A couple of recent season finales have made me think about how to do a cliffhanger right. To be honest, the last season finale of The Walking Dead pissed me off enough to stop watching the show, and it made me think about how they did it wrong.
To do a cliffhanger correctly, you have to entice your audience to want to see the next scene without pissing them off. It is about building anticipation in the audience to the right degree that they will come back for more. It is also a way to build tension in your story. This is often done through some type of revelation or twist to the storyline that happens as part of the cliffhanger or at the beginning of the next scene.
An example of a good cliffhanger was the end of the season 5 of The Game of Thrones. Jon Snow is stabbed multiple times, and the season ends with him lying in the snow, but is Jon Snow really “dead” dead? The way the scene ends with Jon lying alone in the snow leaves the option open that he survives. Also, there were enough hints in the story to that point (people brought back to life) that he could possibly be revived from the dead. This is enough to leave the audience guessing and to build the tension for the next season without alienating the audience through the use of a “cheap trick.” The reveal comes later, early in season 6, when the audience finds out if Jon Snow lives.
In contrast, the end of season 6 of The Walking Dead was a cheap trick. The Walking Dead crew is lined up on their knees with no possibility of escape. Negan is counting out with his nasty baseball bat, and the audience knows one of their beloved characters is going to die—then the scene ends and the audience has to wait until next season to find out who gets it. Yes, there is tension. Yes, there is anticipation for what comes next. But unfortunately, the audience is left gnashing their teeth in frustration. I call this artificial tension, where the writer withholds information to create tension with the audience. Unfortunately, this type of tension creation causes the audience to feel like they are being tricked somehow.
To me this is a cheap trick that turns me off from a story. The Walking Dead is one of those shows that goes hot and cold from season to season as it is. This artificial tension season finale was the last straw to make me lose interest in the story. It was not the zombies or the characters that killed the most popular zombie show for me—it was the writing, and the improper use of a cliffhanger.