Call me old-fashioned, but I like FIREFLY. Did the feeling of closure Whedon rewards us with at the end of each episode keep me from watching more? Did it keep YOU from watching more? How about Star Trek (pick your favorite flavor)?
What really got me thinking about this was my kids. They're watching a series called JUST ADD MAGIC. At the end of every single episode, they come flying at me with shouts of, "We have to watch another one! It ended on a MAJOR cliff-hanger! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!" Over and over. Just like little drug addicts. This caused me to do some research to see if dopamine is involved (cuz that's how I roll), but in this specific case it appears to be due to a stress/fight-or-flight reaction. Check it out:
There's a psychological reason cliffhangers are so effective. The human mind hates uncertainty. Uncertainty implies volatility, randomness, and danger. When we notice information is missing, our brain raises a metaphorical red flag and says, "Pay attention. This could be important."
(via Psychology Today)
So it makes sense that Hollywood uses cliffhangers (and has for decades). But let's call a spade a spade: it's manipulation.
All storytelling is manipulation. I get that. All of us writerly types use every trick we know to keep the reader engaged. But has anyone else heard that saying, "Rattle, rattle, here come the cattle?" (A co-worker of mine used to say this when our company was hosting a meal for employees and called us to the table via intercom.) That's how I'm starting to feel when watching these shows — like a cow responding to a rattling feed bin.
I guess what I'm missing is subtlety. And balance. Do we have to be as predictable as the sunrise with this stuff? Do these writers/producers/etc. not have the energy to create such great characters and plots we WANT to tune in, whatever happens at the end? And for those shows that clearly have quality writing (like THE EXPANSE), do they not have enough faith in their own story to trust we'll come back?
We watch everything on demand these days, and it could be that's why this is starting to grate. If it had not been an option for me to play the next episode of JUST ADD MAGIC for my kids, they wouldn't have begged, and I wouldn’t have had to say no. I wouldn't be faced, when watching DOWNTON ABBY, with that midnight decision of whether to watch "just one more." On top of that, watching multiple episodes in one sitting keeps us cycling through that conflict/semi-resolution/cliffhanger until we can literally see ourselves running in the hamster wheel. (It's true! I even had a little streak of pink hamster hair.)
Couples on Cliffs
I think cliffhangers are a lot like the conflict between heroine and hero in romance. It creates the same response in our brains. "Will they or won't they? I have to know!" (Never mind the fact we know they WILL, because that's a whole other discussion.)
I came to romance via sci-fi/fantasy. I had to learn about what makes a relationship interesting. Conflict. Tension. Micro-tension. These are important in every aspect of the story. But recently I've had cause to wonder whether even this has become fatiguing for readers. Foz Meadows addressed this in a blog post (Bad TV Romance: Could You Not?):
... there’s still a common misconception in TVlandia that romantic relationships are only really interesting when imminent or imperilled; that any sort of emotional contentment or continuity between the characters will be boring to watch.
Now that's just one person's opinion. But recently, upon the recommendation of RT Book Reviews (and many Goodreads readers), I picked up the fantasy romance RADIANCE. And frankly, I was stunned.
!!!!!! SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT !!!!!!
There is zero conflict between the hero and heroine. Just before their arranged marriage takes place, they accidentally meet without knowing who the other is. Their peoples have a tenuous alliance, and they're of different species. Technically they're almost-enemies and find each other hideous to behold. But they rapidly become friends, develop affection, and eventually find chemistry and passion. Every threat to their union comes from outside the relationship. They are unfailingly gentle and kind to each other.
RADIANCE is very popular, and it was a recent pick for Felicia Day's Vaginal Fantasy book club. When I finished the book, I looked up the YouTube review because I was dying to know what they thought of it. I mean surely at least spicy Bonnie must have hated this book. (My debut GHOST PLANET got an overall positive review from VF, except for Bonnie, who thought the heroine lacked backbone.) But all four of the ladies loved it, specifically citing how refreshing it was to read about a hero and heroine who are good to each other. A plot that poses no internal threat to the relationship. A book where a man who was supposed to be their friend and ally, in the finale turned out to be … (drumroll) … just that. Their friend and ally. A book where the villain gets her just reward and isn't preserved to continue her reign of terror into the second volume.
!!!!!! END OF SPOILERY MATERIAL !!!!!
All this has got me wondering if it could be there are lots of us who are tired of our emotional buttons and levers being manipulated.
On a personal level as an author, it made me think about my own work-in-progress. Fifty pages in, I'm noticing the conflict between the heroine and hero smoothing out. I have a little bit of PTSD around this issue, having been schooled pretty thoroughly about conflict in my first submissions to agents, and then later in RWA workshops and how-to books. And in many stories (maybe even the majority), that conflict does make sense.
But also, it could be that if our stories are leading us another direction, we need to listen to that. To trust our own ability to tell a story, and not rattle the feed bin just because that's what we've been taught to do.
How do you feel about cliffhangers? How do you feel about romances where the couple's challenges are predominantly external?