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Today’s topic is not about how to end your story, but rather how to end a scene so that it carries the reader through the emotions just riled up and makes them turn the page eagerly to see what happens next.
A scene should unfold at a pace that suits its energy. You need to exit the scene with the same considerations, plus one more: preparing your reader for the emotions to come.
If the high tensions or high emotions will continue, you do readers a disservice with a quiet scene ending. Keep the energy high, anxious, if the rollercoaster isn’t yet over.
A cliffhanger is not always warranted though. The happy medium can be struck with a question or a logical quandary about potential choices or dangers, or a reminder of a crucial event or deadline coming soon.
As I hung the dress and critically smoothed its many ruffles, my throat tightened. Tomorrow was the school dance.
In the overall story, you want tension to trend up toward the climax.
That can look like this:
Those short drops don’t return to the same level of tension as the start of the scene, but they do drop a bit after each scenes climax. Then you should let the tension fall off slightly after the climax to signal the reader that you’re making your way to the story’s final image, the one that will linger in their minds and create that satisfaction of having read a good book.
Now notice the graph of a heart beating:
if the graph of your story’s tension could mimic a heart beating to the same pace, with the spikes high and close together for fearful or anxious moments, and smaller peaks, farther apart, for the calmer, reflective moments, you’ve got a pace that will suck in readers and hold their attention, quite literally grabbing them by the chest.
Here are some tips to ending each scene on the right note.
Things are frantic. There’s a deadline coming. The character (and reader) is going to immediately be faced with the next problem.
Use a single line. A sentence, a word (onomatopoeia). Not a paragraph. Don’t ease up on anything. Adding a single subjunctive clause, or a prepositional phrase, can slow down the pace.
Jason raced around the corner. Emmy lay on the floor, bleeding out. "Em!" He fell his knees beside her. He barely heard anything for the blood rushing in his ears. Her chest rose once, then fell. Click. "Hands up!"
If your characters (and your readers) are allowed a breather from their headlong rush – recovery period required after an injury, or a reflective moment after a setback or reversal, then set the reader up for this slower pace with a longer, slower closing. More detail, more subjunctive clauses, more prepositional phrases. One paragraph, maybe two if there’s a line of dialogue. And let that line of dialogue build the question they’ll be reflecting on.
When the pain exploded in his shoulder, the world around Jack started to go dark. He had only one thought as he slid down the wall. What was Martin really after?
A moderate pace, sometimes useful if you’re only trying to change POV, is achieved by mixing the fast and slow techniques. A “fast” sentence, followed by a “slow” sentence. A heavily detailed paragraph followed by a single onomatopoeia.
Direct sentences, without a lot of clauses, commas, or multiple ideas for the reader to wrap their head around, are best for fast-paced action scenes. This isn’t to say that you can’t have adjectives, or even clauses that clarify placement. Just paint vividly by only using the sharpest word choices.
Your reader will feel the scene moving at a slower pace when the sentences describing the characters actions and thoughts are detailed, reflective, and go off on tangents before being wrestled back as the character prepares to take action from their conclusions.
Most of these adjustments should be made during rewriting. If you’re struggling with pacing, or beta readers suggest that a scene feels “wrong” or “there’s not enough detail” or “too much detail,” and you’re looking for an objective assessment, I will happily evaluate a scene or story in a one-on-one consultation, giving you examples just like the ones above, but using your own story’s details to teach you.