Critique Technique, Part 59 — Ending a Scene or Chapter Well


saying on shirt

photo credit: Harpersbizarre via photopin cc

By Ross B. Lampert

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 at the very end of the book. More on that next time.) And because of that, he wants to leave the reader wanting to read more. 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. But gentle or gigantic, it needs to be undeniable: the reader can’t say no to it.

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, of course, comes from the book and movie serial 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.
  • Leave the scene or chapter before the action is complete. This can be dramatic or not, but the incompleteness will drive the reader onward.
  • Switch point of view, time, or location. Especially when combined with ending the scene before the action ends, this technique pulls the reader onward.

In my book The Eternity Plague, there’s a chapter in which a riot takes place. In order to show the chaos and confusion of the riot, I switched from POV to POV and place to place very quickly—it’s called “jump-cutting” in television and the movies—once the riot was underway. 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 this 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 to figure out that things have just gotten worse. When the reader realizes that, they just have to turn the page.
  • Complete the action, leaving the characters seemingly in a better place, but having left 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 that 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 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 that’s a sign of even more skill at work.

As always, I’m interested in what you look for to identify a scene or chapter that ends well. Please leave your suggestions and ideas in the comments below.

And here’s my cliffhanger ending: this post is the next to last one in this series. What do you think the last one will be about?


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