A Word To That Effect is a new series of bonus mini-episodes about a single word or phrase with a distinctly literary origin. This week: cliffhanger!
Find out about the cliffhanger story. Hint: it’s related to all that sensation fiction that was featured in the last WTTE episode
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I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect, stories of the fiction that shape popular culture.
And this is the first in a new series of mini-episodes, in which I’m going to talk about a single, everyday word or phrase with a distinctly literary origin.
This week: cliffhanger
“‘Now try to get higher in this way. You see that tuft of sea-pink above you. Get that well into your hand, but don’t trust to it entirely. Then step upon my shoulder, and I think you will reach the top.’
With trembling limbs she did exactly as he told her. The preternatural quiet and solemnity of his manner overspread upon herself, and gave her a courage not her own.
She made a spring from the top of his shoulder, and was up. [noise of exertion]
Then she turned to look at him.
By an ill fate, the force downwards of her bound, added to his own weight, had been too much for the block of quartz upon which his feet depended. It was, indeed, originally an igneous protrusion into the enormous masses of black strata, which had since been worn away from the sides of the alien fragment by centuries of frost and rain, and now left it without much support.
It moved. Knight seized a tuft of sea-pink with each hand. [aah]
The quartz rock which had been his salvation was worse than useless now. It rolled over, out of sight, and away into the same nether sky that had engulfed the telescope.
One of the tufts by which he held came out at the root, and Knight began to follow the quartz.
It was a terrible moment. Elfride uttered a low wild wail of agony, bowed her head, and covered her face with her hands. [wail of agony]
Between the turf-covered slope and the gigantic perpendicular rock intervened a weather-worn series of jagged edges, forming a face yet steeper than the former slope. As he slowly slid inch by inch upon these, Knight made a last desperate dash at the lowest tuft of vegetation—the last outlying knot of starved herbage ere the rock appeared in all its bareness. It arrested his further descent. Knight was now literally suspended by his arms; but the incline of the brow being what engineers would call about a quarter in one, it was sufficient to relieve his arms of a portion of his weight, but was very far from offering an adequately flat face to support him.
In spite of this dreadful tension of body and mind, Knight found time for a moment of thankfulness. Elfride was safe.
She lay on her side above him—her fingers clasped. Seeing him again steady, she jumped upon her feet.
‘Now, if I can only save you by running for help!’ she cried. ‘Oh, I would have died instead! Why did you try so hard to deliver me?’ And she turned away wildly to run for assistance.
‘Elfride, how long will it take you to run to Endelstow and back?’
‘Three-quarters of an hour.’
‘That won’t do; my hands will not hold out ten minutes. And is there nobody nearer?’
‘No; unless a chance passer may happen to be.’
‘He would have nothing with him that could save me. Is there a pole or stick of any kind on the common?’
She gazed around. The common was bare of everything but heather and grass.
A minute—perhaps more time—was passed in mute thought by both.
On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She vanished over the bank from his sight.
Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized loneliness.
And there it ends. Want to find out what happens to the unfortunate Henry Knight, dangling over a cliff face? Will he fall? Will he be rescued?
Tune in next week.
Or, since this was printed in a serialised Victorian magazine in 1873, buy the next edition.
So, why have I read from this particular cliffhanger ending? Well, this is the cliffhanger.
No, not the 1993 classic mountain climbing heist thriller with Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgo. I’m talking about Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, serialised in the early 1870s.
The origin of the word “cliffhanger” is not entirely clear, and it doesn’t seem to have been used in print until later, but what is certain is that this is the period when endings which left the reader in suspense (and, crucially, desperate for the next instalment) were used extensively in serialised fiction. And Hardy’s cliffhanger is a famous early example in which a man is, literally, hanging from a cliff.
If you’ve listened to the last WTTE episode on sensation fiction, I was talking about the rise of periodical fiction, with Charles Dickens being the most famous exponent, from the 1830s onwards. If you’re going to keep readers interested, and buying your magazine ahead of all the competitors out there, you need to leave them wanting more. So, a shocking revelation or looming danger, or some major unresolved event was the way to do it. And if you’ve watched any TV, ever, it still works a treat.
Now it’s not that cliffhanger endings were invented in the 19th century, they just became a major part of how popular stories were structured and sold. I mean, in reality, cliffhangers are as old as storytelling. As with music, we crave resolution.
Play the note!!
If a story doesn’t end, we will always come back for more. 1,001 Nights, also called the Arabian Nights, is a classic example. In this case the storyteller, Scheherazade, is due to be executed at sunrise, but she tells a story without a resolution, and the king is forced to keep her alive for another night so he can hear the ending. And so, she keeps doing this for night after night, using the cliffhanger structure to escape death.
So what does happen to Henry Knight? Does Elfride save him?
Well, I’m not going to tell you that with today’s topic now, am I?
So that’s it. The first of a regular series of mini WTTE episodes. There would normally have been a regular episode today but due to some scheduling issues that didn’t quite happen. So, instead the plan is to get another of these mini episodes out next week and then back to normal service from the following week.
Thanks to Amy O’Dwyer for her voice talents on this episode. As always this episode was recorded in The Podcast Studios Dublin and is part of the HeadStuff Podcast Network. For more, and to find out how to support the show you can go to HeadStuffPodcasts.com
And for everything else, the home of the show is wttepodcast.com
See you next time