Hello my fellow writers and welcome to the next exciting entry in my drafting process series. Over the course of today’s discussion, we are going to take a look at one of my favorite aspects of writing a novel: scenecrafting.
Scenecrafting lies at the heart of constructing works of fiction. It is a core writing component as well as a complex art. The various tools and techniques that go into developing and drafting a scene possess myriad layers and facets, representing a nearly infinite variety of potential approaches. Your ability to structure and embellish scenes is a skill you will be growing throughout the entirety of your writing career, developing your own process and style as time goes on.
In the next major installment of this blog, “the Anatomy of an Engaging Scene,” I will be getting granular with scenecrafting, diving into tension, atmosphere, and pacing, as well as some of the more abstract aspects of narrative construction (violating and fulfilling reader expectations, foreshadowing, continuity, etc.), inducing advice on how to choreograph intricate action sequences.
But to help you get oriented during the early stages of drafting your novel, I first want to share what I have learned regarding how to create scenes at a foundational level, providing you with an approach that will help you to reliably engage your audience and drive your plot forwards. We will begin by taking a look at the fundamental components shared by all scenes, then take a deeper dive within each piece, including examples and exercises intended to help you determine and draft the opening, action, and closing of your scenes.
Rather than attempting to be comprehensive in this post, I will instead offer an overview of scenecrafting in general, including some tools that should help you to wrap your head around the process so you can begin drafting significant portions of your text. By the time you arrive at the end of this section, you should have a plan in place for how you will go about drafting scenes in your novel as well as some techniques to help keep the ball rolling.
Three types of scenes
For today’s discussion, I am going to divide the wide world of scenes into three broad categories. In this analytical framework, the way I use the word scene is interchangeable with a chapter or subchapter.
Complete scenes: are scenes that are whole in and of themselves. In complete scenes, the action leading up to the major event is usually introduced during the opening and generally culminates at or before the closing, offering a clear resolution to the events contained within without a lingering question or cliffhanger.
Cliffhanger scenes: are scenes that do not fully resolve the major event when the chapter (or subchapter) comes to an end. Instead, the action cuts away at a critical moment at or before the big climax, leaving the reader in suspense until the paired continuation scene occurs sometime later in the novel.
Continuation scenes: are scenes that carry over from another prior scene. One with a critical piece of action or plot point left unresolved, often via some manner of cliffhanger. Continuation scenes tend to position their major event closer to the opening and often close with falling tension, as the events of the paired scene play out and affect the plot and characters.
Crafting scenes in five stages
To begin with, let’s take a look at the fundamental components shared by all scenes, no matter their length or content.
Every scene has:
- A goal/purpose: The primary reason you are including the scene in your novel.
- A dominant emotional overtone (atmosphere/mood): The feelings your audience experiences while reading the scene, often shifting as events progress.
- An opening: The initial sentences in which you introduce and contextualize the scene, establishing its direction and pace. Every scene should open with some manner of hook, drawing the reader in and immersing them within the action.
- At least one major event (and usually several minor events): A key event that serves to drive the plot (or subplot) forwards, establishes or reveals character, or moves a character along in their arc.
- A closing: Your chosen ending to the scene, cementing (via another hook) the reader’s desire to know more as well as setting the stage for the scenes that follow.
Stage 1: It all begins with a clear purpose
Each of your scenes, before you even begin to decide which characters they will include or what major events they will cover, should possess a clear purpose for being, the reason why you are including it in your novel to begin with (as well as why the reader should care). A scene should never be added as filler, or for any other reason than to establish (or transform) character or to advance the plot (main or sub).
Thus, the purpose of your scenes needs to contain a deeper significance than merely conveying superficial action or character interaction. They should be a link in the chain of causality initiated by the events in prior scenes and that significantly affect the events that follow. Put another way, each of your major scenes should form a natural procession, extending out from the scene(s) before it while paving the road for the scenes that follow, connecting and anchoring the narrative contained within to your plot as a whole.
But that doesn’t mean a given scene can’t serve other purposes as well. For, in addition to advancing your plot, a scene might help to:
- Introduce a new character or subplot.
- Build or relieve tension.
- Establish or reinforce a setting.
- Introduce or resolve conflict.
- Alter the pacing or atmosphere of the narrative as a whole.
Exercise: Identifying the purpose of your scenes
When contemplating drafting a new scene, you might only know what the major event is and still need to decide how it advances the overall plot. Or you might know what needs to happen in general to move the plot along, but still be vague on the details of how the scene will do so. Coming from another angle, you will need to know what is going to happen (the major event), as well as why it is vital to your plot, before you can build an outline of your scene and fashion a complete first draft.
Now, it’s perfectly fine (and totally normal) if one of these pieces remains a bit vague during the initial stages of constructing a scene. However, the more focus you can obtain regarding the what and why of your scenes early on, the easier it will be to progress through the five stages of scenecrafting.
Thus, it is often helpful to start with a brainstorming session. Begin by writing down everything you have come up with so far regarding the what and why of the scene (as well as the who and where). When you have finished, try asking yourself some of the questions below intended to help fill in the gaps and flesh out the significance of the scene within your mind. A well-purposed scene will feel both vital and exciting as it begins to take on its full form and meaning, inspiring your curiosity to add more detail and discover exactly what will happen next (a feeling your reader will pick up on as well, encouraging them to immerse themselves fully within your narrative).
When pondering the creation or development of a scene, try asking yourself:
- What is happening with my plot and characters?
- What was the state of affairs at the end of the last scene, and where do things stand now?
- What are the present wants and needs of my central characters? Where are they in their arcs?
- What are the most pressing obstacles preventing them from achieving their goals?
- What is the emotion or understanding I want my reader to walk away with from this scene?
- What is the major conflict in this scene and do I plan on resolving it now or later on?
- What is the best context (location and surrounding events) to convey my action?
- Will I use one of my preexisting settings? Or will I need to develop a new one?
- Will I be raising or lowering the level of tension in the narrative with this scene?
- How can I make these events easy to follow for my audience?
- Who will be the PoV character for this scene?
As you continue to ponder these questions, you will begin to decide who (character), where (setting), and what (plot) is going on in your scene and then start drafting complete sentences and paragraphs. You can also go back to these questions a time or two after laying down some track, in order to decide what else to add or how to bridge the gaps between events. You will likely begin to supplement and revise this list of questions as you gain additional experience in scenecrafting, customizing this tool to get the most out of it for your unique writing process.
Once you have some concrete ideas regarding the what and why of your scene (or if you have simply run out of gas on brainstorming for now), it’s time to move forwards and decide on the dominant emotional overtone for your scene (also known as the atmosphere or mood), the feeling you will be paring with the meaning of your events.
Every scene in your novel should be designed to make your reader feel something (or more often a seamless progression of several mindsets and/or emotions). For these kinds of visceral experiences are a key part of why people enjoy reading fictional stories to begin with. The atmosphere evoked by your words should be intimately tied to the purpose of the scene and will vary considerably between scenes of rising and falling tension.
An atmosphere is established by the descriptive language you choose. The nouns and verbs that draw clear lines around your settings, characters, and events, as well as by the modifiers you use to regulate them. The pattern (pacing) of your words, sentences, and paragraphs will go a long way in creating the atmosphere of your choosing as well.
Additionally, the dialogue and dynamics between the characters in your scenes create and reinforce the atmosphere through the words they speak and the manner in which they react to one another. This means that the present emotional state of your characters (especially the PoV character) should be consistent with the tone you are trying to set, as this is a powerful way to let the reader know how to feel without having to tell them outright. This emotional overtone is further reinforced by which details a character notices and reacts to in their environment.
Common tones include:
- Action and adventure
- Suspense and mystery
- Slice of life
- Horror and fear
- Joy and beauty
- Solemn and spiritual
A few core principals of mood:
- You should be able to define the mood of a scene in a single sentence.
- The dominant atmosphere of a scene should support the meaning of the major event it contains. This can be done either by reinforcing the present feelings of the main characters (heavy rain on a sad day), or by deliberately creating contrast (a happy group is blithely walking into danger).
- It is common (and probably a good idea) for the tone of a scene to shift after the beginning or near the end. This allows for the dominant overtone to feel more significant, as feelings evoked by words are often more powerful when we can observe a change taking place (especially when this shift is mirrored by the emotional state of the PoV character).
- In general, the atmosphere of your scenes should vary, along with many other aspects of your prose. This helps to keeps things fresh for the reader, preventing the onset of boredom caused by predictability.
Some helpful tools to help establish mood include:
Setting (core and transient properties)
This is the first major choice to ponder when crafting the mood of a scene. Begin by asking yourself which of your settings will best reinforce the atmosphere you are attempting to create. Will one of your existing settings work well, or does your gut tell you that only a new environment will do? In addition to the core dynamics of the setting (the unchanging physical characteristics of that place), what transient properties of setting will best convey your chosen mood? These can include the time of day and weather events, as well the presence of other people, animals, or objects. The atmosphere conjured by your setting is further reinforced by the conflict or challenges the environment creates for your characters (or frees them from).
Choice of words (style and emphasis)
Perhaps the most powerful tools you possess to establish and enhance mood are the specific words you choose to set the stage and frame the action. The descriptive nouns you select, along with adjectives and other modifiers, should come together to form a consistent image for your reader. This effect is further enhanced by what objects and actions you decide to elevate and which you ignore. For example, a character watching the sunrise over a garbage dumb will generate a rather different mood depending on whether you choose to highlight the beauty despite the mess, or focus on the rotting filth instead.
Pacing and patterns
Along with their content, the structure and rhythm of your paragraphs and sentences will also influence the mood of your scenes. A series of short sentences can help to raise tension as the action intensifies, while longer blocks of text can help to calm things down. Beyond their overall pattern, how the rhythm of words changes across a scene can help to convey atmosphere and meaning as well. For example, speeding things up as characters near a major event, or slowing them down to allow time to reorient and reflect. The imagery you evoke via prose, often through the use of metaphor and simile, will also help to lock in and enrich the mood you have chosen.
Dialogue and internal monologue
Another way to establish mood is through the dialogue and inner monologue of your characters. This is because the words a character speaks or thinks are windows into their present emotional state, and vicariously absorbing the emotions of your characters is one of the most effective ways to generate similar feelings within your reader.
Exercise: Pondering the tone of your scene
This is another simple brainstorming exercise intended to help you clarify the mood of your scenes. Start by briefly reviewing any outlines or early text you have so far, then ask yourself:
- What do I want the reader to feel at the start of the scene, during the major event, and at the conclusion?
- Which elements have I included to bolster or diminish the current level of tension in my narrative?
- How does my setting reinforce the mood I have chosen? What is the best time of day and weather to enhance this choice?
- Which characters best convey the emotional overtone I am attempting to instill? Who else might I include to contrast or amplify this feeling?
- Does my descriptive language help to capture and sustain my chosen atmosphere?
- Does my dialogue and inner monologue help show the reader how to feel?
When you have finished, see if you can write down the mood you wish to convey in a single sentence, then leave it out somewhere where you can glance at it during the drafting process. This can help you to naturally select words and events that will reinforce your chosen atmosphere without having to expend any additional effort.
3) The curtain rises: Deciding how to open your scene
As I mentioned in the introduction to this section, some scenes are the continuation of an existing conflict, while others herald the beginning of a new challenge or struggle. Which type of scene you are working with (continuation, complete, or cliffhanger) goes a long way all by itself in determining the nature of the events contained within the opening of your scene.
Continuation scenes tend to place their major event right at the opening, as the paired cliffhanger is resolved and sets further events into motion. While in complete and cliffhanger scenes, the opening usually focuses more on contextualizing and setting up events to come, often taking the form of a minor event that eventually transitions into a major event sometime before the end of the scene.
Additionally, some scenes involve rising action, raising the level of tension as a major event or conflict approaches. While other scenes are set to falling action, in which conflict usually takes a backseat to character development and interaction.
Regardless of the above considerations, every opening should contain some manner of hook, an interesting piece of story that is designed to grab the reader’s attention and pull them into the flow of your narrative.
Things a solid opening can achieve:
- Establish the atmosphere, direction, and momentum of a scene.
- Hook the reader, galvanizing their desire to follow the chapter or subchapter to completion.
- Contextualize current events.
- Foreshadow a dramatic change in plot, tension, or pace.
In some ways, every opening is unique, for there are effectively an infinite number of ways you might begin a given scene. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to break down the various types of openings into three broad categories: action openings, narrative openings, and character openings.
One powerful way to open a scene is to thrust the reader into the middle of the action right from the start. Rather than attempting to explain and contextualize things via narration, summary, or exposition, you begin with events already in motion, generating a powerful momentum that will cement your reader’s interest all the way to the conclusion of the scene. This is fairly simple to achieve when the scene is the continuation of a conflict carried over from a prior section. But even when introducing a new conflict, action openings can be an effective way to instantly hook your audience by immersing them within exciting physical sensations.
To create effective action openings, the reader needs to have at least some sense of what is happening and why they should care. This means it should be clear right from the start who is involved in the scene and what emotions the characters are experiencing. But this doesn’t mean that you need to pause and explain things to your reader, as this will get in the way of the energy you have built by starting with action. Rather, weave short bits of critical detail into what the characters notice and react to, as well as into the physical motions of the scene itself.
For example, if your characters are detectives investigating a murder, you could begin a scene as they dive for cover as mysterious figures open fire from a nearby alleyway. As they fight for their lives, you would continue laying out the details and context of the ambush in small pieces as your protagonists desperately throw themselves behind nearby cars and buildings, the sound of gunfire and flying debris framing small bits of exposition.
In general, you shouldn’t open with intense action unless the results will lead to important consequences later on in the scene or chapter, and when you do begin with action, go heavy on the sensory details. Attempt to rein yourself in and prevent yourself from over-utilizing action openings, as you will hit diminishing returns with their engagement power, especially if you are too heavy-handed. Scenes with action openings will frequently close with less intense pieces of reaction, as the characters begin to absorb and respond to the events and their immediate aftermath. Finally, unless a scene is particularly short and its conflict will continue on into a later scene, don’t try and keep the action going nonstop from start to finish.
Remember, the key to crafting a successful action opening is to make the events contained within as engaging and easy to follow as possible, without excessive explaining.
One variation of action openings are those that still center on some manner of conflict, but contain less physicalized action. Conflict openings follow the same principles of action openings in that you should launch into the events without much explanation or preamble. In a conflict opening, the events center on two or more characters with competing goals, or between a character and themselves (often taking the form of a dilemma). There should still be a good deal of sensory detail in a conflict opening, but these will focus more on posture, gesture, tone of voice, and facial expression, as well as the physical and psychological reactions that come from experiencing powerful emotions (sweating palms, a rush of adrenaline, flushed with embarrassment, etc.)
Mystery and suspense openings
Another kind of action opening focuses on suspense rather than physical or interpersonal conflict. These type of openings present some manner of unknown that the reader will want to know the answer to. This can take the form of a mystery introduced by a minor event (one character is desperately attempting to find another, but we don’t know why), or of an approaching conflict that is steadily drawing near. The action in this case involves the characters coming closer and closer to danger, or some other significant risk or revelation. This type of tension can be further tightened when the reader and characters possess different understandings of what is happening (the characters are walking into a trap that the audience knows about but they are blind to) and usually works best when the situation has already been explained to the reader in earlier scenes. So, as with other action openings, a solid suspense scene generally opens with events already in motion, rather than leading with exposition or summary.
Sometimes action is the best way to open a scene, drawing the reader into the midst of events immediately and without preamble. However, other times it can be useful to begin a complex scene by providing some context first, allowing the reader to fully understand the implications of the events that will follow. Narrative openings are often employed when introducing a character or setting for the first time as well as near the beginning of a book, when the world and its relevant history are still largely unknown to the reader.
Sticking with our murder mystery from the example above, perhaps one of the early chapters opens with a few paragraphs about the city and year the story takes place, before moving on to the location where the first victim is discovered. In this case, such an opening could provide the audience with a block of critical background that informs them of the local culture in a way that sets the stage for everything that follows.
In general, you will want to keep any form of narrative opening short and sweet, transitioning into the first minor or major event well before the tension in your story goes slack and the audience loses interest.
There are times when an environment itself is critical to the plot. Perhaps the city is burning, or a character is sailing into the heart of an uncharted frontier. In such cases, describing the setting before launching into action or character interaction can be critical in establishing context and mood. In such cases, it can be effective to open a scene with a bit of description, framing key details of the setting before putting things into motion.
When crafting a descriptive opening, focus only on the sensory details that are important to the character and that demonstrate the significance or novelty of the setting, rather than overwhelming the reader with a thick slab of description. With this type of opening, the setting will be establishing the atmosphere and momentum rather than immediate action, so try to choose descriptive language that is conducive to the emotional overtone you are attempting to create. As I have discussed before, with descriptive language, less is usually more. This means that a handful of well-chosen details will serve your needs better than long lists of tepid nouns and verbs.
Include metaphor, simile, and other constructions of prose to further reinforce the meaning and feeling of your setting, showing the reader why your characters find it so engaging and unique. It is often best to use what I call the funnel approach when describing a new setting, starting with the general (large strokes) and then dialing down into more specific sensory details, the same process you would undergo if you were experiencing a new place for the first time. Show the impact that the environment is having on your characters directly, revealing the thoughts and emotions they are experiencing in response to entering this place.
As with any other well-crafted opening, setting openings should contain a hook that draws the reader into the scene and leaves them wanting to know more.
Another type of narrative opening consists of a well-pruned block of exposition, either provided directly by the narrator or simply told if the style is third person limited (or unlimited) omniscient. While there is a danger of boring your audience by burying them under a mountain of raw information, exposition can be a powerful way to provide them with a great deal of context in a few short paragraphs. This kind of opening is most useful when the history of a place or character is vital to grasping the meaning of the action to follow. But beware of overdosing your reader with a deluge of actionless information. With large blocks of exposition, it is useful to space things out with small bits of action, dialogue, or inner monologue to help keep things fresh and the reader’s attention from wondering. Try to limit the information you provide to details that are relevant to the rest of your scene, and save other bits of exposition for later on (when it becomes directly pertinent).
Another time when this type of opening is helpful is when no characters are on scene, or the ones that are around do not possess the necessary knowledge or memories. If you do use exposition openings in your novel, be sparing with them, saving them for scenes where the context and meaning cannot be concisely delivered via other techniques.
The final category of opening I want to share with you involves what I call character openings. Here, rather than starting off with action or background, you launch right into some manner of character interaction. This can take the form of a conversation or inner monologue, or via a more physical engagement (overlapping a bit with conflict openings). In these cases, begin the scene with the key interaction and its significance and then intersperse other bits of context and action as you go.
Character openings are best saved for when the resolution of the interaction is a vital point in the plotline, or when they create or resolve a conflict that is central to a character’s arc. They tend to be the most powerful/impactful when the reader already possesses a clear idea of who is speaking, as well as why the outcome of this interaction is important to the characters and plot. Put another way, simply launching into a conversation without the proper context is unlikely to hook your audience and carry the momentum of the scene forwards in an effective manner (although a carefully constructed conversation can certainly provide its own context).
Character openings should center on clear goals and longings as well as the barriers preventing the characters from obtaining their desires. When using them, you should have a good idea:
- What the characters most want and need at this moment.
- How they plan to achieve these goals.
- What opposing force is standing in their way.
- Who will help them to attain their goal and who is actively (or passively) working against them.
Keep in mind that character goals should always be tied to the core plot or a subplot, driving the story forwards or moving the characters along in their arcs.
Continuing on from our murder mystery example, a solid character opening might begin with the protagonist detective sitting alone with the primary suspect, waiting for backup to arrive. This is the first face to face showdown between these powerful opposing forces, and it would be a perfect time to begin with a conversation. Everything so far in the story has been leading up to this moment, when the antagonist and protagonist come face to face. Every exchange, every word and reaction between them, is dripping with tension and meaning as they probe one another for weakness.
Exercise: Picking the best opening for your scene
In this exercise, you are going to do a bit of experimentation, deciding through trial and error which style of opening to use for your scene, as well as obtaining bit of practice in drafting each type. The idea here is fairly simple. First, go ahead and review everything you have written or brainstormed so far, then try writing a few paragraphs using each of the three types of openings we have discussed above (action, narrative, and character).
Most of the time, as soon as you draft a few sentences, something should tell you that one of these types is the best fit for the scene you are working on. But even if this happens, try to draft some openings in the other styles as well. Sometimes this kind of experimentation can lead you to new and exciting places you might not have otherwise visited, and it will also help you to develop a feel for which type of opening works best at various places in your narrative.
4) Deciding on a major event and the minor events that will embellish it
In many ways, the most critical component of any scene is the major event it contains. A well-chosen major event lays a foundation that grants the rest of your scene its form and function and provides a stable framework to build upon. Sometimes when drafting a scene, this event will already be clear in your mind, providing you with a concrete center to construct the rest of your action around. But other times, you might only know that you need to place a scene between two major plot points, and the nature of the events contained within might not be so obvious. In this context, the term “event” can refer to any type of interaction between characters and/or their environments that significantly changes one aspect of the scene (tone, meaning, tension, character goals, etc.) or your plot as a whole.
A single scene is in many ways a complete story in and of itself, often focused on a major event that drives the plot forwards. In general, I find it best to limit a given scene to a single major event, as this helps to ensure a tight focus that makes it easy for your reader to follow along. If you want to include a second major event involving the same time, location, and characters, consider starting a new chapter or subchapter (this also gives you the option of changing up the PoV character). When considering the nature and specific details of your major event, begin by reminding yourself of the purpose of the scene, the reason why it is vital to some aspect of your plot (core plot, subplot, or character arc) as well as why the reader should care about what is happening.
For additional advice on determining the exact nature of your major events and their corresponding conflicts, take another look at my previous entry on planning out your plot.
Major vs. minor events
While a given scene should generally only include a single major event, it is common to layer in one or more minor events to further establish atmosphere or momentum or to provide critical information to the reader. The division between major and minor events is one I have created in order to help structure my chapters, subchapters, and scenes. In essence, the difference between the two is that minor events might only affect a given scene or chapter, while major events impact the overall progression of the narrative. The major event of a scene should represent the most important occurrence that happens within it, the one that has the highest stakes or whose outcome will significantly affect the story ahead.
Each chapter should be structured around one or more (if you are using subchapters) major events, while minor events are generally used for transitions, pacing, and altering the present mood or level of tension.
Types/purposes of minor events:
- To provide contrast (a foil) for the major event to come (the quiet before the storm).
- To help set up big events ahead of time (key details, foreshadowing).
- To help transition from one location/mood/time to another.
- To form an intersection between various subplots and the novel’s core plot.
Scenes of rising vs. falling tension
Perhaps the most important consideration when deciding on the major event of your scene is whether it is a scene of rising or falling tension/action. Scenes of rising tension tend to possess major events that are structured like mini-climaxes, while scenes of falling tension tend to focus more on the inner worlds and relationships of your central characters.
Exercise: Selecting the best major event for your scene
Now, there is no way for me to provide you with a specific formula for how to construct the major events of your novel. They simply vary too much from story to story and depend heavily on your own unique writing style. That being said, here is a simple exercise you can use to help whet your creative pallet, as well as to flesh out existing ideas with a bit more detail.
How to decide on the focus of your major events:
Begin by reviewing the purpose and atmosphere of your scene, as well as the opening and any other minor events leading up to the major event you have sketched out so far. Then write down or review any ideas you have come up with regarding the major event before filling in the categories below as completely as you can.
- Who is present (or nearby) for this scene?
- Which characters are most important to the conflict/resolution at hand?
- Who has something important to gain or lose, or is experiencing powerful emotions tied to the outcome?
- Who else is nearby but not central to the main event?
- Who might be included to help compliment or contrast the meaning and mood of the event?
- Do the central characters in the scene focuses on possess clear intentions?
- What is happening?
- What is the main source of conflict and what are the stakes of its resolution?
- What are the key physical actions of the event?
- What are its corresponding psychological reactions and emotions?
- Is this the most powerful way to drive the plot forwards?
- Is this the most engaging manner in which to resolve the event?
- Was the resolution earned by the characters?
- Will it satisfy the reader?
- Why does this event matter in the immediate (and grand) scheme of things?
- Does it help to significantly advance the plot or reveal a vital bit of character?
- Was the meaning of the event set up adequately before hand?
- Is this the best place in the overall plot/narrative for this particular event?
- Does the setting for the major event reinforce the mood of the scene?
- Is this the best setting for the event out of the ones you have already crafted?
- Do the time of day, weather, and other transient properties of the setting help to amplify the meaning of the event?
5) Picking the best closing for your scene
Your closings should compliment and complete your opening and main event, granting the chapter or subchapter the feeling of being a (more or less) complete short story. In a broad sense, you have the same options as far as content as you do with your openings, in that your closings can consist of action, narration, or character interaction. The biggest difference between openings and closings is that closings are designed to leave your reader with something to ponder. A bit of something to chew on until they have time to sit down and read some more of your novel. A good closing should feel like a place where you can slide in a bookmark and walk away for a bit, having swallowed a complete bite of story while reading the paired scene.
Just like your openings, your closes should contain a hook that will encourage the reader to come back soon (or just keep right on turning those pages). Or put another way, the end of every scene should leave your audience wanting to know more. Keeping with our original taxonomy, in continuation and complete scenes, the ending should be the culmination of the events they follow, while in cliffhanger scenes, the action, revelation, or culmination will break away at a critical moment without offering the reader a full resolution.
This is a bit more nuanced than ending every scene with a riveting cliffhanger, as they are a powerful tool, but also one that is easy to overuse. In fact, even though I call incomplete scenes cliffhanger scenes in this blog, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that an effective cliffhanger always needs to cut away in the middle of some manner of critical action. In fact, if you overuse this type of cliffhanger, they will begin to lose their power as your closings become more predictable. Instead, think of a good cliffhanger as containing a note that will leave the reader unsatisfied. They were invested in the outcome of these events, but some aspect has not been fully resolved to their satisfaction, although there seems to be a promise that these details will come in a later section. In this sense, a complete or continuation scene ends with the tension of the present conflict fully resolved, while a cliffhanger leaves some element of tension still simmering away, encouraging your reader to continue on to the next section, or to come back to the book as soon as time permits.
These types of “cliffhangers” can involve the central characters in the midst of grappling with powerful emotions, or of an interpersonal conflict that has yet to be fully resolved. They can include a new (and often even more serious) obstacle placed in the path of your character’s goals, or of obtaining a want that does not truly satisfy the deeper, underlying need.
As I mentioned above, along with your openings, your closings should contain some manner of hook. A little something that will tug at the edges of your reader’s awareness, granting them an exciting question or surprise to mull over as they go about their daily lives while gently pulling them back to the story you have created.
Some common closing hooks include:
- A significant setback.
- A major revelation, either fully or partially explained.
- A cliffhanger that cuts away before the action is resolved.
- A new mystery is unveiled, one that the reader will want to know the answer to.
- A plot twist, taking the story in a new and unexpected direction.
- The fake out: providing your reader with a red herring or false impression that will set up a plot twist to follow.
As with so many other aspects of your story, variety is vital to keeping your reader engaged and on their toes. Your closings should be satisfying and make sense in the context of their paired scene, but also take the reader in unexpected and fulfilling directions.
Exercise: Trying out a few possible closings
This is similar to the exercise on scene openings above, so take a second look at it before jumping into this one. To get started, simply ponder the possibilities (or go through my list of brainstorming questions) on how to end your scene until you have two or three approaches that might work. Then try writing up a closing in each style and see which one your gut tells you is the best fit for your story and scene.
As time goes by, you will develop a natural sense for what works best for you in what context, meaning that you will increasingly know how you want to open and close a given scene without the need for as much experimentation.
Well, that’s all the material I have for today’s blog on scenecrafting 101. I hope that you find this entry useful as you start to develop your own unique scenecrafting process. Please come back and join me for a deeper dive on the various aspects of scenecrafting in the next major installation of this blog coming soon.
Now it’s time to move onto the culminating exercise for this section on the drafting process: Drafting the first scene of your novel.