In a stage play, scene transitions are often obvious: the curtains close, or the lights go down while set pieces are rearranged. If the scene has ended in exactly the right place, we feel both satisfied and hungry for more. We can’t wait for the lights to come up on the next scene.
As a writer, how do you know when it’s time to end a scene? The answer can be tricky.
Your scene ending’s main goal: keep us reading.
Each scene closes out a miniature journey for your character. They’ve traveled from an invisible Point A to Point B. This journey may inch the story forward or foreshadow a big plot point. It may also give readers a chance to learn something important about your character, or it can give your character room to grow. Whatever the purpose of your scene, the end should provide some closure while leaving enough loose ends to keep readers interested and hungry for more.
You can accomplish this in any number of ways. Here are just a few examples:
- Ending in the middle of a big event or action compels the reader to hang on and find out how it resolves. For example, the protagonist withdraws all the money from her bank account and starts walking to the bus station: she’s running away from home. This is a great place to end a scene. Detailing each action as she purchases a bus ticket and leaves town might feel tedious. Instead, you can leave things hanging and pick up at the next significant event or action.
- If your character makes a big discovery or encounters a problem, try ending right there. Imagine a character receiving a phone call or a letter with shocking news. Assuming we know enough to understand the import of this news, readers will experience the “uh oh” moment along with the character. We’ll be eager to turn the page and dive into the next scene to find out how the character reacts.
- When you end on an emotional note, allow the scene to persist a few moments past the main action. Show something that gives away the depth of your character’s reaction. Readers will want to see how they manage the fallout in future scenes.
- A major information reveal can provide an a-ha moment for the reader that leaves us desperate to read more. We don’t learn everything, but we learn an important piece of new information that drives us to find the next piece of the puzzle.
- If you’re wrapping up a plot line, your scene can end on a slightly more final note, with a bit more resolution and less suspense than you would usually aim for.
Never manipulate the reader.
Your scene endings will provide ample opportunities for suspense and cliffhangers. Just make sure they feel natural. Readers don’t appreciate having information, or lack thereof, dangled in front of them.
Like any exposition, information revealed at the end of a scene should be logical and appropriate. Pay attention to point of view and be true to whatever your point-of-view character would know, feel, or see. Deliberate withholding of information your character would clearly have frustrates readers, pulls them out of the story, and reminds them they’re reading.
As with everything, the key is not too much and not too little.
Writing a successful closing to your scene requires balance: you need enough resolution to satisfy the reader, but not too much. Otherwise, they won’t have any reason to read more! When your scene ends on just the right note, readers will feel intrigued and excited to keep reading. They won’t feel frustrated, confused, or like you’re keeping unfair secrets from them. Your prose will flow naturally, nudging readers from one scene to the next at a perfect pace.