you had to be there at the time and it was a one-off. If you missed it, too bad. One of my favourite shows was Lost in Space, the thrilling story of the Space Family Robinson, sent to establish a colony on Alpha Centauri. Stowaway Dr Zachary Smith damages the ship and it goes off course. They crash land on a few planets and have loads of adventures. At the end of each episode there was an almost unbearable cliffhanger. There was no choice but to wait.
The billionaire’s lament, they say, is that he or she can have everything they want when they want it. We buy now, get now and perhaps pay later, not just financially but in losing the sense of anticipation that is, I think, as much of a fulfilling part of the experience than the thing we are waiting for itself. You get things immediately and it’s the joy that’s hanging off the cliff. Our momentary joy in the fulfilment of front-loaded, high-speed transactions, whether through trailers, credit, clickbait or something else, tend to fall away. We become the Henry Knight figure from Hardy in that moment and, metaphorically, our fingers slip.
It makes me wonder about cliffhangers in PR and marketing. The idea of driving potential customers to delicious despair. How do we infect their daydreams with desire for our products and services? Wait! I think the answer might be…..
Don’t miss next week’s exciting episode.