Man, I hate cliffhangers.
Like, I loathe them with a passion. They make me throw up my hands and groan, and frankly, want to smash my fist into something. How DARE they? How dare that writer deprive me of that moment of release, of knowing what happens to my favorite character at his or her greatest moment of peril?
Aren't I just the biggest hypocrite? I know. It's fun.
That being said, I LOVE cliffhangers. They make me giggle like a maniacal schoolgirl. Perhaps it's because my formative education in dialogue and plot was "Choose Your Own Adventure" books (which I always cheated on) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps I'm just a sadist. But either way, a well-done cliffhanger just makes me stop, groan, and start laughing hysterically, while usually applauding the author on his or her work.
At any rate, a long time ago, I had a reader call my cliffhanger on chapter 34 "petty," which made me feel a little disgruntled for about a minute before something shiny popped up in the corner of my vision and I wandered off to explore. A few hours later (hey, I had a new dog, and she requires a lot of attention), I returned to the subject and thought, "Hm, WAS that a petty cliffhanger?"
Eventually I came to conclusions about why people think cliffhangers are petty and why I think some aren't, and some are, and I'll explain here.
So...what makes a cliffhanger petty?
If the cliffhanger exists only to sensationalize the plot or comes from nowhere. Basically, this means that the author does exactly what every single reader expected him or her to do, but does it in the next chapter, just holding out for more reviews. Or aliens show up in a story that has 95% about settlers on the range or something equally absurd.
Now, wait a second. All cliffhangers are a bit sensationalized. Their very nature makes this so. There is always a little part of the cliffhanger that is the writer going, "I know something you don't know!" Maybe it's intentional (with me, it is), maybe it isn't, but there's always a tiny bit of that in a cliffhanger. But then again, there's a bit of that in a chapter ending that isn't a cliffhanger, too. That's just the fact of life when reading fanfiction, which we only get in increments.
But if the writer has, for example, set up the cliffhanger to be obvious to what the character is going to do ("Oh, right, there's a trapdoor in the floor, he's going to fall through that at the last possible second, causing Frea to break out into the Scooby-Doo theme song!"), then exactly that happens right away in the next chapter...yeah, that's kind of a petty cliffhanger.
So what isn't a petty cliffhanger?
When the writer does something you don't expect, but had proper build-up to do so. How the hell do you know that the writer's going to do that? Well, you don't. That's the point of a cliffhanger. That's the most brilliant thing about them (or the least, depending on your outlook): you don't know what you're getting until the character has either climbed back up from the cliff or fallen into the swirling depths below. Used effectively, this cliffhanger heightens tension allllllmost to the breaking point, and then delivers in new and unexpected ways when the next chapter rolls around.
(It can be played for laughs that exactly what the readers think was supposed to think happens immediately happens...and then gets completely undone in the next action. This is called being Joss Whedon, and you have to be very careful with it)
I'll use two examples from my own work and hope they show the difference. The first is a cliffhanger I attempted to put into the story and decided it didn't work since it existed only for the art of sensationalism. The second is a cliffhanger that was actually used in the story.
At the end of Chapter 16, I Told the Witch Doctor, Casey and Chuck are facing down Laszlo Mahnovski, who has Sarah at gunpoint. Remember? Oh, fine, here's a snippet:
Only this time, it was Sarah being held captive by the crazy person with the gun. And instead of looking completely terrified, as Chuck had, she seemed plenty pissed off. Also, instead of looking grim, as Mei-Ling Cho had, Laszlo Mahnovski looked pretty pleased with himself—especially since he was holding a gun to Sarah's temple.
Chuck wished for one blinding second, before all thought vanished, that he knew more about guns. Why couldn't the Intersect have included more pertinent data on weapons and how to disable them? He couldn't tell if that was a gun that had been in the Castle's armory or not.
Sarah wasn't looking at Chuck, but at Casey. Her entire body was tense, and she had sand stuck to the knees of her jeans. Laszlo had an arm around her neck, but it was mostly the gun immobilizing her. For now. "He got the drop on me," she said between her teeth.
Chuck glanced up, saw the harness rig at the top of a column. Trust Sarah to be completely literal.
"Agents Rainer and Fitzgerald, nice of you to join us." Laszlo, despite the cool, fetid air, was sweating just as much as Chuck. Was that a common affliction among the bunkerized? "It's a very nice stronghold you have here in Burbank—they made a few changes to my original plans, the idiots—but still, nice and easy to breach."
My original thought for this chapter was to end it with Laszlo taunting Chuck and pulling the trigger. Bam! Cut to Chapter 17. Laszlo pulls the trigger... and nothing happens. Laszlo has just revealed that he has been inside Castle, so clearly he had access to the armory.* We would have found out retroactively in Chapter 17 that Chuck had tampered with the trigger mechanisms on all of the guns in the armory, anticipating that Laszlo might out-hack him. I decided that this was a petty cliffhanger and went in another direction (Sarah still gets shot, but this time it's Chuck and it's funny since everybody knows I wouldn't kill off a main character...probably).
Now, in Chapter 34, Trouble Strikes Back, I had a very similar setup:
Leader stepped over him and picked up the gun he'd knocked from Chuck's grip.
Without any prompting whatsoever, he pointed it at the CIA agent.
Oh, God, Chuck thought for the millionth time that day. I'm going to die. This really is it.
He worked the object digging into his stomach free.
"Good-bye," Leader said, pointing the gun at Chuck's forehead. If Chuck imagined it, he could feel the laser sight searing into the skin between his eyes like a brand.
He did the only thing he could. He threw whatever it was that was in his hand at Leader and he threw it hard.
There was a thunk.
The gun went off.
The two cliffhangers are incredibly similar, so to call one petty and the other justified may seem like a stretch, but I don't think it is. There's a writing rule called Chekhov's Gun that goes hand in hand with a well-written cliffhanger, I think. From Wikipedia:
Chekhov's gun is the literary technique whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later on.
In Chapter 35, A Farewell to Trouble, we learn that Chuck hits Leader with the thing he threw--a knife--at just the crucial moment to alter the man's aim. We know he has the knife because I specifically mentioned it while Chuck and the others were preparing in Room 13 for Fulcrum's arrival:
He kept his finger off of the trigger and tilted the muzzle toward the floor just like Casey's lessons had taught him. As he did so, his thumb brushed against the knife Sarah had tossed him for ripping up sheets. He hadn't had the chance to return it, so he had stuck it into his belt buckle.
And that, I think, is the main difference between the two cliffhangers. In the first from Chapter 16, I had specifically obfuscated details that would explain the cliffhanger in order to sensationalize it. In 34, I may not have called an overt amount of attention to the tools I used in the cliffhanger, but I did take the time to lay them into the story and give my hero an "out" so that the cliffhanger, though surprising, did not come from completely out of the blue. If the aforementioned aliens had shown up to abduct Chuck at that point and move him safely out of the way of Leader's bullet, people would have rightfully called shenanigans. Same with Sarah showing up at the last minute to save the day, as I had already established that she couldn't get to Chuck in time and that would have been a cop-out if she had.
So, really, that's the art of what makes a good cliffhanger. You have to lay foundation so that the cliffhanger can be resolved, but you have to be clever and make the cliffhanger still shocking, surprising, and with a definite degree of danger. If everybody knows your characters are going to escape unscathed, what's the fun in that? You don't have to kill them, but you do have to put them at risk, and make that risk both a surprise and, upon the reveal, make a lot of sense, too. Should be easy, right? :) Good luck with that!
Now, a quick note: 16 would have worked only for its shock value. But that's the definition of petty in a long-term story, and you can only do that so many times before people get frustrated with your work, so you have to consider if it's worth it before you pull a stunt like that...unless you're actually going to kill your character. And if I had killed Sarah at the end of 16, I am pretty sure I would still be in WitSec.
Tranquing her, however, made me Casey's hero.
Of course, now that I've written all of this, I have to add one last tiny detail: this really is based on the supposition that an author won't kill his or her characters. Would I kill my characters at this point? I'm not going to answer that.
* Laszlo's only having a water gun IS explained in Chapter 17, but it was a throwaway line:
"Hm. Guess he hasn't figured out you hid all of the weapons from the armory last night."
"If I'm lucky, he never will." Chuck rolled his eyes again. "Even if it saved our lives. May he never figure out why Laszlo only had a water gun."