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WEEKLY SCREENWRITER TOP TEN #8 "CLIFFHANGERS"



Cliffhangers: A dramatic technique in which a seemingly insoluble problem is suddenly, abruptly, and magically resolved at the last moment, often leaving the protagonist hanging precariously over a drop or other hazard (hence the name). They can be used to create tension and anticipation in fiction (known as narrative suspense), as well as film and television (known as plot suspense), with both forms requiring careful construction for maximum effect.

It's not a stretch to say that you've likely seen many 'cliffhangers' (I'm not talking about the 1993 action film starring Sly Stallone with the same name) at some point in your life. Watching any TV show or film these days will pretty much have a --cliffhanger-- of some sort. Almost every show or movie utilizes the same bag of tricks. YET... you still feel enthralled or eager for the next episode or scene. That's the marking of a great, not-good screenwriter.


How is it that some screenwriters always

have the innate ability to put a twist

on old conventions and still, make it seem fresh?

Well... Because they're good that's why and you can be too if you aren't already.

On today's Daily Screenwriter, we'll be diving into the Top Ten examples of Cliffhanger types in films and shows that we are all familiar with. But then we'll see if you can manage to put your own twist on it to make it fresh and unlike anything ever put into a screenplay.

10.

THE CAR CHASE


The good ol' vroom vroom car chase...

This is a classic TV or Film action scene staple where the hero and/or villain are in pursuit of each other in one way or another, often dealing with some sort of fake or real law enforcement agency. The car chase is usually used to get the hero out of a sticky situation, from being chased by assassins like in

or it can be used to get the villain away from the hero (again... "John Wick").


In its most basic form, the car chase scene consists of two or more cars chasing each other down an open road at high speeds with plenty of gunfire, explosions, and utter devastation going off all around them. It’s not just one person on their own—it’s two people who know how to handle themselves behind the wheel of their vehicles while trying not to run into pedestrians or traffic cones while they speed down a highway at 120 miles per hour!


A great screenwriter has the ability to turn that standard car chase cliffhanger into something new and refreshing by adding a twist or approach that will take it to the next level. I'm not talking about the "Fast and Furious" series next level of writing that is so ridiculously over-the-top. I'm talking about you (the screenwriter) actually coming up with your very own version of a car chase that has never been seen before.


9.

THE FLOODING ROOM


We've all seen this before...

The moment the bad guy finally captures the main character or a group of people and they are all trapped in a mysterious random room. Suddenly, the room starts to flood. Using intellect and smarts, they manage to find a way to escape at the last second and get that much-needed fresh air.


The trapped main character is usually in a bathroom, kitchen, or any other room in a house or secret lair. They usually have to figure out how to get out of there before they drown. OR they are rescued, last second, by another person who suddenly shows up after being off-screen for a while.


A great screenwriter can and will come up with their own twist or version that adds fresh new life to the same old cliffhanger flooding trope. Because if screenwriters were unable to come up with their own new twists then there would be no John Wick sequels or any other sequels for that matter.


8.

THE TICKING TIME BOMB


This has to be the granddaddy of all the cliffhanger tropes when it comes to TV or film.


We see it time and time again to the point where they actually make fun of themselves about it. A great example would be the movie...

They actually use that cliffhanger trope to their advantage with a new fresh take.


Moreover, the ticking time bomb cliffhanger, as a plot device, will add massive tension to your story by helping you create suspense. Action movies utilize the TTB religiously, which can be a good thing like in

or a bad thing like in the fantastic book but a horrible adaptation...


A common way to use this plot device is to have a bomb actually go off like in...

which then causes people in the story to try and stop another one from exploding again. This is often the climax of an action movie or thriller, but every now and then it's used in the 3rd Act like in...


Crafting new and ingenious ways to have the ticking time bomb cliffhanger could set you apart from the just-okay screenwriter.


7.

THE GIVING BIRTH


The seventh of this week's Top Ten is "The woman giving birth." or sometimes the man like in the movie...


Anyway, I'm sure you've noticed most sentimental shows will have that sweaty pushing and breathing scene like in...

Romantic comedy films usually have it as well like...


Birthing scenes typically take place in a hospital, with the mother in labor. The doctor is trying to help her out, but she's not making it easy for him. Meanwhile, the baby's father or sperm donor is pacing outside and worried that something might go wrong with the birth. The family back home waits anxiously for news too. Finally, after an agonizing wait: The baby arrives! Everyone is happy as they welcome their new arrival into their lives and family.


Hollywood sometimes uses this plot device for an unfortunate effect like in...

or horrific pulse-pounding intent like in...

and

Either way, your fresh new take on the cliffhanger birthing scene could potentially find its way into the hearts of your audience.



6.

THE PLANE CRASH


The "plane is about to crash, prepare for impact", Cliffhanger can be a great way to end a movie like in...

or a TV show episode like in...

In “Airplane! (1980)” they have to land the plane, but they can't because it's too heavy and they don't know what's inside all those crates. Or “Air Force One (1997)", starring Harrison Ford fighting off terrorists on his own airplane to the very end before zip-lining to another plane. Imagine being the screenwriter (Andrew W. Marlowe) who wrote that and then seeing it on the big screen in its full glorious action. MUYAH... Chef's Kiss.


There are many examples where a plane can also be used as a cliffhanger or "denouement" in your screenplay. For example, if you want your hero (or villain) dead, kill him off on an airplane that falls out of the sky after being struck by lightning or something else equally improbable (but not impossible). Your imagination is your ally when it comes to reinventing the plane crash cliffhanger scene.


J.J. Abrams did it with the TV show "LOST" and it was rather successful. Others can be just as great even though not as famous. Take "Millennium (1989)" a treasured cult classic Starring Kris Kristofferson and directed by the late Michael Anderson.


Swerving your way around your screenplay and creating a new way to crash the plane would get attention from many prominent figures in Hollywood.



5.

THE LOCKED ROOM


OH NO! The main character or characters hear the door shut. Suddenly they are trapped. The locked room starts to fill up with gas or smoke right before the episode or scene ends.


It is perhaps the most obvious way to create a sense of urgency in your story. When a character is trapped in a room that fills with gas or smoke, there are two options for escape: either find a way out or die trying. Since the latter option usually doesn’t work out well for anyone, this creates an interesting challenge for both you as the writer and your characters as they try to figure out how they can survive this situation.


One of the best ways to create a sense of urgency is by giving your characters an important task that needs to be completed before something bad happens. For example, if your character has to deliver an important message to someone else before an army attacks their home, there’s a good chance that things will get pretty intense as they try to make it back in time.


Lastly, the locked room could be used to incredible effect as a cliffhanger when used in a demonic way, like in the film...

which literally has the main antagonist winning by locking one of our main characters. What a great twist no one saw coming. The talented James Wan and Leigh Whannel knew exactly what the audience wanted to see without actually knowing what was coming.


Craft your twists to your advantage and make the audience gasp, scream, laugh, and cry with good intent.



4.

THE EARTHQUAKE/ NATURAL DISASTER


An earthquake occurs, a large building or object collapses, and our hero or main character is the unlucky subject of our cliffhanger.


As you can see, this is a natural disaster scenario. It's important to note that the main character or characters will always be in the building when it collapses. This gives you two options: either they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time (the "It was their fault" option), or they were doing something else that put them at risk (the "It's my fault" option).


Either way, they're now trapped under rubble and will have to be rescued by someone else—or not rescued, if that makes sense for your story! The earthquake scenario is just one great way to start or end your story because it immediately establishes the main character’s situation. They are in danger and need help. This is also a good way to introduce conflict into your story because you can't assume that people will automatically want to help them out of their predicament.


There are many great disasters, man-made and natural, you can work with when it comes to your screenplay and cliffhangers. Depending on your level of experience with screenwriting you could potentially write the next big thing like...



3.

THE HAPPY/SAD ACCIDENT



To make your film look like a movie, you need to include some kind of action. If it’s a love story without any car chases or explosions, then it will feel boring and slow. The trick is to get your audience interested in what happens next by presenting an unexpected situation that makes them wonder how things will turn out for the characters.


The most successful way of achieving this is by having something happen at the end; something that carries over into the mindset of your reader or viewer and it hits them in the feels and douses them in drama. It doesn’t matter if it's dramatic tension between two people like in the Rob Reiner-directed classic...

written by the late Nora Ephron and starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. or just someone crashing their bike like the film starring, once again Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage in...


As long as there’s something exciting happening that the audience didn't or did see coming, Yet still makes them want more! In short, when writing scenes for your screenplay think about how you could end with something unexpected happening that is unlike anything ever written.




2.

THE MAIN CHARACTER IS SHOT


The second most common way a Cliffhanger is utilized is when your main character is shot, injured, or killed.


In this case, they are in a crowded place and someone shoots at them. It can be a gun or any other projectile. The main character doesn't die, but he/she will get injured in some way. This type of injury is most often used to create suspense and tension because it shows that no one is safe from danger in this world, even if they are not involved directly with whatever situation has caused trouble for other characters. In some cases, the main character manages to survive by pure luck—for example: if someone bumps into them just as they're about to be shot; or if they were wearing body armor; or something else like that happened out of sheer chance which saved their life (but didn't make sense). This type of scene makes viewers feel anxious because it's scary how close the main character came to death despite having no special powers or skills whatsoever!


Countless TV shows and Films use this cliffhanger quite often. Sometimes it's to kill off an actor who is tired of their contract or an actor who wants to go to other projects. Ultimately, crafting new ways to damage, maim or kill the main character or a beloved co-star is your key to getting inside the gates of those studios.



1.

THE TEN SECONDS LEFT


There are 10 seconds left before a nuclear bomb explodes. The city is evacuated or the zombies overrun the city or the terrorists won. Either way, in the distance we see the main character running, driving, or flying toward us.


For example, the camera cuts to a close-up of a girl's puffy red eyes and tear-stained cheeks as she stops crying for a second. Then it pans back out to reveal that we're now looking at two people hugging from behind, so we can see their faces clearly. After a few seconds, we realize the nuclear blast, fire, or comet, or Alien laser ray is making its way to the main character or characters you have grown attached to. The loss is devastating and you are left speechless. In the end, it's up to you to design that ending that is just perfect.


IN CONCLUSION


I hope this Top Ten has been helpful to you! If so, I'd love to hear from you. What was your favorite tip? Did anything surprise you? Let me know in the comments below!

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