Ending a Scene
by James Thayer
Shave and a haircut, two bits. This little jingle is the key to ending a scene.
Above all things, the end of a scene should make the reader want to read the next scene. How do we do that? By asking a question at the end of a scene, rather than answering a question. By leaving things unsettled, rather than settled.
Try singing Shave and a haircut, two. . . , leaving off bits. It’s almost impossible. The brain demands that the jingle be finished. The mind wants completion, to go forward to the payoff.
Here’s another example: the most famous four notes in classical music: the opening notes of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor. Three short G notes, then one long E note. Da da da DAAAAH. Try humming only the first three notes. Can hardly be done.
New writers often want to make a scene a full package, with a beginning, middle, and end, with everything complete at the end. Sometimes it’s difficult for the writer to leave the scene without tying up loose ends. We are tidy. We like to close the circle. But a successful scene most often should end on a note of tension because the writer has left things open. The ending of a scene asks a question, a question that foreshadows a future event. Things are left dangling at the end. Shave and a haircut, two. . . .
Here’s an example of the right way to do it. Below are the last few lines of a scene:
John stirred the spaghetti sauce, and then turned the knob on the stove down a notch. He glanced out the side-door window. He put down the spoon, wiped his hands on a towel, and stepped toward the door, staring, then inhaling quickly
“You see something?” Jessica asked.
John leaned closer to the window. “Oh my Lord, the Smiths’ house is on fire.”
Lots of questions are raised: how did the fire start? Is anybody in the Smith’s house? But the main question is: what are John and Jessica going to do? Are they going to try to rescue someone? The reader can’t put down the novel here; too much is at risk. Here is the wrong way to end the same scene.
John stirred the spaghetti sauce, and then turned the knob on the stove down a notch. He glanced out the side-door window. He put down the spoon, wiped his hands on a towel, and stepped toward the door, staring, then inhaling quickly.
“You see something? Jessica asked.
John leaned closer to the window. “Oh my Lord, the Smith’s house is on fire.”
“You sure? You see some smoke?”
“Right there, coming from the top window.”
“The Smiths are in Hawaii.” Jessica crossed to the phone. “I’ll call the fire department.”
This ending is more complete. Fewer questions are raised at the end. The readers learn the Smiths are safe. John and Jessica have called the fire department. Things have been handled. And so there is less reason to read the next chapter.
Here are examples of successful scene endings from the experts. Each line is the last line of a scene, and each last line raises a question:
Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, the end of chapter seventeen:
He says he was with Henry Lamb when he was hit by the car. He took him to the hospital. He can give you a description of the driver. He wants to make a deal.
What question has been asked? What is the deal he wants to make?
Patricia Cornwell’s The Body Farm, the end of chapter two:
“Come on down to the unit,” he said, “and let’s see what this is about.”
What’s the question? What is this about?
Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, the last line of the first chapter:
A spinning coin, still balanced on its rim, may fall in either direction.
The question? Which way will it fall?
Mary Higgins Clark’s Let me Call You Sweetheart, the last line of chapter three: eyes.
“I bet they have a present for me.”
Do they have a present? What’s the present?
Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds, the last lines of chapter five:
“One day, Meggie. But not soon, I think, so don’t worry. I have a feeling I’m going to be stuck in Gilly for a long, long time,” answered the priest, his eyes bitter.
Will he be stuck in Gilly a long time? What’s he going to do to escape?
Dialogue is a particularly effective way to leave questions unanswered at the end of a scene. The trick is to yank the reader away from the conversation before it has wrapped up. If your character says something that causes another character to gasp, end the scene at that instant. You don’t need to let the other character respond and then include the lesson learned or anything else that brings the scene to a tidy ending. In real life, when someone makes a startling or shocking statement and no one says anything, the words are suspended in air and are much more powerful than when other people begin to fill in the emptiness with their own words or reactions.
Rita Mae Brown does this exceptionally well in her novel Venus Envy, about a woman, Frazier, who discovers she has cancer. She decides to tell her friends and her family her secret, that she is gay. After she does so, she finds out that the cancer diagnosis was wrong. She is healthy. Now she has to live with the problems caused when she came out. We don’t need to know the events of each chapter to know how this dialogue creates tension at the very ends of these scenes.
“I can see I’m getting nowhere with you. You won’t be content until you ruin this family. Why? So you can be queer?” Libby was ripped. “The only people who are queer are the people who don’t love anybody. That means you, Momma. You are incapable of love!” Frazier slammed down the phone so hard she scared the cat.
Another ending to another scene:
“Maybe every human being has only one question to answer—“
Carter, listening intently, interrupted; “What’s that?
“Do you want to live or do you want to die?”
As Kimberly left, Sara and Frazier sat for a moment. “Sarah, I get the feeling people would have preferred that I died. It would be better than having to face things. Or maybe saying that they want me dead is too strong. Maybe they just want me to get a pink slip, you know, so I could be excused from life.”
Notice how Brown doesn’t continue the scene to show us the other characters’ responses? She just leaves us with the startling line of dialogue. We’ve got to continue reading the next scene to discover what the response is.
Not every scene in your novel needs to end with a question, but most should. Propel your readers forward at the end of your scenes. Shave and a haircut, two . . .
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).