Category Archives: fiction writing

How to end a scene with a page-turner

Have you ever gone to bed with a novel, planning to read for 20 minutes or so, and found yourself still engrossed an hour later?

How do good writers keep readers captivated ?

Good writers use cliff hangers to end a scene. Cliff hangers can be major events like who shot J.R. Ewing.  In the TV show ”Dallas” in the 1980s, viewers wondered all post-season who shot the villainous J.R. They tuned in in record numbers for the season opener in the fall.  The screen writer of that show wrote a huge cliff hanger.  But cliff hangers can also be small.  Who sent Mom a single rose when it wasn’t even her birthday?  And why did they do it?  Turn the page to find out.

Good writers foreshadow coming events to end a scene. When a grinning Rhett Butler watches Scarlett O’Hara ascend the stairs of the Wilkes mansion, Scarlet feels uncomfortable.  Later when Scarlett discovers that Rhett has overheard her baring her soul to Ashley Wilkes, Scarlet is mortified.  Her early discomfort foreshadows her later embarrassment.

Good writers end a scene with a change of action.  Shakespeare did this all the time in his plays.  A love scene is followed by a murder is followed by comic relief.  Police mysteries show a detective reaching a dead end  when the medical examiner phones to say he has discovered something.  We keep reading.

Good writers shift the point of view (POV) to end a scene.  Leo Toystoy starts Anna Karenina from the point of view of cavalier Stephen Oblonsky as he blames his affair with his children’s governess on his silly smile and his vibrant personality. Then the scene shirts to the head of his distraught wife, pregnant with her seventh child, who can see no option but to leave him.

Good writers use monologue or dialog to end a scene, and they write last words or last thoughts that are significant.  One character might admonish another to heed advice.  One character might rue the day he agreed to a blind date as he pushes a doorbell.  We turn the page to find out if he is right.

Good writers use surprise to end a scene. What if the guy ringing the doorbell is met by a huge dog, or a wise-cracking little sister, or his drop-dead beautiful date. . .and her big brother chaperone?

What all of these scene endings have in common is a question.  We, the readers or viewers, want to know something.  And so we keep reading.

Read John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” if you are a fiction writer

If you are an aspiring novelist or fiction writer, may I recommend a good how-to book?  It’s not new, but it’s new to me.

Cover of John Truby's The Anatomy Of StoryJohn Truby’s The Anatomy of Story; 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller has been around since 2007.  I’ve seen it recommended in other how-to writing books, but the “22 steps” part of the title put me off.  And after reading the book and rereading parts, the “22 steps” still seem like a juggernaut to an aspiring novelist.

Yet the book is a masterpiece.  Several points ring true.

  • Every story must have a single pathway to its climax and end. Even stories with as many side steps as Homer’s Odyssey must lead the main character and reader toward a single goal.
  • Every compelling story has one main character (hero) fighting along that pathway toward his or her goal.
  • If the hero’s enemy is an abstraction (a company, a war or evil) the reader will engage more if that enemy can be embodied into a single human enemy such as Darth Vader or Voldemort.
  • The main character must have a flaw to overcome by the end of the story. How he overcomes his flaw is the real story.  Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort.  But Harry is a meek eleven-year-old at his story’s start.  How he overcomes his fears and grows into a man brave enough to defeat Voldemort is the real story.
  • If the main character makes difficult moral choices (not just action choices) on his pathway, the story gains depth and the possibility of greatness.

One inclusion I particularly like is the many novels and movies which the author analyzes when he makes his various points.  I have long known that I like The Godfather, Shane, Chinatown and Casablanca, but now I know why.  It’s because these stories contain so many of the elements which Truby says are essential in great stories.

As for the 22 steps?  Because so much else rings true in The Anatomy of Story, I accept that the 22 steps are necessary for a great novel.  Nobody said writing a novel is easy, and Truby says writing a great novel is rare.  But he has created a formula.  If you are writing fiction, check it out.