A cliff-hanger is a device in fiction that leaves someone in a precarious situation or confronted by a shocking revelation at the end of an episode. The aim is to ensure that the audience will return to see how the character resolves the dilemma.
The idea of halting a tale at a point where the audience is left in suspense may be as old as storytelling itself. It figures in the collection of stories known as the One Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade, who has been condemned to death on the orders of her husband, King Shahryar, tells him a tale but leaves it unresolved, thus forcing the king to postpone her execution in order to find out what happened.
The term “cliff-hanger” may have originated with Thomas Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). When it was serialised in monthly instalments in Tinsley’s Magazine, Hardy left Henry Knight at the end of Chapter XXI literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock. “Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their place of death.”
The cliff-hanger migrated to cinema where its earliest appearance is in the silent film series The Perils of Pauline (1914), shown in weekly instalments and featuring Pearl White as a perpetual damsel in distress menaced by assorted villains. Each episode ended with her in a situation that looked sure to result in her imminent demise. One episode filmed around the New Jersey Palisades left her hanging over a cliff and seemingly about to fall. Today’s television soap operas use cliff-hangers all the time.
In real (?) life, the art of rock climbing employs two kinds of cliff-hanger. Free climbing – the most commonly used method to ascend – is where the climber relies on his or her own physical strength and skill to accomplish the climb. Anchors, ropes and protection are used to back the climber up, but are passive as opposed to active ascending aids.
Free soloing is single-person climbing without the use of any rope or protection system whatsoever. If a fall occurs and the climber is not over water, he or she is likely to be killed or seriously injured. Technically similar to “bouldering”, free solo climbing typically refers to routes that are far higher and/or far more lethal.
In more real real-life, there are people who inhabit dwellings that cling to the sides of mountains. The Bhotia of northern Nepal are an ancient Tibetan people who live more than 13,000 feet above sea level in stone villages on remote outcrops of rock. And in China, cliff-hanging monasteries are common. The “Hanging Temple” built into a cliff face near Mount Heng in Shanxi province is over 1,400 years old. It has stayed put through several earthquakes, although no one knows how the monks feel when the time comes to freshen up the paintwork. Karma, I guess, although it’s a helluva long way down.