Beginnings and Endings: How to Make the Most Out of Your Scenes

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

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Think of a person who’s had a long day of dropping her kids off at school, going to work, driving her kids to soccer practice, coming home to make dinner, putting the kids to bed, and then finally has an hour or two to herself before she has to go to sleep.

Can your book keep this tired person turning the pages before bedtime?

The key to keeping a reader turning those pages is to have well-formed scenes.

Scenes are the small links that make up the chain of story structure. When scenes aren’t working, readers could abandon the rest of the story. A well-formed scene has a hooking beginning and a cliffhanger ending.

For every scene? Yes, every single one.

I’ve talked about conflict and character, and what I do as a developmental editor. When we're writing our first draft, we let the words pour out of us. It’s a beautiful feeling. When we're ready to revise, we need to make sure we sculpt the beginnings and endings of scenes to create interest and urgency.

Beginnings

Sometimes in books characters run errands, drive to a destination, or list their do-tos. It can seem like writers try to make sure readers know their main character is a normal human being who shares our similar everyday concerns and responsibilities.

I’m guilty of this in my own writing. (Gasp!) I tend to write out everything in my character’s routine just to lay it out and see everything—the boring and the entertaining. I check that the day of the week is right, that traveling distance is plausible within the time that’s passed, and weather conditions. All good things to check!

But I know that eventually I’ll have to cut up all that writing like pie dough and keep only the entertaining sections that forward the plot. The scraps have zero conflict, waste time, and slow the story’s pace.

The solution is usually to cut all the “leading up to” parts and get readers as close as we can to the action that’s relevant. Hook them in the first few lines.

Forget the drive from A to B and try to open the scene in location B.

Forget the grocery trip and making dinner and try to open the scene with a transition like “After she finished dinner…”

Play around with the beginning and see what works—if it transitions from the previous scene, if it’s gripping and continues the conflict and emotional journey.

Endings

When I’m reading at night as my eyes are slowly drooping shut, my stopping point in a story tends to be mid-scene. It’s not because my eyes really did shut (I tell them what to do!), but because every scene ending left me wanting more and I could only stop reading at a mental resting point mid-scene. (An example of a mental resting point is inner narration in between moments of action.)

In our first drafts, we have a natural tendency to write toward some state of comfort or resolution. We’ve carried over the conflict and then patched everything up with hugs and safety and twirling in the sun. See? Everything is okay now. Maybe everything is not okay.

Problematic endings are like problematic beginnings.

If readers get too comfortable, they get bored. A scene’s ending needs to leave them hanging, leave them worrying, leave them anxious—anxiously turning that page…

Suppose the scene is a conversation between two characters and it ends with one leaving the room. How much distance does the character have to go before the scene can end?

Maybe the scene ends with the last line of dialogue instead. And that dialogue provides some important information rather than a nice goodbye or agreement. It could work.

What if the scene was an argument and the character left, slamming the door behind her? Then she jumps in her car, furious still, and peels out of the driveway, wiping tears from her cheeks until she gets home…

Maybe we end the scene with the slammed door.

Generally, the best scene endings happen when scenes are chopped off at an inconvenient moment for the reader.

Have you used these methods to structure your scenes? What else have you tried in your beginnings and endings to keep readers turning the page?