Making a Scene

By Sherry Harris

in Northern Virginia

I decided to put my editor’s hat on today and talk about ending a scene.  Everyone talks about dramatic openings but there isn’t as much written about how to end a scene. A dramatic end is as important as a dramatic opening. Start in the middle and end in the middle. Ask yourself will the end of this scene make the reader want to read the next scene?

everythinguide_Don’t end with description. Sure Susie might be exhausted at the end of the day hunting a serial killer. But your reader doesn’t need to know she returns to her bedroom with its pink, puffy comforter, floral chaise lounge, and pile of Cosmopolitan magazines flowing onto the floor. The description of the room likely belongs somewhere in the manuscript just not here. We want to leave Susie as she puts her gun back in her holster or pounds her fist on the hood of her car as the serial killer eludes her once again. Hallie Ephron in her book, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel, says: Does it end strong and as early as possible, or does it just dribble off?

Do end with a question. I’m not talking about a rhetorical question with Susie thinking, How will I ever find the serial killer? Or a question that requires a question mark. “What are we going to do tomorrow to find the serial killer, Joe?” Susie asked.  Although you can end the scene with either of those, a stronger end leaves an unanswered question in the reader’s mind and will keep them reading. Say your reader knows the serial killer lures Susie to an abandon coal mine and has a booby trap waiting for her. End the scene so they are wondering what will happen to Susie if she goes out to the old coal mine. Will she see the booby trap or fall into it and be captured?

End with a strong line. John Dufrense in his book The Lie That Tells A Truth, says: The last line is as important as the first, if for different reasons. End the story on your best, or second best, line. Don’t write past it. John is talking about the end of the book but this is also applies to the end of your scene.

bloodmoonfrontcoverRead short stories. There isn’t room for a lot of extras in short stories. The end of the scene below sums up what I’ve been saying. It is an example from the short story “House Calls” by Barbara Ross from the Blood Moon anthology.

Dr. Botwin moved his chair closer. “It’s okay. We’ll get through this. I’ll be here to help you every step of the way.” He covered my left hand with his own, his wedding ring resting on top of mine. An electric shock ran up my arm.

Barb could have continued on. The woman could have pulled her arm away and run out the door. Or she could have thrown herself across the desk to kiss or slap Dr. Botwin. But Barb’s way propels us to the next scene.

27 Thoughts

  1. Great advice, Sherry! When I went to Seascape (where we met!) Hallie commented about dribbling–ending the scene but writing a few sentences beyond the true end. If I’m not careful, I could be a dribbler. Knowing when to stop takes focus.

  2. Dribbling–what a great phrase. Love this advice Sherry! And I wonder if this also means we should be a little fluid on scene breaks until we check for pacing at the end?

    Great advice about short stories. SO hard to write!

    1. Thanks, Julie. I think in a first draft it is fine to dribble as long as it’s gone before the final draft! And short stories are hard to write — probably why I haven’t written any. The last time I tried it turned into a novel.

  3. A timely post. I just went through every scene ending and checked it. Transferred a few sentences of dribbling to the start of the next scene where it worked much better. Thanks, Sherry!

  4. Great tips, Sherry! So funny to read this today as Roberta Isleib and I are gearing up for 2013 Seascape… printing out manuscripts. That ‘end as early as possible’ is based on a screenwriting maxim (more really great tips in STORY by Robert McKee) – companion rule is “start a scene as late as possible.” So transfer SOME of the dribble to the beginning of the next scene if you absolutely have to, but sometimes it turns out you didn’t really need it (except to grow your word count :-p ).

    1. Thanks, Hallie! I will have to look for STORY. I just came across my note from Seascape this week! One of these days I hope to make it back to Seascape for a refresher course.

  5. This is a terrific post. One other thing I would like to add, which happens to be going on in the book I’m now reading and which I find irritating–the falsely dramatic moment. The author has made an obvious attempt to make the end of each chapter into a mini-drama, and it ends up feeling contrived. Better to stop at a natural hint of drama, like hearing the sound of a gun being cocked instead of, “A gunshot rang out.” I think of that as a “pulp” moment, one we’ve seen too many times to be effective.

    1. Terry–B.A. Shapiro, one of my first teachers, likened doing that to creating scenes like a perfect pearl necklace, every one shaped the same. It’s as boring as no tension. You want to vary it, and generally have rising tension.

  6. Thanks for the shout-out for House Calls, Sherry. One of the things I love about writing short stories is you can focus on every single word.

  7. I learned how to create cliffhangers (real ones – not the contrived ones Terry referred to) from watching soap operas. People often put soaps down, but there are some things daytime shows do very well. The cliffhanger is one of them.

    1. Cue the dramatic music! I guess that was only in the old days of soap opera watching. But TV show are a good way. In fact I’ve been paying more attention to where shows end this week because of writing the blog. I like Covert Affairs and was critiquing which of there stopping points were really well done.

  8. Love this conversation! And see you at Seascape. And then,…a shot rang out. Oh, I thought, what was that? It might have been a backfire, but I knew from my old days at the marshals office (from 1974 to 1976) that backfires didn’t sound like that. So. Definitely. A shot.
    Oh, I thought. This cannot get worse!

    Kidding. xxooo Hank

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