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The shape of a scene: endings

Each scene in your novel has a shape. The beginning is the set up. The middle is the rise of action with alternating beats. And then there’s the end of the scene which should have a little, or sometimes big, rise in tension.

Best-selling fantasy and sci-fi author, Nancy Kress, says that tension comes from two things pulling in opposite directions. The tension at the end of a scene could be something as small as a character’s thoughts conflicting with their actions. Or something as large as good vs. evil locked in immortal combat.

Kress says a rise in tension can be effected in several ways. Two specific ways are as follows:

  • Introduce or hint at something coming in the next scene—this leaves the reader wondering what’s going to happen next.
  • Use heightened language: Kress cites The Great Gatsbyas an example here—often Fitzgerald uses more poetical or lyrical language at the end of his scenes.

I opened Kress’s novel Steal Across the Sky to random chapter/scene endings and found each time a rise in tension.

  • The last line of chapter 16: “The next moment, he went blind.” (Who wouldn’t want to turn the page after that?)
  • The last half of the last line of chapter 18: “…they left the egg fallen from the sky to descend back into the palace below.”  (Not only is the language slightly heightened and poetical but there is tension in the opposites sky/above and palace/below).

I’ve used both of these techniques in my own work. Once I write a scene, I go back in the editing process and make sure it has all the above components—beginning, middle, and end. I examine my endings to make sure there is some type of rise in tension because I do want my reader to keep reading.

For a more in-depth look at scene endings, see Kress’s nonfiction book, Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends.

Exercise: Look at some of your scene endings. Is there a slight rise in tension? If not, how can you add tension to your ending?

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