Apr 27, 2009

Article: Season Cliffhangers

Apr 27, 2009
Cliffhangers are are the very core of television programming. We use them to keep viewers hooked between ad breaks. We use them to make sure viewers come back next week. But nothing inspires more water cooler clap trap than the much loved (or much hated depending on your perspective) season cliffhanger.

We all do it and, let's face it, we all get a sick kick out of giving our viewers the metaphorical bird that they might return for another season or two to find out why. However, give the bird to them wrong (one assumes by giving them the pinky finger or another animal) and you'll be lose more than just a few fans.

I didn't mean you should give your fans actual birds or a literal middle finger... got carried away with metaphors for a second there.


Season Cliffhangers
Or "How To Bring 'Em Back"

In order to accomplish a successful season cliffhanger, you must evoke an atmosphere of heightened intensity and viewer concern for your characters' futures, more so than any normal episode. You have to aim big and remind your viewers why they're watching your show.

The three following rules are sure fire methods to achieving this goal.


1) The Twist
What:
The act of revealing a new piece of information that changes the way the viewer understands your universe.
Example:
In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vadar was Luke Skywalker's father all along.
Why:
This event operates on an psychological level for your characters. If their goal was to become a pilot for the military, the revelation that the military is evil would completely screw up their goals and hang a big question mark on their future. The twist always requires careful planning and it helps to already know what it is before starting the season or preferably even the show.
Catch:
Requires a careful balance between setting up hints prior to the twist and not having your viewer work it out before you're ready to reveal it.


2) The Change
What:
An event which permanently changes the core or future direction of your universe opening up exciting new possibilities.
Examples:
In Red Dwarf, the crew lose the ship that the entire show is named after and must go on a quest to get it back.
Why:
If there are no stakes and everything is always back to normal at the end of an episode, there's no reason for your viewers to care. With The Change you're showing your viewer that nothing is guaranteed and promise to explore new territory next season rather than resting on your laurels.
Catch:
You can change the core of your show so much that viewers don't recognize it anymore. Careful to keep it on-theme and it's spirit in-tact.


3) The Odds
What:
Pitching your protagonists against impossible odds of victory in which the viewer cannot see a way out without a heavy price.
Example:
In Angel, Cordellia ascends to a higher plane without telling Angel and the others, Conner leaves Angel at the bottom of the ocean to die and joins Angel's friends without telling them what he did, Wesley is sleeping with the enemy after being exiled for betraying the others, Gunn and Fred are left alone and not knowing where everybody's gone.
Why:
If you're going to resort to good old fashioned "mortal peril" for your cliffhanger, go ballistic. Divide your heroes, give them near-fatal or fatal wounds, let the villain win and conquer everything, just make victory appear impossible! The Odds are designed to exploit your viewers emotional attachment to your characters, so the more daunting the better.
Catch:
Writing yourself into a corner to a degree that you can't write your way out without cheating.

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There are, of course, exceptions to these rules. Comedies such as Family Guy and American Dad do not require cliffhangers as they do not pursue the heart pillar and thus do not require an emotional investment. Another example is CSI, as it is designed for casual viewing with minimal alteration episode to episode.

A very unique example of ignoring season cliffhangers is the season four finale of Buffy. Joss Whedon chose to resolve the season arc in the second last episode, then spend the last episode exploring a very surreal, very arthouse character exploration. It worked a treat, winning over fan loyalty in a different, arguably more powerful way.

But there is one rule you must always recognize when it comes to season cliffhangers.


YOUR SEASON CLIFFHANGER'S WORTH IS ULTIMATELY DETERMINED BY HOW IT IS RESOLVED THE NEXT SEASON.


Your fans will hate you forever if you construct an exciting season cliffhanger that promises new and exciting things only to have everything be back to normal second episode back. It is the equivalent of stabbing a friend in the back and punishes the viewer for investing in your show. You'd be amazed how many shows do this, and nobody likes it. Nobody.

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Just remember, season cliffhangers shouldn't be a cheap trick to get your viewers back. It should be a joy, a tease and the promise of a reward to your viewers for sticking with you. So don't be afraid of change or the new.

Aim big.

3 comments:

  1. wow luke, i can see this blog will be very handy. did u go to film school or you just read a lot?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Between us we've completed many excellent courses with some flat out fantastic teachers, but most of what you'll find on this blog are things we've discovered for ourselves. We're extremely passionate about our craft and are always studying it intensely.

    Though we encourage you to question and challenge what we post here because we may very well be wrong.

    We don't think we are, but that's because WE ARE PERFECT!! MWA HA HA HA HAAAAA!! DEATH TO UWE BOLL!!!

    Woah. Ahem. Sorry, got a bit of a head rush there...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Charles Dickens did that. Many of his books were published in weekly chapters - which is why there is a mystery or twist at the end of each chapter.

    ReplyDelete

 
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