SCENE IT! Hooking Your Reader with Scene Endings
In writing circles, we talk a lot about opening hooks—“hook the reader from the first line.” Just as it’s important to hook your reader in at the beginning of the scene and to keep the reader involved by creating tension and complicating your characters’ lives in the middle of scenes, it’s equally as important to make sure the reader keeps turning pages by hooking them with how you end each scene, no matter if it’s in the middle or the end of a chapter (because, after all, a chapter ending is also a scene ending).
Now We’re Coming to the End
Once you’ve created characters the readers will invest in, then you have to start writing each scene, each chapter, to a hook ending. The structure of a chapter is similar to that of the novel itself—except, unlike your book, scenes and chapters end before the resolution of the conflict.
In the comments section on the post about creating tension, I wrote the following:
When I’m writing the first draft, I almost always start each scene not knowing where it’s going. If I’m really stuck, I just think about which character hasn’t had a viewpoint scene recently and start the scene by writing that character’s name. Then I think about what he or she was doing last and what’s happened in the intervening scenes, then use that to figure out where that character is now. Then I keep writing until I figure out what the hook for the end of the scene is. Then, in revisions, I cut, I figure out if it flows,I see where it fits into the sequence/sequel of the story.
Back in 2001, when I was writing what would become my first complete manuscript, after giving the first half (what was at the time completed) to my mother and grandmother for Christmas, I started sending them each chapter as I finished it. Having something of a devilish streak, and wanting to elicit a reaction, I started ending each chapter on a “cliffhanger”—before I’d ever heard of this concept, I was writing a hook. I wanted a reaction. I wanted my readers clamoring for more, more, more—emailing me, I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU LEFT IT HANGING LIKE THAT!!!! and WHAT HAPPENS NEXT??? By doing this, I taught myself to structure my scenes this way—to build up to something that would leave the reader hanging and wanting to turn the page to find out.
Regardless of how long or short your chapters are,
always end your scenes at a place where the reader
must know what happens next.
If you don’t end at a moment of disaster, the next best place to end is in the middle of the conflict, especially if the next scene opens with the continuation of the conflict. Another way to end is at a place when the character is stuck, thinking there’s no way out or that things can’t possibly get worse (which of course, is a method of foreshadowing and immediately implanting the idea in the reader’s mind that things are definitely about to get much, much worse). Or you can end the scene when the character is on the brink of making an important decision or taking a new action that has potential to change the story outcome.
“Suspense is achieved by arousing the reader’s curiosity and keeping it aroused as long as possible” (Stein, How to Grow a Novel). A reader is hooked when she can’t put the book down—she just has to turn the page to find out what happens next. “Immerse the reader so deeply in the story that he’ll let go of the book only when the real world intrudes” (Stein).
Reality TV as well as scripted shows like LOST, Once Upon a Time, Downton Abbey, and soap operas have perfected this in the visual storytelling medium. It’s the long pause by the reality show host before announcing who’s getting kicked off the island. It’s the commercial break right before Heidi Klum announces who’s in and who’s out. It’s the cliffhanger at the end of the show—followed by the snippet of a preview for the next week—that leaves us worried about whether Snow, Charming, Emma, and Henry will all survive and be reunited.
In other words, you’re starting the scene out with a question: can the character do/attain this? To keep a reader hooked into the story, the answer at the end of the scene should be no. Or at least yes, BUT . . . or yes, IF . . .—if it’s a yes answer, it cannot be unconditional.
The end of the scene has two primary jobs:
to answer the scene question (preferably “NO!”)
and to make the reader want to read the next scene
to find out when the character will attain that goal.
A good scene will end with the characters making “backwards” progress; it eliminates options for an easy answer or solution; it makes the walls start closing in (think about the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars); and it has an impact on later events (consequences/sequel—which we’ll discuss in another post).
But one caveat: don’t contrive a disaster just to create a cliffhanger—hooks should be unexpected, but they should also be realistic and logical for your plot, the world of your story, and the development of your characters. Make the lead-up to the hook subtle enough that the reader is suspicious something’s going to go wrong, but not so that they can see it coming from a mile away.
As a reader, what kinds of scene/chapter endings do you like? What makes it hard to put a book down when you reach that scene/chapter ending?
As a writer, do you write to a hook purposely or do you have to figure out how to add hooks/tension in the revision process?