Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

This post is the twelfth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Last week I wrote about one of the most crucial scenes in your novel – the very first scene. But there are still many more scenes to write. And each scene of course has a beginning, middle and end. Here are some tips and ideas on how to begin and end a scene in your novel.

Beginning a Scene

So how do you begin a scene? Well, begin is kind of a misleading term as some scenes pick up in the middle of the action or continue where another scene left off. Often a new scene starts at the beginning of a chapter or is separate by a break of four lines or maybe a series of *** to let the reader know a new scene is to begin.

How you handle each scene probably won’t be the same way each time, but here are some ideas on how to start a scene.

Begin in the Middle

Instead of building up to the action, sometimes it is best to begin in the middle of the scene with the action in full swing.

The horse’s hooves thundered across the ground. Tosh dug his claws into the saddle as his back legs threatened to slip off. A firm hand pressed against his side, pulling him closer toward the young man behind him. Feeling safer, Tosh leaned out to see the terrain up ahead. He blinked his eyes in disbelief at what he saw. – the opening scene of The Search.

Here the action is already taking place. The reader must continue reading to find out what danger lies ahead and why Tosh is riding on the horse in such a hurry. This type of beginning to a scene is more dynamic than one describing the scenery. It can hook the reader quickly.

Beginning with Dialogue

This really is a variation of the above scenario but instead of being in the middle of the action, you begin in the middle of a conversation. The conversation can be the momentum that sweeps the reader along. There is an element of suspense as the reader tries to figure out the context of the conversation.

Starting at the actual beginning
Sometimes the best place to begin is at the beginning. For many people that might be the beginning of the day. It is a natural place to start but this has been done so many times that beginnings, such as “I woke up to the screaming alarm clock” have become cliché.

Start with Setting

Of course, some authors begin their scenes with a description of the setting. But when you do this, you are announcing to the reader that the setting is important and will have an active influence on the characters and action in the scene. If your character is on a deserted island, the lay of the land may be helpful in letting the reader know what is available.

Dream sequence

If you want to disappoint or perhaps even anger your readers – start with a dream. Your reader is engrossed in the action of the scene and the death-defying situation with no way out. Then the reader turns the page only to discover the character wakes up, and it was all a dream. After that, the character arises from the bed, and the real story begins.

Now this isn’t to say you can’t start a scene with a dream, but you should only do so if the dream is an integral part of the story. I started my first book, Summoned, with a dream sequence, but I made sure the reader knew it was a dream BEFORE I began the dream.

The young woman tossed in her bed, muttering softly. She rolled over, her long honey-colored hair covering her pale face. Her fingers dug into the mattress. She shook her head as she sank deeper into the dream.

The yellow light cut through the dark. Her eyes stayed focused on it as it flickered before her like a hundred candles dancing in a soft summer breeze, growing brighter as she neared. As she walked, her hands reached out, touching the smooth, cold stone wall. That alone should have warned Lina something was not right. Even as her mind called out that this was all wrong, she continued down the hall toward the light and toward whatever was calling her.

There is no right or wrong way to begin a scene. These are only a few suggestions. You may need to try several of them to find what works best for your scene. Just remember that the secret to a good opening – whether it is for your book or merely one of its many scenes – is that it compels the reader to keep reading.

Ending a scene

The ending moments complete the scene and should leave the reader wanting more. It should make them eager to begin the next scene.

It is always best to end a scene as early as possible. You want your last statement to be strong and not full of unnecessary details. Depending on the situation, you can end the scene with a sense of finality or with something that propels the reader forward.

Remember that each scene is part of a larger story. The ending of a scene should make the reader think, “That was good. I want more.” And then plunge ahead into the next scene.

Cliffhanger Ending.

This type of ending is characterized by stopping the scene just as a major action is about to take place or in the middle of the action at a crucial point. The easiest way to think about this is to watch a TV drama. Something important is revealed and then…cut to commercial break. That leaves the viewer hanging around waiting for the show to return rather than channel surfing. You want the same type of reaction from your reader.

Cliffhanger endings typically happen at the end of chapters forcing the reader to start the next chapter to see what happens.

However, some authors do not continue the scene in the next chapter. In order to heighten the reader’s curiosity, they insert a scene or chapter that takes place somewhere else, perhaps with different characters.

Even though the cliffhanger ending is a powerful tool, you can’t use it to end ALL your scenes..

You might also end a scene by revealing insight into one of the characters. This might happen through an internal monologue that the character is having about the events that occurred in the scene, or it could happen through dialogue with another character. Ending in the middle of dialogue can be confusing to the reader, but it also can heighten a passionate or revealing exchange. The exact place the dialogue ends could reveal a lot about the character: their fears, hopes, how they are changing.

Sometimes a scene ends with a note about the setting or the character doing something mundane. But the fact we are focused on it elevates that item to greater importance.

No matter what ending you decide to use, remember to make sure they do their job: hook the reader into wanting to read more.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

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