Critique Technique, Part 7: Scene and Chapter Endings

I’ve written about beginnings in the last couple of posts. For the next couple, I’ll discuss the endings of sections or scenes, chapters, and the entire piece. I’ll look at the first two here.

Articles and short stories are often divided into sections or scenes, sometimes even into chapters. Books of all kinds are almost always divided into chapters, and those chapters often have scenes within them.

Why would a chapter, article, or short story be divided into scenes? In fiction, scenes contain the action in a specific time and place, from a particular point of view, or focused on a certain character. In non-fiction, a section or scene may focus on these or on a specific topic that could be one of several within the piece. When the location, time, point of view, key character, or topic changes, the author can use a transition—usually a word, phrase, or sentence to carry the reader across the change (something I’ll cover in a later article)—or she can start a new scene.

The end of a scene has two purposes. First, like its beginning, it needs to create curiosity in the reader, to make him wonder what’s next and so propel him onward. The second purpose is to make things worse for the central character, or maybe all of the characters, of that scene. Then, if the piece switches to another character or set of characters, that creates even more tension in the reader because his curiosity isn’t satisfied immediately—he has to wait to find out what’s going to happen.

Obstacles and Frustration

Black and yellow concrete barriersImage courtesy of

So, how can a scene’s ending create that curiosity and tension, and how can you, the reviewer, tell when it hasn’t? Two words: “obstacles” and “frustration.” Obstacles keep the scene’s protagonist from reaching her immediate and long-term (story) objectives. (I’ll write more about objectives later, too.) At the end of every scene, she should have more obstacles in her way than she had when the scene started, or they should have gotten worse. That should increase her frustration, leaving her wondering, “How am I going to overcome this, along with everything else?” The reader should be asking that, too, whether she’s sympathetic to the scene protagonist’s cause or not.

In fiction, the writer’s job is to keep making things worse for the story’s major characters (protagonist(s) and antagonist(s))—to raise the stakes for them—right up to the climax. In non-fiction, especially creative non-fiction, the author’s job is similar: to relate how things kept getting worse. Even in something as direct as a how-to article, at the end of each section, the author can present an obstacle the do-it-yourselfer could face.

Now, that new or improved obstacle doesn’t have to be super-dramatic, the famous “cliffhanger.” In fact, in a chapter or short work, cliffhangers at the end of each scene are probably impossible or will make the reader stop believing the story. The new obstacle can be something simple, or it can be an old one made worse, but it still has to be an obstacle.

Here’s an example. In my own first novel, The Eternity Plague, one chapter has almost 30 scenes as the focus jumps between five different characters. In one scene, my reporter, Lisa, needs to find Sarah, the leader of a rally that has turned into a riot, something Sarah didn’t plan. Unfortunately for Lisa, she’s on a balcony on the old North Carolina State Capitol building, while Sarah was on a stage fifty yards distant, but has now been hustled away. Lisa doesn’t know where Sarah’s gone and has to get through the chaos of the riot to try to find her. Sarah’s disappearance isn’t a huge obstacle for Lisa in the larger scheme of the story, but it does frustrate her immediate desire to get Sarah’s reaction to the violent collapse of her rally. This leaves the reader wondering, “What will Lisa do? Will she find Sarah? What will she do if she does? What will she do if she doesn’t?” (The next scene, of course, shifts to another character, building my reader’s tension as he waits to find out what happens with Lisa and Sarah.)

Progress as a Problem

That said, in a longer piece, and particularly in a short part of that piece, making things worse may not be possible, or desirable. Letting the scene’s or chapter’s protagonist make a little progress sometimes, or seem to make progress, has its benefits:

  1. The reader is encouraged, and so wants to read further.
  2. That progress gives the author more opportunities to make things worse for the protagonist: one step forward makes room for the two steps backward to come.
  3. If the scene’s protagonist is the story’s antagonist, or even a secondary character, letting him make progress toward his goals can be a direct or indirect way to make things worse for the story’s protagonist.

Those are the requirements for the end of a scene. They’re the same for the end of a chapter, only more so. Cliffhangers are appropriate here, but not at the end of every chapter. Still, the author wants the reader biting his fingernails, wondering what’s going to happen next, and having—just having—to turn the page.

The bottom line, then, is that in every chapter or scene, something has to happen that changes the situation for the characters involved. The change can be large or small. Its size doesn’t have to match the length of the scene or chapter, although a small change over the course of a long chapter or scene may not seem strong or important enough to keep the reader turning pages. As a reviewer, you’re looking for that change and whether the story moved forward because of it.

Questions You Can Use

All right. Now you’re the reviewer and your job is to decide whether the end of a scene or chapter has done its job. Here are questions for you to ask:

  • Did the ending of this scene or chapter make things worse for the character(s)?
    • Did it put new obstacles in their way, or make existing ones worse?
    • Did it add frustrations, or make existing ones worse, as the character(s) try to reach their goals?
  • Did the characters make progress at the end of this scene or chapter, making me wonder what new obstacles they’re about to face?
  • Did the ending increase my tension? Did it make me have to know what happens next?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” figure out how the author failed to make things worse for her characters and/or how she failed to increase your need to know more. Then offer suggestions on how to make the piece better.

Your Thoughts

What else do you look for in the end of a scene or chapter to decide whether it’s been a success or not? Put your suggestions in the Comments box below.

Thanks for leaving a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.