How to end a scene with style

Some student writers reach an exhaustion point when writing a narrative.  They are too tired to continue.  They want to stop—mid-sentence, if I’d let them—and write “To be continued,” as if that would solve their problem.

“You can do better than that,” I tell them, and together we brainstorm better breaks which will lure readers back to the next section of their narratives.

Point of view shifts. If all the action has been told from one character’s perspective, add a final sentence to show that someone else is watching.  “And so Little Red Riding Hood kissed her mother goodbye, waved and skipped through the dark forest, unaware that a big, bad wolf was watching and licking his lips.”  When the student resumes writing this piece, it can be from the wolf’s point of view.

To use a cliffhanger effectively, something must happen just before the end of the chapter, something that leaves the reader wondering.  “Mia crumpled up the test paper with the low grade and pouted.  She had studied so hard for that test.  She had—She felt a tap on her elbow from Ben, who sat behind her.  He passed his cell phone out of sight of their teacher, Mrs. Miller.  Mia read the text message.  “Are you all right?  For god’s sake, tell me you’re all right!”

Traveling or going to sleep. A scene can easily end with a character getting in the back seat of the car or on a spaceship.  When the next scene starts, the character can have arrived at her destination, a new location.  The actual traveling can be skipped over.  Or a character can go to bed for the night or take a nap, and when he awakens, a new scene begins without any explanation of how he slept or what he dreamed about.

Dialog.  If Hermione says to Harry Potter, “You better be extra careful, Harry,” and the scene ends, we, the readers, are led to believe Hermione’s words are important.  We suspect Harry will find himself in trouble soon.  For dialog to be an effective scene ender, the dialog needs to seem significant.  If one character says, “Bye,” and the other character says, “Bye,” that is not significant.

Foreshadowing.  A toddler is running around willy-nilly, and nearby a pregnant woman puts her hand on her abdomen, feeling an active baby kicking.  She smiles.  Or Cinderella hops into the carriage that will take her to the ball when one of her slippers falls off.  She laughs and slips it back on, waving to her fairy godmother.

None of these scene endings takes many words, just a sentence or two.  But they are far more elegant than slapping “To be continued” at the end of a sentence in the middle of a thought.  With a good scene ending, the writer lures the reader back.  The reader wants to continue reading.

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