In this post I will discuss two opposing points of view in regard to how the endings of episodes in serials were structured. I will also discuss the effects these had on story structure and resolutions.
Pat Mills advises that each episode of a serial should end on a cliffhanger or dramatic high point (personal email). So his stories, such as “Land of No Tears”, have episodes that end on cliffhangers or dramatic high points. For example, in part two of “Land of No Tears”, Perfecta hauls Cassy off for punishment at the end of the episode. The cliffhanger leaves readers particularly anxious because the episode had built up to Cassy expecting a cruel and merciless punishment. But they do not see what it is until part three. A multitude of stories at IPC were structured this way, with each episode ending either on a cliffhanger or being a self-contained episode that ends on a high dramatic point.
There were some IPC stories, such as Jinty’s “Bound for Botany Bay” and Tammy’s “No Haven for Hayley”, that had a blend of cliffhanger and non-cliffhanger episodes. For example, in Botany Bay, Betsy’s story has episodes that end mostly on cliffhangers, but some, such as the ones that depict her transportation voyage, are self-contained ones.
However, the Mandy editors took a completely different view to Mills in this respect. In an interview with former DCT writer Maureen Hartley, she reveals that their rule was “no cliffhangers”:
“I learned that in every instalment the heroine must take some form of executive action. That may seem highly obvious, but it is easy to be distracted from the heroine by other facets of the plot or more interesting characters. Also there must be no cliffhangers. The editors felt strongly that the readers should get value for the money they had paid for the comic and should be given a full self-contained story in each instalment, interesting enough to make them want to read more but not blackmailing them with a cliffhanging ending into buying the next issue”.
So in Mandy stories, each episode is a self-contained one, containing action that advances the story in some way. But with some exceptions, such as Mandy’s “The Posy Princess”, there are no cliffhanger endings for the episodes in the development of the story. The only real exception to this rule would be the penultimate episode, which often ended on a cliffhanger. This would be a signal to the readers that it is the penultimate episode, because its cliffhanger ending breaks the pattern of how the episodes are structured. The cliffhanger would be part of resolving the story in the final episode.
A good example is “The Truth About Wendy” from Mandy. In each episode we have a protagonist who tells us, in flashback, how they found out the hard way that Wendy Ware is a scheming girl who plays dirty to get whatever she wants and destroys anyone who stands in her way. They all think at the end of the episode that only they know the truth about Wendy; everyone else thinks she is a sweet girl. But in the penultimate episode, Wendy’s latest victim does not think this way. Instead, she resolves to expose Wendy and get back the friend that Wendy stole off her. This tells us that this is the penultimate episode and not a regular one. So we are all extra eager to buy next week’s Mandy to find out how the truth about Wendy will be revealed at last.
Not all penultimate episodes in Mandy serials were structured this way. One example is “Bad Luck Barbara”. The penultimate episode is a regular one, with no cliffhanger ending at all. The next episode could also have been a regular one. But instead it is the final episode, and it is entirely self-contained instead of resolving a cliffhanger from the penultimate episode.
And this type of story structuring can be seen in plenty of serials in other DCT titles as well. For example, Bunty’s “Witch!” has self-contained episodes until the penultimate episode while the similarly-themed “Mark of the Witch!” in Jinty has a lot of episodes ending on cliffhangers. And some Bunty stories, such as “Captain Carol”, have self-contained episodes all the way through.
This non-cliffhanger episode structure at DCT meant that their serials tended to be episodic. This did have the advantage of spinning the story out for as long as needed – or cutting it short if necessary. When the editor gave the word, the writer could just end the story in an episode or two because the episodic structure made it easy to end without tying up a lot of plot threads that had been spun along the way. There were some exceptions, where DCT serials were tied up in several episodes that were structured as a story arc. One example is Bunty’s “The Guilt of Glendora”, which is tied up in a span of three episodes.
One disadvantage of stories with non-cliffhanger episodes is that the structure could get boring, annoying and tedious. Sometimes the ending of each episode would end up pretty much the same, such as episodes that invariably end up with the protagonist being disgraced through no fault of her own. Using some variety with episodes ending on cliffhangers would make it more interesting. In this respect “The Posy Princess” was less boring because it often had cliffhangers.
The cliffhanger episodes favoured by Mills enabled the development of story arcs; for example, a conclusion that needed several episodes for it to develop properly. If the story was popular, more threads could be developed to spin it out more rather than just putting in more episodes for padding. But in some cases there could also be more tying-off that would have to be done before the story could end. And if the editor gave a sudden order to end the story, this could result in an unsatisfactory ending. One example is Jinty’s “Worlds Apart”. One gets the impression that towards the end, the story was meant to run for more episodes to really develop the final dream world and the lessons its protagonist learns from it. But instead the ending gives the impression that the story was cut short because of Jinty’s upcoming merger into Tammy. So the conclusion came too soon and left the final dream world nowhere near as developed as it should have been. It all cries out to be reworked.
Mandy’s rule non-cliffhanger endings for episodes apparently did not stop readers from buying the next issue. The editors counted on making the self-contained episodes interesting enough to encourage readers to keep buying. And it did work – readers kept buying Mandy and she became one of the longest-running titles at DCT. But the cliffhanger structure at IPC also worked well. And stories that combined cliffhangers and non-cliffhangers certainly added variety to the storytelling structure. They must also have been easier on the writers, who must have found it difficult at times to keep episodes self-contained or end them on cliffhangers.
3 thoughts on “Storytelling in Girls’ Comics: Cliffhanger vs Non-cliffhanger Episodes”
It could be argued that The Happy Days in Princess had the best of both worlds by featuring short story arcs that enabled cliffhanger episodes to alternate with neat resolutions on a regular basis.
I agree that having a mixture of cliff-hangers and self-contained episodes sounds like it gives the most flexibility. It’s amazing how effective the formulas were, either way!