Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.
In my experience, writers agonize quite a bit about how to end their stories or novels. This is good, because the end is critical in creating the lasting impression you want the reader to experience. But few writers spend much attention on the ends of scenes or chapters, or know how to create a strong end to a scene. Scenes often dribble on far after any significant event has occurred, with characters saying goodbye and so long to each other, or getting into their cars and thinking about what has just happened, or moving to the next piece of action without a break. Yet scene ends are very important. They can punctuate what has happened to add emotional impact, leave the reader hanging in a state of tension, or create a pause that engages the reader intellectually in trying to figure out what will happen next. Most important, strong scene ends can motivate the reader to keep reading. And without that, the reader will never reach the brilliant end to your piece that you’ve agonized over.
What are the qualities of a strong scene or chapter end? I find that the strongest ends have three qualities. All ends don’t need to have all three; if they all do, that will seem repetitive to the reader. Some scenes will lend themselves to ending with one or two of these qualities. When you can get all three, that means you’ve got a really strong end, and that end should perhaps serve as the end of an act or a chapter.
Consider a piece that you are currently working on and look at the final paragraph of each of your scenes or chapters. Does your scene or chapter end with one or more of these qualities?
(1) revelation, decision, or summation. Do the viewpoint character and/or the reader experience a revelation, realizing something new, so the reader’s understanding of the situation changes? Does the viewpoint character make a decision, so the situation itself changes? Does the end provide a summation of what has happened that helps the viewpoint character and/or the reader see the situation with new clarity and feel its emotional impact?
(2) momentum. Is the character physically on the move? Or do the character and/or the reader now see that the action of the scene is leading inevitably to some consequence, the next domino in the chain of cause and effect, which is about to fall?
(3) anticipation. Have you established specific possible events that may happen next that will generate worry or excitement in the reader? Are there specific questions in the reader’s mind that need immediate answers?
If not, is there a way you might add one or more of these qualities to strengthen your scene end?
If not, are you offering the reader something else of equal value or appeal?
Most writers have a desire to tie things up at the end of scenes, to bring everything to a close. Instead, what you want to do is open new doors, change the situation, or change the reader’s understanding of it. That creates excitement and suspense and makes the story feel like a living, unpredictable creation.
Take a look at the scene ends of some of the stories or novels that you love. I think you’ll recognize these three qualities. Now try a hand at executing these techniques in your own work.