The cliffhanger ending is a device as old as storytelling itself, one that is especially useful to anyone trying to keep an audience hooked into an episodic, serialized narrative. Simply put: The cliffhanger was made for TV.
Television has relied on suspenseful, “What happens next?”–style narratives in all kinds of genres over the years, from soap operas and telenovelas to sci-fi thrillers and primetime dramas, especially the kind that ask important questions like, “Who shot J.R.?” Even sitcoms, which traditionally churned out digestible episodes without ongoing storylines, have made cliffhangers a weapon in their arsenals. In recent years, as streaming platforms have multiplied, binge-watching has become the norm, and the hunger to retain viewers has intensified, cliffhangers have risen in importance, not just as a way to end a season but as a motivator to make sure Netflix and Hulu users immediately proceed to the next episode.
As part of Vulture’s The Art of Ending Things series, we reached out to several television storytellers to talk about cliffhangers: how they are crafted and debated in writers rooms, how they function on streaming platforms, and which pitfalls they try to avoid. We talked to TV veterans who have worked in broadcast, cable and streaming, and in a variety of genres, including comedy, drama, telenovelas, young-adult sci-fi, and docuseries. Here is what they had to say.
Interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. And naturally, this contains spoilers about shows such as Friends and Jane the Virgin.
Ted Cohen, writer for Friends, Veep, and the upcoming season of Succession
“I wasn’t there from the beginning, so I can’t tell you about the origin of the cliffhanger thing with Friends. But I do know by the time that I was there [at the end of season three], it was just: Okay, what’s our cliffhanger? When we were getting toward the end of the season, we knew we always needed one. It just became a signature of the show, which isn’t true of every sitcom at the time.
We would never know what the cliffhanger was [from the beginning of the season]. We would never know what we were working towards in that way. I mean, a case in point: When Monica and Chandler slept together in London at the end of season four, we thought that was going to be a one-off. We were like, they’re going to regret it and it’s going to be over and we’re not going to make a thing out of it. When we came back to start working on season five, in addition to the fallout from the Ross/Emily/Rachel stuff, it was like, Oh, this is interesting. Let’s keep it going.
The one where Monica and Chandler got married — we had assumed all through the entire season that Monica was going to be pregnant. We hadn’t discussed it yet, but it was an assumption. It was probably toward the middle or the end of the season and you know you’ve got like six or eight episodes left to do and you’re starting to think about, okay, what are we working towards? I just remember it coming up: Wouldn’t it be more interesting if Rachel was pregnant? And everyone was sort of like: yeah. Suddenly, we were talking about it again and it was exciting. Then that ended up being a fantastic engine for us through the end of the series, really. That was not at all on the table until fairly late in the game.
Another one that just came out of nowhere was the one where they were in Vegas. I don’t think we knew what we were doing. I don’t think we were working toward anything major with any of the other characters at the end of that season. I can’t remember who pitched it, but I just remember it coming up: What if [Ross and Rachel] come out of the wedding-chapel booth? And it was just like, oh, that’s great. You’d been working by that point for eight straight months, maybe nine. And at that point, you’re a little bit like: But what about next season? Fuck it, we’ll figure it out when we get to next season.
Sometimes, the cliffhangers promise a lot of great story, and then sometimes they don’t. Again, that one, coming back into the beginning of the sixth season, it didn’t really leave us much to do other than to get Ross divorced again, really. It didn’t give us the fantastic engine that Chandler and Monica did at the end of season four, or even Rachel being pregnant gave us at the beginning of season eight.
I think the fact that we knew we had to top ourselves a little bit with the cliffhangers did drive the storytelling. But I would totally be lying if I said there was some kind of master plan or genius thing at work.”
Carolina Rivera, creator of the Netflix series Daughter From Another Mother; writer for Jane the Virgin, La Alegría del Hogar, the Mexican series that inspired Devious Maids; and Amor Cautivo
“Telenovelas are at least 121 hour-long episodes, and you watch them every day. We don’t go by seasons, so we don’t have cliffhangers every season. But we do have to have a cliffhanger every day to have people come back and watch.
The network is always reporting minute by minute, like, Hey guys, every time that this character comes in the frame, people change channels. I think this character is not working. We’ve got to kill him. And then you kill someone and then the audience goes, Noooo! I hate it! So that’s why you have to bring him back, and you have to do all sorts of things. They have focus groups every day, almost, where people are commenting on the wardrobe, and the locations, and the main love story, and the characters. As a writer, you have to be reacting to that.
It’s really funny because [in the Jane the Virgin writers room] we were very divided about killing Michael. There were the writers that didn’t want to kill Michael because, if we killed him, then it was going to be the end of the love triangle, right? I mean, we would all know that Jane would end up with Rafael because we didn’t have any other character as important in the show. But then there was the other half of the room — and I think I was kind of like the leader of the other half — I was like, Guys, this is a telenovela. We can bring him back. So many things could have happened and he comes back from the dead. That’s one of the telenovela tropes, you know? At the end of all these discussions, we were all convinced that we could bring him back and I feel like we always knew that he was going to come back. We didn’t know how because we had to figure it out, but it was such a great cliffhanger.
When I started writing Daughter of Another Mother, I already knew that the show was for Netflix. I pitched it to Netflix and they said yes and I started developing it when I was still on Jane. Netflix is a lot about cliffhangers because you want people to immediately go binge watch it. It definitely poses a challenge because cliffhangers have to be even stronger for people to stay there and watch the whole thing in two days. Which is the best thing that can happen when you’re on Netflix, you know?”
Bruce Miller, creator of The Handmaid’s Tale and writer for ER, Eureka, and The 100
“Season finale cliffhangers are always a hugely challenging process. In order to end the season on a cliffhanger that’s going to be satisfying, you have to figure out the other end, which means you have to figure out your whole next season just to write that last scene. Not everything — I don’t write it and I don’t break the story, but I think about it. You have to know enough: Well, it’s probably going to be this.
Oftentimes if you don’t know when your season ends or whether you’re going to be picked up the next year, you’d screw yourself by accident because you’d come up with an ending and think, We’re never coming back next year. And then you would. Or at the end of a season you’re exhausted, so you come up with an ending and then you come back and the first thing you say is, Who are those idiots who were here last season and came up with that ending? Oh my God.
What you have to believe when you’re a writer, and I’ve heard a lot of writers say this brilliantly: You’ve just got to figure there’s another group of smart writers who are going to come and solve your problem the next season. That may happen to be you, but you can’t worry about it at the end of the season.”
Leslye Headland, co-creator of Russian Doll; creator of forthcoming Disney+/Star Wars series The Acolyte; writer for Terriers
“Back in the day cliffhangers were meant to keep you watching. An act break was punctuated by an ad. So the concept was, we have to end this act break with a large enough story beat or cliffhanger in order to keep them watching through this ad. I think with the Netflix model — there was a conversation with Netflix where they were like, We really want these episodes to end and immediately you will not be able to resist hitting play to keep watching. So it’s kind of the same idea.
The end of episode two [of Russian Doll], which literally just goes out on flowers wilting, that was a big point of contention. I remember my feeling on it was, I think this is a good stinger. I was like, I think that this kind of makes you go, Huh, I wonder what’s going on? I’ll watch the next episode. I remember the feedback that I got from the network was, We’re not sure this is essentially strong enough as a cliffhanger. Why am I watching the next episode? What’s taking me into the next episode? So I think it’s kind of a taste thing. I think sometimes people really want something that feels like, holy fucking shit. The entire show has been flipped on its head. Netflix was pretty cool about it. They were like, Okay, we trust you guys. If you feel strongly about it, you should do that.
I don’t think I made this argument at the time, but now that I’m talking about it with you and I think back on it, I do think that’s the kind of cliffhanger you can get away with on Netflix, where it’s subtle, it’s kind of emotional. Then a little thing comes up that’s like, Hey, do you want to keep watching? Next episode starts in five, four, three — You’re like, Oh, okay, cool. Yeah, I’ll keep watching. I think if there was a week between that and episode three, I wouldn’t be surprised if you lost a lot of viewers.”
Julie Plec, creator of Legacies and The Originals; co-creator of upcoming Netflix series Girls on the Bus; co-developer of The Vampire Diaries; writer for Kyle XY
“A perfect example of a difficult cliffhanger is the third season of Kyle XY. We had heard that we were on the bubble and we wanted to write an episode that tied up loose ends. The network insisted that we write an episode that launched a massive new story with a huge, unresolved cliffhanger. And we did it and they canceled us. None of us were happy about that.
That wasn’t the tone of the show. The show didn’t need big spectacle cliffhangers. It was a really special, emotional show. This is just a big plot twist and a big character shift that, yes, promised a lot of things for the next season, but that season never came to pass. I always felt so victimized personally by that demand. I felt so sad because that’s basically not taking a fan experience into consideration at all. It’s saying we don’t care enough about what you think of this show to give you an ending. Mark Pedowitz had left ABC Studios, Touchstone at the time, right around this time. But he always said that that was the thing that made him angriest, that ABC Family did not allow for a resolution to that show so that it could be packaged as a beautiful, three-season experience. Instead it very clearly looks like a show that was turned off in the middle.
Imagine being at the end of a long season where you’re exhausted and your brain is mush and you’ve had a plan for the path that you want to take, and then at the very end, someone’s like, ‘Can you add a really big plot twist?’ as if those just magically apparate on command. Adding a really big plot twist that you have spent no time building to is never a recipe for success.”
Heidi Ewing, co-creator and co-director (with Rachel Grady) of Love Fraud, a docuseries about the pursuit of a con artist named Richard Scott Smith; co-director of the films Jesus Camp and The Boys of Baraka
“Cliffhangers are expected now on docuseries. Love Fraud was our first docuseries, so it was our first encounter with this expectation, let’s say, of a cliffhanger. We are not accustomed to it, so I’ve thought a lot about this.
As a documentary filmmaker, you can’t tease an audience, episode after episode, and then not deliver. You’d better have a finale. Once we knew that we had a great ending [for Love Fraud], we started to really have fun with the cliffhangers and teases. If that had not happened, we would have still had cliffhangers, but it would have felt cheap at the end and audiences would have told us.
Now I see plenty of series — I will not name them by name — that will go on for ten episodes and nothing happens. They’re repetitive and they give all these cliffhangers but they don’t deliver in the end. It’s something I can’t stand. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to do a true-crime series. We didn’t want to be like that.
When Showtime came on to finance the project very early, after we shot for three days, they said, Well, how’s it going to end? We said, We don’t know the ending. I cannot promise you we’re going to catch him, but it’ll be entertaining as hell. We’ll take you on a ride. I can promise you that. I can’t guarantee you an ending. They financed it anyway.
A couple of times in the rough cuts, they were like, Can you make the ending more exciting? Can you help us get to the next episode a little bit? It was more like gentle encouragement. They knew that we weren’t used to it because we’d never done a series. They were never draconian or insistent. They were like, Hey guys, could you make the ending a little more fizzy? Mostly, they were right. Then, like I said, once [Smith] was captured, we went back and we started having a lot more fun with the endings of each episode. They were a wink that was like, We’re going to take you somewhere.”