Writing Tips

Why Closure is Important in Cliffhangers

By June 18, 2015 18 Comments

I’ve always wondered how Breaking Bad managed to get away with so many cliffhanger episode endings AND leave us with a feeling of completeness at the same time.

After re-watching the series for the second time, I think I have the answer: closure.

When I first started writing my Long-Suffering Manuscript, I thought closure was only possible at the end of the story, after the protagonist defeated the antagonist, reclaimed lost turf, reconciled with loved ones, etc, but that’s not true at all.

Watching Walter White transform in each episode, however minutely, has taught me an important writing lesson:

closure should be present throughout your book, not just at the end

And this is especially important if said book contains a cliffhanger in every other chapter.

Using the pilot episode as an example, I break down this Closure Within A Cliffhanger idea, identify how episodic closure is established by the show’s writers, and why I’m now looking for more ways to insert closure into my chapters and scenes.

My main takeaway:

Closure = Understanding + Transformation

Closure does not mean getting rid of a problem

It simply means your protagonist has transformed because of the problem, and we, as readers, viewers, and audiences, can understand the protagonist and his/her situation better.

At the end of the day, if you’re not rewarding your readers with occasional moments of closure, then they’ll feel like they’re wasting their time by investing in your book. By saturating each narrative milestone with closure, you’ll create a more enjoyable reading experience.


Millie’s Note: What are your thoughts about closure in fiction? Can closure and cliffhangers co-exist?

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Great post and observations. I learned a lot about writing from Breaking Bad.

  • Very, very true now that I think of it. I probably need to try finishing up my acts, if not my chapters, in this fashion…

    While we’re talking the importance of closure, this works great on a micro scale too: you can frame every scene to have a tiny little bit of closure.

    What am I on about?
    Every scene = GOAL -> CONFLICT -> DISASTER
    …and here’s where the closure comes in…
    after every scene comes a Sequel = REACTION -> DILEMMA -> DECISION

    It’s the reaction which shows our character is flawed. Confusion, anger, fright, whatever, it’s all dissonance from what they’d expected. Then it’s the Dilemma, or “we mucked up,” moment. Finally the decision is made that leads you on to the next scene, and gives us our closure. “S’okay, we’ll nail Captain Hammer once my freeze ray is operational.”

    • Millie Ho says:

      Glad it sparked some ideas! Actually, now that you mentioned the structure of every scene, I think there’s something to be said about the ingenuity of how Walt/Jesse tackled every challenge thrown their way. While not all of these conflicts or disasters were wrapped up cleanly, the resulting mess was still interesting and continued to raise the stakes, which keeps us coming back. In short, there was trouble every step of the way, and after a few episodes, we start to appreciate this formula.

      Also, the way the writers completely destroyed TV tropes and parameters (kind of like how Hannibal is doing the same things in its third season right now) is enjoyable in itself.

  • kvennarad says:

    I love cliffhangers, but I also like to tease the crap out of my readers with bathos. 😀

    Thanks for another great post/video.

  • kvennarad says:

    Okay, as always I went off at half-cock with my comment. So here’s what occurs to me after a proper listen to the video.

    Firstly, I greatly appreciate your continuing to look at the difference between ‘resolution’ and ‘closure’.

    However, I believe what you are doing here is looking at a TV-show model for producing written fiction. I’m not sure that is always a good idea. What you will end up with, inevitably and obviously, is a piece of work that is highly episodic. Now, I’m not saying that TV drama should not influence written fiction; I don’t see any reason at all why one genre shouldn’t influence another – in fact it’s entirely good that there should be this inter-textuality, intended or otherwise. But I am worried, in this particular case, that too rigid a formula might emerge, maybe something like a series of cliff-hangers pasted together, pretending to be a longer story. I think we have to remember that there is a whole different purpose to producing a series like ‘Breaking Bad’ than there is to writing a novel. No one makes a TV show purely to satisfy an individual, inner, artistic need. A TV show needs commercial backing from the word go. A TV show has to hit on a formula for bringing the viewing audience back week after week. A TV show is a matter of commercial speculation, and has to be designed to attract advertising revenue. This also means there have to be… what could I call them?.. sub-episodes, places in which a commercial break can come without too much disruption. A guy has to point a gun at someone, or the gun has to go off but we don’t see who has been shot… if you like, a whole series of mini-cliff-hangers has to be written into an episode. You see where I’m going with this?

    To my mind, a ‘chapter’ is not necessarily an episode, and should not necessarily finish with a cliffhanger. In fact I have read chapters of books where there is a moment of tension-and-release, similar to a cliffhanger, within a body of text. A chapter is, basically, a discrete section of a book; it should come when it feels right. If we keep on looking for a kind of tension/(closure) structure, we run the risk of tying ourselves to this formula.

    I think it would be a good exercise to imagine what we are writing as one continuous, chapterless piece of prose. Or maybe to imagine it that way AS WELL as in cliff-hanging episodes. Kick what we’re writing around, until what we end up with is what’s right for THAT particular story.

    • Millie Ho says:

      You’re absolutely right in that writers run the risk of being too formulaic if they blindly follow the TV model for producing books. My idea of Breaking Bad with closure and cliffhangers was simply to take whatever concept you find fits your book and adapt and mix and re-adapt it until you’re satisfied with your overall work.

      An episode is certainly not a chapter, though there should always (in my opinion, based on the books I like) be a hook of some sort in the conclusion of a chapter to either keep the reader’s attention or reward them for the time they invested. It’s hard for me to imagine a work as a continuous, chapterless piece of prose, and that’s where you shine as a writer and where I still need to improve.

      How do you do it?

      • kvennarad says:

        I don’t know. I think it’s by remembering that we’re writing about lives, and lives are continuous, intricate, and fragile, with threads that run through them. Some of the threads break – in fact many of them do – but not always at times that suit our urges to create fiction of them.

        But conversely, I remember that lives often seem disjointed. Memory certainly is. Dreams are made up of something like tiles, and our mind tries to join them together, which is why dreams are weird and follow strange arcs.

        Overall, I think it’s because my business is perception.

        I hope that helps. I have an awful feeling the question you asked me was rather like asking a centipede how it manages to walk!

  • That’s a really good analysis and video about “closure being important for cliffhangers” as I’d agree it relates to expectations. If you have a big something at the beginning you might be expected to have a big something to finish it, but not always. Sometimes if you have a big event but no reaction, that might seem to freeze the moment, like Hitchcock’s “ticking time bomb.” But that sort of just delays it, and we want resolution later… Interesting that you brought up the psychology of a viewer’s desire of “being part of it”… would not look at it that way. In the format of a series like Breaking Bad, I also think they can get away with stuff that would be forbidden in a long story, like introducing completely new key characters midway through…also it really does have to wrap up with a punch because people come back after a week to see the next episode.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Your argument against my idea about the viewer’s desire to be a part of the action makes me wonder if the writers manage to stave off these expectations through anachronistic storytelling. The second season, for example, kept replaying the pink stuffed animal motif, which builds intrigue for the wider story while giving us bits of closure/resolution to nibble on in the individual episodes.

      Personally, I find that this consistent flashforward technique forces me to pay more attention, because what if there’s a clue I’ve missed? An author that does a similar job is Chuck Palahniuck, especially in his book ‘Survivor’, where he tells the story from the ending to the beginning. It might interest you if you haven’t read it yet.

      Thanks for your comment! Interesting thoughts.

      • The anachronistic story telling likely is a way they can keep ahead of the readers, always beyond expectations. I had to look up the bit about the pink stuffed animal motif”… the pool jetsome, but its undoubtedly strong symbolism, much like the anachronistic floating doll head in Aliens, is powerful there…Memento is a great example of taking anachronistic story telling to the extreme, and does force you to watch VERY carefully for clues..but so is Fight Club though that’s mixing it with Tyler’s ‘issues’. I’ll have to take a look at the book you mentioned by Palahniuck, (which I’ve not read), 🙂

  • Rose Red says:

    Your videos have given me a lot of interesting things to ponder in my writing. I have novels that are not finished and are dogging me. I liked this one so much I showed it to my son, a big fan of Breaking Bad and he was nodding a lot.

    We also thought of the series Lost. We are going through it on Netflix and are floundering in season 5. They keep us watching because we do want to see what is coming. But there is this thought that they will break our hearts and not answer everything they promised. There are a few situations that seemed to just be there to hook us and were never dealt with.

    • Millie Ho says:

      I know what you mean about Lost. The expectations set out by the writers were not fulfilled in the last two seasons. The show overall focuses on giving us emotional closure without resolving the plot. It’s very frustrating for us as viewers because the premise was excellent, but the story failed to make our time invested worth it. I’m glad you’re getting something out of the videos!

  • dekutree41 says:

    I think they can co-exist if you’re differentiating between character closure and plot closure, which is why LOST is an interesting example. I think in serialized storytelling, you have to keep creating plot-based cliffhangers, but provide small moments of closure for the characters…while also keeping them evolving too. But this is tricky, because if your moments of character closure are too profound, you’re basically signaling that the story is over. This was, for me, a huge mistake the X-Files made when they had Mulder learn the truth about his sister’s abduction…and then kept the show running for another two years. Still hurts me to think about this. That character arc WAS the show, no matter what Chris Carter says! (Which is not to say I’m not thrilled that the show is coming back, because I’m only human, dammit).

    • Millie Ho says:

      You know, that’s a really interesting point. I always wondered why the X-Files suddenly became less interesting and more monster-of-the-week after Mulder uncovered the truth. What you shared made me realize it was because I was less emotionally invested in the show after Mulder learned the truth (especially after he accepted the truth). I’m excited for the show as well. I hope they do it justice!

      By the way, have you seen Wentworth (Netflix)? It’s an excellent show starring an almost all-female cast. After the main character reached her main objective in season 3 (thereby closing her character arc and reaching a profound sense of closure), I am suddenly less interested in season 4. It’s so interesting that we can now pinpoint when this happens!

      • dekutree41 says:

        No, I’ve never even heard of it…I’ll check it out! Still slowly working my way through House of Cards 3, which feels like a completely different show now. #justiceforkatemara’scharacterwhosenameidon’tremember

  • Ray Sharp says:

    I think I strive for a similar effect with poems, emotional closure without explanatory resolution. I want the reader to feel a boom in the chest. I don’t ever try to tie up loose ends.

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