Final Word

In real life cliffhangers do not always have happy endings


South Africa has just won a cliffhanger cricket test match against England, but the really important cliffhanger of the year awaits in the form of the upcoming nationwide municipal elections.

At the moment it seems South Africans are facing many cliffs – from the state of the economy, to race relations to food security, to social stability, and a couple more.

Unfortunately, for South Africa, in many instances the figurative cliff it faces is a lot more concrete than the world of fiction where it all started.

A ‘cliffhanger’ or ‘cliffhanger ending’ is a plot device in works of fiction delivered in a serialised format – be it books in the printed media, films or television shows – where a key character or group faces a potentially disastrous situation at the end of most episodes.

The technique came into full bloom during the 19th century when newspapers and magazines published novels, one chapter at a time, to entice readers to buy the next edition to learn what has happened. It was also closely associated with the heyday of adventure silent films, or movies, with the likes The Perils of Pauline (1914) showing as weekly instalments.

But the technique dates back to at least the 8th century and was used in the epic poem, the Odyssey, attributed to the Greek poet Homer.

At the end of Book Four of this colossal work, titled The Suitors, villains are setting an ambush for Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, (whose story is being related by the poem). The story then moves on to Odysseus’ own adventures, and much of the narrative passes before readers can learn Telemachus’s fate.

Birth of the term

The term ‘cliffhanger’ might have started with the publication of Thomas Hardy's serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873, serialised in Tinsley's Magazine.

In one of the chapters Hardy had one of the main charters, Henry Knight, literally hanging off a cliff while staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock.

The technique is often associated with the great 19th century novelist Charles Dickens, famous for very complex serial novels.

No one knows for certain when the term as such was first used, but, according to a 1996 New York Times article, American Speech – a scholarly journal that’s been around since 192 –  first defined ‘cliffhanger’ in 1937 as a “type of serial melodrama”.

Over time the term has made a transition to other spheres of human activity, and notably to the world of sport, where the outcome of a match can be in the balance until the very last moment.

It has also entered the world of politics, and especially elections. Headlines predicting cliffhanger municipal elections later this year in some metropolitan/urban areas in South Africa have become fairly commonplace.

Fiction and real life

In the world of fiction, the resolution of the cliffhanger traditionally sees the hero of the story escape miraculously. It is a tradition that seems to date back to ancient times.

The collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, generally known as One Thousand and One Nights – which first appeared in English in 1706 as The Arabian Nights – is built on the cliffhanger technique.

The young and beautiful Scheherazade, facing execution in the morning, tells king Shahryar a story but leaves it at a cliffhanger. The king keeps Scheherazade alive day by day, as he eagerly anticipates the finishing of the previous night’s story.

At the end of 1 001 nights, and 1 000 stories, she tells him she has no more tales to tell. But during the 1 001 nights the king has fallen in love with her. She is not only spared, but becomes queen.

In real life, however, be it sport or elections, when there is a ‘cliffhanger’, there is usually also a winner and a loser.

by Piet Coetzer

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