Leave Them Hanging

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

The term “cliffhanger” derives from an 1873 serialized novel by Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes.  At the end of one installment, the heroine, Miss Elfride Swancourt, watches in horror as her romantic interest, Henry Knight, falls off a precipice in a driving rainstorm.  He can’t climb up because the ground is too slippery and the scene ends with him dangling above the abyss, a fragile finger-hold on life, hope fading fast.

Hardy may have given us the word for the literary trick of leaving the reader in suspense, but it’s as old as storytelling.  All those omens and prophecies and portents in the Aeneid and the Odyssey, would they or wouldn’t they come true?  Listeners no doubt waited with bated breath.  In the Arabian Nights, the Persian king, embittered by his wife’s infidelity, has her beheaded and promptly marries a virgin.  Then on the morning after their first night together, he beheads her to make sure she never gets the chance to betray him.  This pattern of one-night stands goes on day after day until the kingdom begins to run short of virgins.

The vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade, thinks she can outsmart the king and volunteers to be his next bride.  On their wedding night she starts telling him a spine-tingling tale of adventure.  Then, at the most dangerous and climactic moment in the plot, she finds a reason to postpone the ending until the next day.  The king’s curiosity is so whetted that he postpones her beheading.  On the second night, she finishes the first story and starts another, again leaving him hanging at the do-or-die moment.  Scheherazade’s cliffhangers kept her alive for a thousand and one nights until finally the king fell in love with her.

Shakespeare’s head may not have been in jeopardy, but even he saw the importance of a hook.  At the time he wrote his plays, two-thirds of the population was illiterate.  His audiences drank heavily and tended to get rowdy if the action lagged.  The five-act structure of the Elizabethan play was designed with the typical theatergoer’s attention span in mind.  How long could they sit still in one place without getting bored, hungry, thirsty, or needing to relieve themselves?  The playwright had to conclude his second act (the one just before the “comfort break”) with something so gripping, so fraught with peril that they simply had to return to find out what happened.

By the middle of the 19th Century, books had become more widely available.  Many were published in serial form and writers soon learned how to create buzz for the next installment.  In 1841, Dickens ended a chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop with poor little orphaned Nell desperately ill.  Would she live?  Would she die?  His fans waited in a state of agonizing suspense.  When the British ship carrying the hot-off-the-presses answer arrived in New York Harbor, they stormed the docks.

Psychologists call this human craving for resolution the Zeigarnik effect.  A Russian psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik conducted a study which showed that interrupting people in the middle of something they are doing or reading makes them twice as likely to remember it.  Once they become invested in a task or a story, they don’t want to stop until they reach the end.  Humans, it seems, have a compelling need for closure.

Few books appear in serial form today, but mystery and thriller writers who want to build tension and suspense in their novels have to master the art of delaying closure.  The longer the delay, the more avid the reader becomes. Those of you who let slip the opportunity to read A Pair of Blue Eyes and The Old Curiosity Shop are probably now tormented by regret and suspense.  Did Henry plunge to his death?  Did little Nell succumb to her terrible sickness?  Some of you will already be racing to place your orders with Amazon.  But for those who simply can’t wait a minute longer, I won’t leave you hanging.


The quick-acting and resourceful Miss Swancourt stripped off her voluminous petticoats and Victorian-era undergarments, knotted them into a rope, and hoisted Henry to safety.  He thanked her by breaking off their engagement.  As for dear, gentle, angelic little Nell, she expired sweetly upon her little bed, survived by her frisky little bird, which continued to hop about nimbly in its little cage.

Cliffhangers can pack a big narrative wallop.  They advance the plot and heighten the reader’s emotions.  Those emotions run the gamut from thrilled anticipation of the next episode; to perplexity or disappointment at an unsatisfying conclusion; to the furious urge to throw the damn book across the room.  And then there’s little Nell.  To quote Oscar Wilde, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

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