How you end a scene determines whether your reader will read another chapter immediately or not. Here are 6 tips for writing scene endings that entice readers to carry on (with examples):
1. End scenes with surprise
When we find stories boring, we might say they were ‘predictable’. Unpredictability creates narrative suspense, which is particularly important at the end of a scene as it creates forward momentum leading into your story’s next events.
Try to come up with ideas for surprising elements that could end a scene and jot them down in bullet points, now. A few examples:
- A man unearths a mysterious, locked box while digging to replant their garden
- A woman arrives at her office one evening to finish work for a deadline. Yet she finds her office locked from inside and sees a dimly lit figure rifling through her things
- An elementary school pupil receives a completely unexpected birthday present from another kid and wonders what it could be
The above examples show surprising scene endings can be cryptic, menacing, or simply the small, ordinary mysteries that fill a life.
Example of a surprising scene ending: C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a much loved portal fantasy classic for younger readers. In the first scene of the novel, four siblings are exploring a countryside mansion when the youngest, Lucy, stumbles across a portal to another world in the back of an antique wardrobe.
She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it was very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe.
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), p. 12.
Lewis continues with Lucy’s surprise as she finds snow underfoot:
“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. “I wonder is that more mothballs?” she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold.’
Lewis, p. 13.
Lucy explores further and emerges into a snowy wood, where she comes across a faun carrying parcels through the snow. The scene ends with the faun exclaiming ‘Goodness gracious me!’ at the sight of Lucy.
Thus the initial surprise of the wardrobe containing a world is compounded by the strange inhabitants Lucy meets there, and the reader is curious about what will happen to Lucy in the following scene.
2. Finish a scene with a situation implying consequences
Cause and effect, action and reaction, choice and consequence – these are the duos that drive stories and keep us hooked.
Ending with a dramatic event that has your reader asking ‘How will this change things?’ or ‘What will the consequences of this be?’ is a bold way to keep your story moving.
It would be overkill, perhaps, if you ended every scene with shocking dramatics. Yet a little shock or horror is often an effective way to keep your story intriguing.
Consider this example of a scene ending by acclaimed spy thriller author John Le Carré:
Example of a consequential scene ending: John le Carré’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963)
The opening scene of Le Carré’s spy novel shows station head Alec Leamas anxiously awaiting a double agent at a checkpoint in West Berlin. Although we don’t know the full situation yet at this point as readers. All we know is that Leamas is anxiously awaiting someone.
The scene ends with the following sequence of events. Leamas sees a man approaching in the distance on a bicycle – his agent, Karl:
At that moment Karl seemed to hear some sound, sense some danger: he glanced over his shoulder, began to pedal furiously, bending low over the handlebars. There was still the lonely sentry on the bridge, and he had turned and was watching Karl.
John le Carré, The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963), p. 4.
The scene ends with a shocking turn of events. We know it will have consequences for Leamas given how anxiously he was awaiting Karl’s arrival:
The East German sentry fired, quite carefully, away from them, into his own sector. The first shot seemed to thrust Karl forward, the second to pull him back. Somehow he was still moving, still on the bicycle, passing the sentry, and the sentry was still shooting at him. Then he sagged, rolled to the ground, and they heard quite clearly the clatter of the bike as it fell. Leamas hoped to God he was dead.
Le Carré, p. 5.
3. End scenes with suspenseful action
Lucy venturing further into the wardrobe (and the woodland world beyond), Karl peddling for his life – the previous examples show how suspenseful action ending a scene creates intrigue.
The set-up for the end of a scene – for example how Le Carré positions the ‘lonely sentry’ on the bridge – helps to make any surrounding action suspenseful. Sometimes this is because the reader knows something a character doesn’t (the reader knows about the sentry, Karl the agent does not).
Sometimes, the suspense is because reader and character are both venturing into the unknown (we accompany Lucy deeper into the wardrobe, experiencing her surprise, moment to moment).
Situations that create suspenseful action include those that:
- Require bravery, where there are stakes
- Situations implying danger or menace (for example the checkpoint scene ending from The Spy above)
The following example from Harper Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) contains both the above:
Example of a suspenseful scene ending: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
In Lee’s novel, siblings Jem and Scout are terrified of their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley. Lee ends her first chapter with a scene where the children dare each other to enter the Radley house’s grounds and touch the wall:
Jem threw open the gate and sped to the side of the house, slapped it with his palm and ran back past us, not waiting to see if his foray was successful. Dill and I followed on his heels. Safely on our porch, panting and out of breath, we looked back.
The old house was the same, droopy and sick, but as we stared down the street we thought we saw an inside shutter move. Flick. A tiny, almost invisible movement, and the house was still.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), p. 21.
Lee’s scene ending creates a palpable sense of the children’s breathless fear and excitement. The simple act of touching the facade of a house is suffused with a sense of danger. Lee masterfully describes the spooky, almost imperceptible movement they see in the Radley house’s window through the dusk.
The strong sense of event makes it difficult to stop reading there.
4. Finish scenes with a hint of what’s to come
The ending of a scene is often a good point to give readers a hint or suggestion of what’s to come:
Example of foreshadowing scene endings: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
The first chapter in the first book of J.K. Rowling’s smash hit Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) ends with the infant Harry being left on his aunt and uncle’s doorstep with a letter explaining his situation.
Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours’ time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, nor that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley…
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), p. 20.
Here, at the end of the scene where Harry is left for the Dursley’s to discover, Rowling gives her reader an inkling that Harry’s life in Privet Drive won’t be entirely rosy.
Rowling hints that Harry’s cousin will continue to taunt him. She also hints at his unwelcoming reception by his aunt and uncle.
5. End scenes with the tension of arrivals or departures
An arrival – of a character, omen, good news, bad news – or a departure is a useful way to create intrigue at the end of a scene.
Many stories build intrigue and excitement via the idea of travel, migration, or quest, from Don Quixote by Cervantes (one of the earliest novels, in which a man who has read many romance stories reinvents himself as a noble knight and fights windmills that he imagines are giants) to any modern-day adventure story.
Consider this example by Nobel-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro:
Ending scenes with arrivals and departures: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant
Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a subtle meditation on memory and aging set in early Britain. In the first chapter and early scenes, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, struggle to remember the past. They get in a quarrel with other villagers because they have a candle (a precious commodity). They decide to leave to visit their son in his village, though they can’t remember where it is or the way:
Beatrice fell silent, gazing into the space before her, her shoulders swaying gently with her breathing. ‘I believe we’ll know our way well enough, Axl,’ she said eventually. ‘Even if we don’t yet know his exact village, I’ll have travelled to ones nearby often enough with the other women when trading our honey and tin. I’ll know my way blindfolded to the Great Plain, and the Saxon village beyond where we’ve often rested. Our son’s village can only be a little way further, so we’ll find it with little trouble. And, are we really to go soon?’
‘Yes, princess. We’ll start preparing today.’
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (2015), p. 28.
Ishiguro uses the scene following the fight over the candle to propel the story towards new horizons. Because his elderly couple cannot recall exactly where their son lives, it gives their departure a note of pathos as well as narrative tension. We wonder whether or not they’ll be able to find his village safely.
6. Finish a scene with the consequences of an earlier action
Under the second heading above, you read about ending scenes with situations of consequence that imply further outcomes. Other scenes might end with consequences or outcomes themselves.
Ending a scene with a sharp sense of consequence helps to punctuate your narrative with dynamic moments of revelation and further development.
Consider the following example from David Mitchell’s novel The Bone Clocks (which Stephen King called ‘the best book of 2014’):
Example of a consequence-revealing scene ending: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks
In a scene which Mitchell’s fifteen-year-old protagonist Holly refers to as ‘Holly Sykes and the Weird Shit, Part 2’, she describes a strange series of events. In ‘Part 1’ of ‘Holly Sykes and the Weird Shit’, Holly has described how a strange woman began appearing to her in her sleep at night.
In Part 2, Holly describes being bullied at school:
Then one day our school’s most gifted bully, Susan Hillage, got me as I walked home from school. Her dad was a squaddi in Belfast and, ’cause my mam’s Irish, she knelt on my head and wouldn’t let me go unless I admitted we kept our coal in the bathtub and that we loved the IRA.
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (2014), p. 18
Later, Holly describes how the apparition/woman (named Miss Constantin) appears to her again at night the day she’s bullied:
‘I’m here because my brilliant, singular child was so unhappy tonight, and I want to know why.’ So I told her about Susan Hillage. Miss Constantin said nothing until the end, when she told me that she despised bullies of all stripes, and did I want her to remedy the situation? I said, yes, please, but before I could ask anything else […]’.
Mitchell, p. 18.
Then, at the end of the scene, we discover the consequence of Holly’s acceptance of Miss Constantin’s offer:
The next morning I went to school as usual, and didn’t see Susan Hillage. Nobody else did, either. Our headmaster hurried late into school assembly and announced that Susan Hillage had been hit by a van while she cycled to school, that it was very serious and we had to pray for her recovery. Hearing all this, I felt numb and cold, and so much blood left my head that the school hall sort of folded up around me, and after, I had no memory even of hitting the floor.
Mitchell, p. 19
Here we see the consequences at the end of the scene of Holly having accepted her nightly visitor’s offer. It’s effective too because it creates mystery – neither Holly nor the reader can be certain that Miss Constantin really had a hand in Susan’s accident – the link is tangential, but it’s there. So it seems like a consequence.
When you read, and you near the end of a scene, pause and think about what the author is doing. How does the scene end, and how does the author lure you on further into the story, like Lucy into the snow-filled wardrobe?
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