The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series is famous for its cliffhangers. Charles Dickens invented this literary device, which ends a narrative sequence, such as a chapter in a novel or an episode in a television series, on a note of heart-pounding suspense that virtually guarantees that the reader will read the next installment or that the viewer will tune in again next week to watch the next episode and see how everything turns out. Constant cliffhangers keep readers reading and viewers viewing.
The first season of Buffy ended with the death of the protagonist as The Master, an ancient vampire with hypnotic powers, bit into Buffy’s neck before letting her unconscious body fall into a pond, where she drowned. Was this the end for Buffy? Would The Master gain control of the world, ruling the earth as he’d planned? What would become of the slayer’s friends? If Buffy was to return, how would such a wonder be effected? With an ending like this, viewers were bound to tune in again when the second semester began, several months later--and tune in, they did.
In “What’s My Line, Part I” (episode 21, season 2), a trio of assassins, “some” of which “are human, some. . . not,” are hired by Spike to kill Buffy so that the slayer won’t be able to interfere with Spike’s and Drusilla’s plan to kill Buffy’s vampire boyfriend Angel to restore Drusilla to full strength. Aware that “a very dark power is about to rise in Sunnydale,” Mr. Buto, the Watcher of a second slayer, Kendra, dispatches her to Sunnydale to assist Buffy in thwarting the threatening catastrophe. Buffy is awakened by Kendra, who attacks her as she lies asleep, in Angel’s bed, informing Buffy that she is “Kendra, the Vampire Slayer.” Since the series, several times previously, has made it clear that there is only one slayer in the world at the same time, viewers want to know all they can learn about this young woman who tries to pass herself off as a slayer. Kendra’s appearance and the fight between her and Buffy that ensues is a cliffhanger extraordinaire.
“What's My Line, Part II” (episode 22, season 2) also ends with a powerful cliffhanger. After the audience gets to know Kendra and to care about her, she’s killed by Drusilla who, after hypnotizing her, as The Master had hypnotized Buffy, slits her throat. Informed by Angel, with whom Buffy is fighting, that he has lured Buffy away from her friends as a ruse, Buffy dashes back to the Sunnydale High School library, where she has left her friends, to discover that Xander Harris is unconscious and that her fellow slayer has been killed. As she kneels beside Kendra’s corpse, holding her hand, the sound of a gun being cocked is heard as a voice yells, “Freeze!” Buffy jerks her head around, and the words “To be continued” appear on the screen. Is Kendra really dead? Will she be brought back to life somehow, as Buffy was when she died? Who’s holding a gun on Buffy, and what does he or she want? Will Buffy be able to avenge Kendra’s death? Can she stop Angel and the other vampires? Will Xander be all right? What about Willow, who was knocked out by a bookcase's having fallen on top of her? Cordelia Chase fled for her life. Did she escape? These unanswered questions have but one meaning: to find out what happens next, viewers will have to tune in again, next week.
In “Becoming, Part I” (epidie 33, season 2), Angel seeks to awaken the demon Acathla, whom a virtuous knight has turned into stone by plunging an enchanted sword into his heart. He has invoked the ritual that is supposed to awaken the demon, but it didn’t work. To find out why, he dispatched Drusilla and other vampires to abduct Buffy’s watcher, Rupert Giles. After a fight in which Xander and Willow Rosenberg were injured, Kendra was killed, and Giles was knocked unconscious, the watcher is brought to Angel, who tortures him in an effort to learn the secret of awakening Acathla. Assuming the form of Jenny Calendar, the teacher with whom Giles was in love before Angel killed her, Drusilla persuades Giles to tell her how Angel can awaken the demon. In a confrontation with Buffy, as Willow tries to reverse the spell that removed the curse that had restored Angel’s soul, Angel is stabbed with a sword and sent to hell after Willow succeeds in restoring his soul, because he has already opened a vortex that can be closed only the same way that it was opened--with Angel’s blood--and, if it is not closed, it will suck the world into hell. Horrified, Buffy looks on as her lover, his soul restored, is sucked into hell, where he will spend eternity, suffering unimaginable misery. This event changes everything for her, and the episode ends with Buffy aboard a bus, leaving her hometown. Where will she go, and what will she do? Has she given up her duties as the slayer? What will become of Sunnydale, her mother, and her friends without her? Can anything restore her spiritual health? This episode, like many others in not only this season of the series, but also in many episodes of every other season of the series, ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger.
Season 2 of the series teaches many other lessons about how to write an engrossing (and, sometimes, a gross) horror story (albeit one with comedic moments to leaven the terror), but, in this post, we’ve chosen to focus on the cliffhanger, a powerful narrative technique invented by one of the world’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens, as a means of keeping his readers coming back for more. The technique worked for Dickens. It worked for Joss Whedon. It has worked for countless other writers, and it will work for you. It’s especially effective when a writer employs it with the deliberation that Edgar Allan Poe developed his short stories, plotting backward from the end of the tale, as he explains in “The Philosophy of Composition,” which we will examine in a future post.