The end of a scene doesn’t really end anything, but tells the reader that there is more to come. If a character is literally hanging by their fingertips from the edge of a cliff at the end of the scene, it tells the reader that they will find out what happened on the cliff later—did the character fall or not? (Or, as in Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls, we might find out something that isn’t actually true.)
Less dramatically, the end of a scene can introduce new information (and the reader will find out how the character deals with that later), suggest a new course of action (and the reader will see how that didn’t work out as planned later), or simply remind the reader of some item that was left in suspense from another scene (and the reader expects to see more of that soon).
Or all of the above, or some combination.
The only exception is the last scene, which instead tells the reader that the story is over, sorry. Even in a series with an overarching arc, you need to tell the reader that this section of the story is done—come back later!
Here are the five tools for ending a story that I know about:
• Happily ever after.
• Happy for now. (This is often used in series.)
• Doomed ever after.
• Doomed for now. (This is often used in series.)
• OMG IT NEVER ENDS. (This is used in stories where it is implied that the characters or society have learned nothing, and this will all happen again in some form or another; this really shouldn’t be used in series, as it indicates that the next iteration will be tiresome.)
A proper story ending wraps up all the plots and subplots in the story with one or another of these elements. The plots are often resolved in order of least importance to most importance, or external events to internal ones. The last image or line is often a reaffirmation of the main story-line’s ending (like the couple kissing in the back of the limo in Die Hard, surrounded by the ironic, snow-like fall of paperwork from the burning building).
If a story feels “comfortable,” it’s likely that the creators gave sufficient time to the beginning and ending elements of the story (The Princess Bride is a good example of this).
If you feel just plain lost in a story, it’s likely that the creators tried to jump straight into the middle, inserting beginning-type elements as laborious backstory and out-of-character explanations higgledy-piggledy throughout.
If you feel that a story was good but not entirely satisfying or you’re not sure what it was all about, it’s likely that the creators skimped on the endings: endings often sum up “what this all means” throughout the story, and check in on what is left to be accomplished.
Beginning writers want to rush to the middle. The conflict, they believe, is where a story is at. They want to start with conflict, garnish the story with conflict, and conclude with more conflict leading to a high-conflict sequel. GRAAAAHHH!
But, honestly, even something like trying to build BLTs with nothing but bacon gets to be dull after a while, no matter how much you like bacon. Ditto with the conflict. Take a look at how the long-term, best-selling pros write: they add structural elements to keep their endless streams of conflict from becoming dull, repetitive, and confusing.
The structural elements you add may seem to take an inordinate amount of words (at least, at first), but they will keep the reader anchored in your world (beginnings) and unable to put the book down (endings). Want to make a more exciting book? Ironically, you may need to spend more time with its least exciting elements.
Like everything with writing, learning how to write a good scene is a lot to take in. But if you’re having issues with not being a best-selling bajillionaire, it may be time to start!
*This is the Colorado Tesla Writers, a Facebook group of science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers at all levels. Contact me if you’re interested; you can be from anywhere, but we do have in-person meetings in the Denver metro area every month.
DeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. She has been officially constrained from drinking Ovaltine per her doctor’s orders since a tragic incident involving a monopoly game, a blender, a cemetery, and a school play at age eight. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. If she told you which movie was based on her life, she’d have to kill you. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.