A lot of writers unfortunately aren’t really aware of the impact that scene endings can make, and if they are, it’s often in an implicit, intuitive sort of way. A few years ago, I devised this example as a way of teaching scene breaks to students, and some of my writing friends found it helpful. It occurred to me that I’ve never actually blogged about this, so… Blogging. Scene breaks, particularly endings, and the importance thereof. Ready? 🙂
[Just noting that this explanation draws on Holly Lisle’s definition of a scene, which is a unit of writing with a protagonist who needs something, an antagonist who needs something, some form of conflict between the two, a setting and a twist (or in simple terms, a point).]
Say we have an MC whose father was shot in a restaurant many years ago. At this point in our story, MC has had an anonymous tip-off, and is going to meet someone for dinner who has information about her father’s death. Here’s the story:
Girl is walking along outside, with much internal conflict. She’s worried about what might happen, glad that she might finally get a chance to get to the bottom of things, and she’s in a hurry because a) she’s late and b) we’re lumping some external conflict on her too and saying that it’s snowing. She gets to the restaurant and hesitates at the door. It’s the same place her father was shot, and the lump forms in her throat. Can she go in? But she has to, if she wants answers (big internal conflict: fear vs desire for answers), so she swallows down the lump and heads inside. She sees the head waiter person who informs her that her dinner companion is already here, and shows her to her table. She sits, feeling uneasy, and they talk and order food. It’s not until halfway through the main course that her companion moves or smiles or does something that triggers off her memory, and she realises: he’s the one who shot her father.
I could keep going, but that’s enough story to make the point. So, that’s the plot. Now how do we carve this into scenes? Because really, we could keep going and show her sneaking to the bathroom, trying to make an emergency phone call but her battery goes flat, trying to think of ways to escape but not being able to, having to go back and confront the man, etc etc. All that could easily be one scene. But let’s just deal with what we have here for now.
The first and most obvious option is to have it all as one scene. What does that do to the POINT of the scene? We write a Sentence to find out:
protag + need = girl and her need for answers about her father’s death
antag + need = throughout the majority of the scene, her fear and need for safety and knowledge that she might be doing something Really Stupid
so conflict = need for answers vs need for safety
setting = snowy street, scary restaurant –> relatively modern day contemporary world.
twist = discovering that the man with the answers is the man who killed her father.
SO, the entire point of the scene as it stands then is the major revelation that she IS doing something Really Stupid, because she’s just gotten herself cornered with the guy who murdered her father.
That’s option one. Option two, we could break this into two scenes:
p + n = girl & need for answers, need to get there on time
a + n = fear, also situation – weather and lateness preventing her getting there
c = answers vs fear, need to get there vs lateness
s = snowy street
t = she forces herself into the restaurant.
This is a major developmental change for her; she’s conquering her fear and making a positive step forward towards healing the wounds caused by her father’s death.
Scene 2 would be relatively similar to the single scene option above, with the twist being the discovery of the man’s identity and the emphasis on the stupidity of her actions and the danger she’s now in.
The end point is the same: either way, we end up with a scene emphasising her danger and the risky decision she’s made. HOWEVER, if you do it all as a single scene, the significance of her entering the restaurant is lost, whereas if you do it as two scenes, there’s also a happy/positive moment before the negative as she see that, although she ends up in danger, she’s still making positive steps to heal herself. Now, depending on your story, it might not actually be appropriate to emphasise that personal change – goodness knows we can’t emphasise all changes in a story. Say the story was an action thriller where the emphasis was on her tracking down the killer, getting into danger, and getting out again etc, we might not care so much about the personal change. And it might not even be THAT much of a big deal – just a tiny moment of hesitation, not a turning point.
But if a major theme of your story was how your protag was trying to rebuild their personal life and conquer the effects that her father’s death had on her, you can see how splitting this chunk of plot into two scenes would actually be useful to emphasise the theme you’re trying to convey.
So ultimately, there’s never a right or wrong place to stop a segment of action EXCEPT FOR THE POINT YOU WANT TO MAKE – we could continue to the point where she’s hyperventilating in the bathroom, showing how powerless she is; or we could have continued the scene, shown her being resourceful and escaping, and the point of the scene would be that our heroine has brains and guts. Either way, nothing matters, except to be aware that where you end a scene makes an impact (subtlely and subconsciously, but an impact nonetheless) on the reader’s perception of your story. Scene endings. Powerful stuff. 😉 😀