Today we’re looking at the craft of writing convincing endings for each chapter of our novels and stories.
This podcast was written in response to a listener question in the Writing Talk Podcast Facebook group. If you have questions or issues that you’d like me to discuss, commenting in the group is a good way to do it, but you can also post comments on this site.
There are two main aspects to this question:
How does the ending of each chapter fit into the structure of the novel?
Are we effectively signposting the end of the chapter in order to influence the reader’s journey through the text?
To avoid confusion, we’ll talk about scenes rather than chapters.
Each scene has a shape, a form. Often, this will be the classical beginning, middle, end, but it’s more useful to think in terms of hook, progressive complication, payoff. These are the terms used by Shawn Coyne in his book, The Story Grid. I like these terms because they encourage us to focus on function rather than form. Scenes that don’t fulfil some sort of function may feel empty and dull, and to the reader, they will feel like pointless padding. So thinking in these terms for each scene, how does our ending flow from what has gone before? In addition, how does the ending point to what will come next?
Notice that I’m not talking about resolution because I don’t find it a particularly useful concept. Resolution suggests that things should be tied up, and that’s quite a limiting idea. A good ending will often keep us guessing, and that can be very effective.
We don’t want to shoehorn contrived plot points into an ending, but bear in mind that endings provide great opportunities to write turning points. for example, a character ends a scene by changing her mind or confronting a fear or resolving to take certain steps. In a mystery, perhaps a clue is revealed. In a romance, a desired partner is seen embracing someone. In a thriller, the detective hurls aside the whiskey bottle instead of taking a drink and heads for the street. At this point, we resist the urge to deliver the rest of the plot, and we bring the scene to a swift end. This isn’t a classic cliffhanger, but we have encouraged a sense of anticipation. We’ve built up some energy, and now we need to keep the pressure contained because if we go on, all that pressure will dissipate.
And this is where the signalling comes in.
We don’t want to leave people in the lurch. We don’t want to jar them out of their experience. So how do we let them down swiftly but gently?
Shakespeare used to write the last lines of a scene as a rhyming couplet to signal the ending to the audience. Novelists may find the repetition of similar phrases to be an easily recognizable signal, e.g. He didn’t like it. he didn’t like it at all. Alternatively, a character emphasising a point may provide a good cue that the end is approaching, e.g. She wasn’t going to stand any more of his bullshit. Not for one second.
These are rather cliched examples, but hopefully, you can hear that they sound like final statements. Giving your characters a bold statement at the end of a scene also reinforces the sense of a turning point being reached. Similarly, a searching question could be useful, e.g. Why should she do that me? Why?
In the film, The Fugitive, Harrison Ford’s character, Dr. Richard Kimble, has a great line that ends his exchange with Tommy Lee Cooper:
TLC: Yeah… that’s right Richard… I don’t care. I’m not trying to solve a puzzle here…
HF: Well, I am trying to solve a puzzle. And I just found a big piece!
You can almost see the curtain coming down. Crowd goes wild. This is a great way to end their interaction. It signals his determination, his belief that he is right, his reason for carrying on. He’s on the right track, and he’s so fired up that he throws the marshal’s words back in his face.
So characters can end a scene with a bold statement, but that doesn’t mean it has to be aggressive or overtly negative. It may be a positive choice or a life-affirming proclamation, e.g. She grabbed her phone and scrolled through her contacts, stopping at XY’s name. She’d give him one more chance. He was worth it.
If constructing a scene is like baking a cake, we’ve assembled the ingredients of character, setting, and plot. We’ve hooked our audience with the aroma of melting chocolate as we begin. Then, as the elements combine through the story, we pop it in the oven to bake. We watch it carefully as it gets hotter, letting it rise. And then, as soon as its done, we take it out. If we leave it too long, it will burn, if we take it out too early it will fall flat. We have to learn to recognise when an ending is just right.
We can learn this through our reading, through watching and listening to great drama, and we can tinker with an ending to our heart’s content. I sometimes feel an ending coming on, and then I’m surprised when I find myself going beyond it. This is generally because I can’t halt the scene without it feeling too contrived. We can’t force characters to say stupid things just so that we can end on a good line. We have to lead up to it so that when it comes, it feels logical and natural.
We don’t want our audience to cringe.
If you want to know how not to do it, watch one of the daily soap operas. How many times have we seen people announce something like, “But, I’m having your baby!” or “I came to tell you something. I’m your son.” or “It’s no use. I’m leaving you.”
These feel clumsy, as if the writer has just stepped heavily on our carefully constructed cake. Why? Because these revelations are the writers’ way of jamming the hook for tomorrow’s episode onto the end of today’s scene. These are inciting incidents and they belong at the beginning of a scene, not the end.
Better to end a scene earlier, e.g. the character receives a phone call. An old flame wants to meet up, but he hasn’t heard from her in years. Why now? And as he puts the phone down and goes back to his daily routine, a nagging doubt creeps into his mind. There’s been something in her voice. Some hint of nervousness. Whatever she has to tell him, it isn’t going to be anything good.
At this point, the reader is thinking, Ooh, what is it? And that’s what we want, because there’s only one way to find out, and that’s for them to turn the page.
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