“Prometheus...brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to a mighty end.”
“No matter how vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
— Stanley Kubrick
The cliffhanger has made an unlikely comeback in an age when computers and a host of electronic devices make the instantaneous gratification of any urge for entertainment as easy as a key stroke or push of a button.
As a ‘plot device’ employed by writers of serialized fiction, the cliffhanger is written in episodes, each one ending with some dilemma or revelation that serves as the ‘hook‘ intended to entice the reader to wait in fevered anticipation for the next episode. The cliffhanger, according to The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, unabashedly reveals itself to be an ‘artificial’ and ‘manipulative’ means to keep the reader coming back that, in the hands of a skilled writer with an intricately woven plot, achieves its aim. Reece Hirsch—a San Francisco-based attorney and up-and-coming novelist with Marceline roots—is one such writer, and his latest creation, The Adversary, is built around the kind of plot that keeps its readers on the edge of their seats and begging for more.
As readers may recall, Reece Hirsch is the grandson of Marceline’s Allie Reece, and the LCL reviewed his first published book, The Insider, in 2010. Reece, who returned to Marceline last June to attend the funeral of his brother, Brad, says this of Disney’s boyhood home: “I’ve visited Marceline since I was a child, and the town has occupied such a prominent place in the life of my family. In a strange way, I feel that Marceline is more my hometown than many of the places where I actually lived growing up.”
The Atlantic magazine’s Megan Garber explains that the last great wave of cliffhangers in print were published in the mid-19th Century, and their most notable creator was none other than Charles Dickens. Describing what popularized those whodunits over 170 years ago, Garber observes: “That wave of serialized fiction was the product of particular historical forces, among them rising literacy rates, industrial advances in printing, and periodicals’ need to sustain reader interest over time. But it was the product of something else, too, something less technologically contingent and more human: the anticipatory pleasure that can come from the simple act of waiting.”
Ironically, the very electronic devices that have the capacity to cheat us out of enjoying such anticipatory pleasure, are instead part of the reason the cliffhanger is now making a resurgence. Those devices, particularly when used in conjunction with social media such as Facebook and Twitter, allow viewers of televised serials to communicate with one another about what they are viewing.
While that explanation works particularly well with television and tweeting about an episode in real time, we probably need something else to explain why cliffhangers are making a comeback in the written medium. Garber theorizes, “We sometimes choose delay over immediacy—the small portions over all-you-can-eat binges—because episodes bring order to our lives.” We sometimes need entertainment that is compartmentalized, with a definite beginning and end, in a specific time slot rather than continually flowing and always being available. As Garber reasons, “Those who are reviving the serial form are embracing the value of the one thing the digital world doesn’t provide on its own: limits.”