Monday, January 2, 2012

Unexpected Things Make Good Scene Endings

Do you watch the HBO show True Blood? You should, and not just so you can feast your eyes on Alexander Skarsgard, whom I manage to go on about here on the blog just about weekly. The show is a master at the cliffhanger. Each episode ends on such a "ahh!" moment that you're left going, "Nooooooo!" when the credits roll. Would that we could do that with our scenes in our novels.

Last week I talked about not having your characters saying "I love you," a nugget I took from James Scott Bell's book The Art of War for Writers. That book is full of short, pithy, and very helpful writing tidbits. And here's another. James (probably not Jimbo) suggests that when you're stuck on how to end a scene,  make a list of 10 things you think reader would not expect to have happen, and 10 things they would expect. Ideally, one out of all those will jump out at you as being the right ending. You may have to twist things around to get there--hang on and I'll explain.

I thought about one particular chapter in my long-suffering* WIP in which my protagonist meets her love interest. The love interest departs the scene, and then my protag meets a friend and they talk in a garden. It's a fairly boring scene, mostly because it's informational, and the most exciting thing--the love interest bit--has already happened after the first page of the chapter. My protag and her friend talking at the end of the chapter makes for booooring reading, especially because I didn't know how to end it. Example:

 "Um, sure, yeah, let's meet for coffee later."

Awful. So, I made a list. I am abbreviating it to 5 here so you get the idea.

Expected things
1. The girls talk and make arrangements to meet for coffee.
2. The girls agree that the day has some nice weather.
3. The girls pick their nails and look around.
4. The girls talk about the hot love interest from the beginning of the chapter.
5. The girls hint at some family problems, but don't really get into it because they just met.

All of these suck. Let's look at the unexpected things.

Unexpected things
1. The girls gets eaten by a T-Rex that jumps out of the bushes.
2. The girls spontaneously combust.
3. A jet airplane lands on the lawn, clipping off the girls' feet.
4. The mean aunt of the protag finds the girls in the garden and yells at them.
5. The love interest, previously not introduced in the scene, interrupts the girls' tete a tete and then leaves with an innuendo.

I think you can see where I'm going with this. By switching around the events of the chapter and shortening the utilitarian garden conversation scene, I've got a much more interesting thing happening-- the love interest arrives, is met, and provides some interesting conversation for the main character to think about. Plus, it's not expected that these girls talking would be interrupted by someone very interesting.

Although, obviously, what should happen is they spontaneously combust.

What do you think? Have you tried this?

* it suffers directly because having two small kids, one of them a baby who doesn't like to sleep, takes a toll on writing time. 18 and they're out, 18 and they're out.


Diane Henders said...

I've definitely done this. In my third book, I was writing along, and there was a lot of depressing stuff going on in my protag's life.

She was in the process of getting the shit kicked out of her by a very big, very mean guy, and I thought, "This scene needs something. Elves. It needs elves." Did I mention these *aren't* fantasy novels?

My readers loved the elf scene, it lightened up the tone, and it was great fun to write. (No, she wasn't hallucinating. There really were elves.)

I think your spontaneous combustion idea is great. Might be tough to follow up, though. Maybe go for the T-Rex instead. :-)

Sierra Godfrey said...

Diane, wow. I love it! Elves! YES!
So did it turn into a slightly fantasy novel as a result?

And by the way, I'm not sure what about having the shit kicked out of the protag wasn't interesting. Guess I'll have to read it :)

Travener said...

When things get boring, don't dialogue; summarize it in a sentence. That's my philosophy.

Though a meteor crashing through the ceiling works too.

Cathryn Leigh said...

Oh man. another point to keep in mind for my current WIP... Although *giant grins* You could say I did actually do that today.

I took dialog my main character was having with three different people and condensed it all into a conversation between her and the Goddess of the world (yes this is a fantasy novel). It was quite fun, and also added some tension because the MC had climbed the religion's tree (which is where the Goddess appeared to her). *giggles*

:} Cathryn

Rebecca T. said...

This is such a great idea. I'm totally keeping this in mind as I work on my rewrite!

Terry Odell said...

Something else I've tried is to simply move up the scene -- usually there are several paragraphs that aren't needed, and deleting them makes for a better ending. It might not be that unexpected twist, but it can be stronger than having characters do what the reader assumes will happen.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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