Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Last Word - How to end scenes so readers stay engaged

Ending a scene well is a way you keep readers turning pages or reward them (especially in the final scene). I've talked in the past about cliffhangers, questions, and reveals. These are all valid, but this post will take a deeper dive on ending scenes.

Much of this comes from what I've been learning this year working in a writers’ room for a Web series. In particular, the director is sensitive to making the endings effective even if it means cutting material. Two key criteria have come to the fore: emotion and character choice. The emotional response for the reader (in this case, the viewer) needs to be strong. Whatever comes out of the draft needs to be questioned. With regard to the character, there's power in who has the last word. This is both in terms of where the emotion belongs and in story emphasis.

Okay, that's the basics. Time to dig deeper.

Cliffhangers raise questions. Minimally, that means they should get readers curious. But Hitchcock says curiosity is not a strong emotion. Stakes create concerns. We worry about the characters we identify with. So the ideal cliffhangers either put characters we care about in serious jeopardy or threaten goals we hope they achieve (or push goals we don't want them to achieve toward success).

Cliffhangers often and best with the action or statement of the person who opposes the viewpoint character. And, naturally, actions and words – especially promises and strong statements of intent — by the hero or heroine can create anxiety and anticipation in readers. Since the protagonist often is in the dark about important implications of choices, I like to bring in a secondary character to end the same, often with a question that implies unexamined consequences.

Sometimes a reminder can have power at the end of the scene, shifting the perspective on what has gone before. Similarly, a reveal, especially one that has been set up well, can reorient readers in ways that make them wanting to find out things they didn't know that they wanted to know.

A good joke can make readers turn the page. Because we want to get to another joke that will give us a laugh. This is true even if the humor isn't intrinsic to the plot of the story question. Sometimes, it's just a reminder that we like a character (and this could be a secondary character) and we want to spend more time with him or her. Of course, this can be accomplished with an interesting action or poetic language as well. Anything that makes us reluctant to say goodbye to a character will be engaging.

While visuals are always part of the primary tools of those working on films and videos, they can be neglected in prose works. The power of ending a scene with a compelling image can work in a novel, or short story, or any other medium that has scenes. In particular, a powerful final image for work can move readers in ways nothing else can and make the whole work memorable. So, though it may not always be effective, choosing an image to close the scene should be considered often. In fact, for a longer work, it's worth looking just and how scenes end throughout the work and making sure opportunities for images have not been missed that can elevate that whole work.

I'll end with a lesson I got in the writer's room that delights me. The director seem to look each time — even when the scene ended well – for the moment of emotion that came before it. If that one could make a better ending, his bias was toward either cutting or moving the words that followed it. The only things that could prevents his making that choice were loss of information needed by the viewer (as, for instance, a set up), something that would mess up the beginning of the next scene (such as what might appear as a jump cut with the speaking or acting character), a harmful shift in tone, or problems with emphasis that took away from the main story. When the "weaker" ending had to be kept, the momentum that came from analyzing a different potential ending seemed to inspire the writers’ room to raise the quality from weaker to stronger.

I've taken what I've learned here and brought it to my other works. It turns out that the payoff, in terms of making the writing difficult to put down is more than worth the time invested in questioning endings that are basically solid, but hold the promise to be better.

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