Cliffhangers were used as literary devices in several works of the medieval era. The Arabic literary work One Thousand and One Nights involves Scheherazade narrating a series of stories to King Shahryār for 1,001 nights, with each night ending on a cliffhanger in order to save herself from execution. Some medieval Chinese ballads like the Liu chih-yuan chu-kung-tiao ended each chapter on a cliffhanger to keep the audience in suspense.
Cliffhangers later appeared as an element of the Victorian serial novel that emerged in the 1840s, with many associating the form with Charles Dickens, a pioneer of the serial publication of narrative fiction. By the 1860s it had become a staple part of the sensation serials, while the term itself originated with Thomas Hardy in 1873 when a protagonist from one of his serials, Henry Knight, was left hanging off a cliff.
Victorian serials and term origin
Cliffhangers became prominent with the serial publication of narrative fiction, pioneered by Charles Dickens. Printed episodically in magazines, Dickens's cliffhangers triggered desperation in his readers. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum captured the anticipation of those waiting for the next installment of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop;
In 1841, Dickens fanboys rioted on the dock of New York Harbor, as they waited for a British ship carrying the next installment, screaming, “Is little Nell dead?.
The impact of Dickens' serial publications saw the cliffhanger become a staple part of the sensation serials by the 1860s. The term "cliffhanger" is considered to have originated with the serialised version of Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes (which was published in Tinsley's Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873) in which Henry Knight, one of the protagonists, is left hanging off a cliff.