Critique Technique, Part 58 — Ending a Scene or Chapter Well

saying on shirt
photo credit: Harpersbizarre via photopin cc

When a writer ends a scene or chapter, he wants to do two things. He wants to leave the scene’s or chapter’s protagonist worse off than they were before. (Except, perhaps, at the very end of the story or book. More on that in the next article.) And because of that, he wants to leave the reader wanting to read more. No, needing to read more.

The end of every scene or chapter should in some way launch the reader into the next one. That launch doesn’t have to be the equivalent of a giant rocket blasting off for deep space. It could be a gentle shove, or a subtle but irresistible suction that pulls them onward. But gentle or gigantic, push or pull, it needs to be undeniable: the reader can’t say no to it.

Launch Controls

There are lots of ways to do this, of course. The writer can:

  • Employ the classic “cliffhanger,” in which the protagonist or another key character is left dangling over some kind of abyss: physical, emotional, psychological, or personal. The term comes from the old book and movie serials that ended each episode with the hero hanging by his or her fingernails from a rock ledge or tree root above a long drop to certain death, with a steam locomotive bearing down on them, the bad guy’s gun pointed right at their chest, or whatever. In every case, the reader or viewer was left having to wait on pins and needles for the next installment, which of course they just had to read or go see.
  • Leave the scene or chapter before the action is complete. This can be dramatic or subtle, but the incompleteness will drive the reader to turn the page.
  • Switch point of view (POV), time, or location in the transition to the next scene or chapter. Especially when combined with ending the scene or chapter before the action ends, this technique pulls the reader onward.

In my book The Eternity Plague, a riot takes place in one of the chapters. In order to show the chaos and confusion of the riot, I switched from POV to POV and place to place very quickly. (That’s called “jump-cutting” in television and the movies.) No one character’s actions were done before I moved on to the next one… and the next… and the next. The result was that the reader raced through the chapter, which ended with the next technique.

  • Complete the action but leave the characters in a worse position than they were before. The cliffhanger is the extreme example of this, but this technique can be used very quietly, too, particularly if the text leaves the reader only sensing that things have just gotten worse. Then they have to turn the page.
  • Complete the action, leaving the characters seemingly in a better place, but leave hints that that peace and tranquility isn’t going to last for long. Those hints will push the reader onward: they have to know what’s going to happen when the other shoe drops.

As a reviewer, these are the kinds of things you’re looking for as you finish each chapter or scene. If you find them, that’s great news, and it’s something you want to point out to the author. Specifically, you want to note what she did that kept you reading (or wanting the next batch of chapters), and why it worked. Even better, if she used different techniques at the ends of different scenes or chapters, that’s worth calling special attention to because it’s a sign of even more skill at work.

Questions for You

Let’s wrap this article up with some questions that codify the techniques I listed above.

  • If the author used the classic brink-of-disaster cliffhanger, why did it work?
    • How had she built up to it to make it so suspenseful (pun fully intended)?
  • If he ended the scene or chapter before the action wrapped up, why was leaving at that specific moment so effective?
    • Did he combine this technique with changing to a different POV, time, or place in the next scene or chapter?
    • If so, why was that effective?
  • If, at the end of a scene or chapter, the action had wrapped up but her characters’ situation was worse than before, what was it about their new situation that made you want to know what would happen next?
  • Similarly, if his characters seemed to be better off, but you knew they weren’t, what was it about the hints he planted that kept you reading?
    • What hints did he plant?
    • Was there any hint that was particularly important or well-placed?

What do you look for to identify an effective ending to a scene or chapter? The comments box is, of course, at the end of this article, but you can keep me reading my putting your suggestions and ideas about effective scene and chapter endings there.

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