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Monday, August 24

Don’t Know How to End Your Scene? Here’s Why.

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last month, I had a Real Life Diagnostic question on not knowing how to end the scene. Coincidentally, a few days after that, I ran into the same problem with my own WIP. Luckily, I knew right away what that meant.

I didn’t really know what the goal of the scene was.

The nature of any scene is to illustrate some aspect of the story and move the plot to the next turning point. This is why scenes have goals—to drive the plot forward. Other things can and do happen in a scene, but at the core is that plot-driving goal and the struggle to achieve it (goal + conflict).

The resolution of that goal and the decision made because of it, is what hands the scene off to the next scene. If we don’t know the point of the scene, we can’t truly know where it ends or what that transition entails.

So we get stuck. Or we keep writing and the scene goes on forever, yet nothing seems to be happening.

(Here's more on writing transitions)

When this happens, take a step back and look at what you’re trying to do with the scene. Often, we have something non-goal focused that’s mucking us up, such as:
  • This is the scene where the protagonist realizes she loves the boy next door
  • This is the scene that shows how awful the oppressive government is
  • This is the scene where the protagonist opens up about his terrible past

All of these things are perfectly acceptable elements to have in a scene, but not one of them contains a goal to drive that scene. So odds are, we’ll keep writing and not know where this scene goes or how it ends. What we need, is a trigger to get the plot moving again.
  • This is the scene where the protagonist realizes she loves the boy next door and she ditches school to go tell him.
  • This is the scene that shows how awful the oppressive government is because the protagonist’s brother is taken hostage.
  • This is the scene where the protagonist opens up about his terrible past and his wife throws him out of the house.

(Here's more on adding problems to your scenes)

If you can’t come up with anything like the above to add to the end of the scenes, try going back to the beginning and looking for the goal or problem the goal might spring from. Ask:

What is the protagonist trying to do or accomplish in this scene?

If you can’t answer this, that’s the problem. There’s likely no goal and nothing to move the plot forward. There’s no cause to create an effect, no action to require a reaction. The character isn’t doing anything so there’s nowhere to go.

To fix this, figure out what the goal of that scene is.

You might have to go back a scene or two and see what led up to this. Maybe the problem began with a scene that didn’t have a solid hand off to move the plot forward. It just ended with a vague sense of “something” for the protagonist to think about, or a place to go, or even a dark and foreboding sense of doom, but nothing to actually do.

(Here’s more on handing off scenes)

Find that goal, and the resolution to the scene should become fairly obvious.

If you’re still having trouble, try looking ahead at where you want your plot to go. Maybe the plot veered off track and what you’re writing is no longer heading in the right direction. Look for the next major plot point and see what steps need to happen to reach that point. How might you nudge the protagonist back onto the plot path? Where did they step off of it?

(Here’s more on plotting backward to move forward)

I don’t think I’ve even been stuck in a story that didn’t result from a goal issue, so that’s the first place I always look. If our characters don’t know what to do, we won’t know what to do.

Have you ever had a scene that you didn’t know how to end? What was the problem? 

Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. My problem is that I see those things in my scene--"The car breaks down and while pushing the car, protag admits she's been lying the whole time"--and think, Something's happening in that scene. So it's good.


    1. And that's how they get you :) I do exactly the same thing, and then wind up either cutting it or reworking it it revisions.

  2. This happens to me a lot, and you're right. It's all about finding the goal of the scene. Also, when a scene seems a little limp, it's usually because you've wrapped up the goal and then gone on a bit too long by mistake. The tension disappears once the goal is reached.

    1. Great point. I trimmed one of those scene just yesterday.

  3. I've done that. It was obvious afterwards, too, when my critique partners said things like "cut this" or "why is this here?" I was honest. I said thought I needed to show my MC going from Atlanta, GA to Venice, Italy - and I wrote that.

    For most of a chapter...


    Then after the CP comments, I cut it.

    1. Scene breaks are our friends :) Sometimes I'll just break a scene if it feels like it's not going anywhere, and come back to it later. Writing the next scene helps me figure out where I need to go with the one that's aimless.

  4. Most of the problems in my scenes have to do with the fact that the conflict or problem has nothing to do with the goal. like in my WIP my protagonist is eating dinner when a very important letter comes in the mail. its hard to write what happened before that when the real action doesn't start till later.

    this post was very helpful, however. i loved that you included examples. that really helps!


    1. Most welcome. Surprises are hard that way. I usually try to find something for the protagonist to be doing that will be made harder by that new conflict. Or if the conflict is part of the external plot, I'll let the goal be part of the internal conflict so they can play off each other. Maybe something like those can help you.

  5. I also have trouble with scene transitions, tending to crawl through the intervening time instead of just taking the leap. I need to learn from the book version of The Princess Bride, which is subtitled The Good Parts Version. In it the narrator describes a chapter in the book-within-the-book that covers in excruciating detail a three-year period as the princess prepares for her wedding, summarizing it like this: "What with one thing and another, three years passed." Memo to me: just write the good parts.

    1. Put that on a post-it on your monitor :) It helps!

  6. Great article! I am saving this for future reference, as I sometimes find myself running into this roadblock.

    1. Thanks :) Hopefully it'll be in your subconscious now and you'll fix it automatically.