Class is in session! In this article you’re going to get a lesson on how cliffhangers work, or at least how many of them do.

As a writer, and especially a writer of a serial, I know a little bit about cliffhangers. Cliffhangers were invented as a plot device of serial fiction, but really came into their own in the 1910s, when movie serials–the first of them silent–became popular. Now it’s rare to find a literary or dramatic form that doesn’t employ cliffhangers in some form. It’s the last page of Fellowship of the Ring–are Frodo and Sam going to make it to Mordor? It’s the final scene of Mad Men. Is Don and Megan’s marriage going to survive? It’s a particularly notorious season finale of Dallas, and Bobby Ewing steps out of the shower. What now?

The movie serials of the 1930s, 40s and 50s–people sometimes call them “Republic serials,” but many more studios made them than just Republic Pictures–took the cliffhanger to a new level. Many of these contain a plot device that I’ve named the Law of Negligent Compounding Peril. It works like this: the hero is exposed to some danger, A, that must be urgently dealt with. Just as the hero goes to deal with it, an antagonistic character, B, interrupts the hero in the process, introducing some additional danger, C. Now the hero must deal with B and C, but while he/she does that, A is getting worse, and nobody is doing anything about it. Finally A reaches a crisis point. There’s your cliffhanger.

Want to see it in action? Watch this scene from the 1943 Republic movie serial Manhunt in the African Jungle.

In this clip, hero Rex Bennett is waylaid in the villain’s warehouse. The secret ray gun (that’s the weird looking thing on the dolly stand) is about to blow up an entire wing of U.S.  bombers, set to trigger at 4:00. In the meantime, the warehouse is on fire. And who should show up but the villain’s goons, who attack Bennett. They fight. Just as he deals with that, the fire reaches an explosive, and boom, the warehouse goes up.

Here the writers have really slathered it on. There are two “A” dangers, the fire and the ray gun, “B” is the henchmen who come to kick his ass (the “C” danger). While they fight, Bennett’s attention is distracted from both the ray gun and the fire, which are growing progressively closer–compounding, to use a bank term–to a crisis point. He eliminates one of the “A” dangers by turning the ray gun away from the window, but it’s too late to do anything about the fire. The crisis point is obviously “BOOM!”

This one’s extremely obvious. So here’s another one that’s not so obvious. This is one of the climactic scenes from the James Bond film Goldfinger.

The situation is very different, but the Law of Negligent Compounding Peril is still very much in effect. Bond is chained to the atom bomb (the “A” danger). Here comes Oddjob, the villain’s henchman (the “B” protagonist). He’s intent on eliminating Bond–the “C” danger. Bond dispatches him quite famously with the steel bowler, but the A danger is still compounding–the timer is ticking down to zero. If he does vanquish Oddjob, he has to go deal with the bomb. Thus the suspense is layered.

So, there’s a lesson for serial writers, particularly those of an action/adventure bent. If you’re looking to hook the audience, don’t just introduce one danger. Introduce it, distract your hero from it with a second danger, and play the two off each other. It makes for a much more satisfying cliffhanger, and a much more interesting story.

Photo: Jess2284, courtesy Flickr.