Monday, July 11, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Endings

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing the content of a workshop I gave for the C2C chapter of the Romance Writers of New Zealand. We’re nearing the end – and appropriately this blog is about the scene ending.

So let’s look at the ending.
  • Does it have a hook?
  • Is the hook fresh and interesting?
  • Does it move the plot in a different direction?
  • Does it have a “Shrek moment”?

Not sure whether your scene has a hook? Read your last few paragraphs to a partner. Get feeback on whether the hook’s working.

Every scene should have a hook.

Most paragraphs should have a hook.

Most sentences should have a hook (I’ll talk about how to do this in the next blog).

First draft writing looks something like this, from my WIP, Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty. This scene is from a chapter that I eventually cut entirely from the book. In it, Sophie and her father are at the beach discussing her brother Marion’s tragic death.
Dad slapped at a mosquito. Like Marion, he was blond and gray-eyed with the finely chiseled features of a handsome man. Mosquitoes loved him.
“Time to go home.” 
It’s not bad, but there’s nothing about it to make the reader turn the page. Mary Buchanan, in one of her workshops, says that every scene should end with a hook that drives the reader to go on to the next scene.

Usually, however, the first draft of any scene ends on something that would put a potential reader to sleep. That’s because beginning writers have the urge to feel closure. It's what happened with this scene. You know what’s going to happen next. They’re going home. I could have shown them packing up their picnic and loading the car, but by the time I wrote this I’d gotten past writing most of what Margie Lawson calls “walking the dog”.

Signs of walking the dog at scene endings include:

  •  Saying good-bye (unless there’s something about the good-bye that spins the characters on their heads)
  •  Putting things away
  •  Any of the rituals of leaving (putting on clothes, shaking hands, opening and closing doors, walking away.)
While this is logically how the action in the scene would play out, there is no conflict in any of these actions. Without conflict it is dead.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use good-byes to end a scene. But if you do, they have to be laden with conflict. Last night I was curled up in bed with Margaret Mahy’s YA Alchemy. Look how she turns a good-bye into a page-turner:

Roland, the hero, has been pressured by a teacher into getting to know Jess, a classmate who has no friends. Roland sums up the courage to visit her at her home, where he’s welcomed with the warmth of an Antarctic winter. Here’s the end of the scene:

Jess thrust his game of Viper towards him, then walked on to fling the front door wide. Stepping out onto the porch, Roland turned, shooting an apparently casual glance over her shoulder as he did so. There was no one and nothing on the landing. All the same, a moment earlier, he had seen – he had seen – he knew he had seen…

Of course, the reader wants to know, what has Roland seen? Mahy, right at the end of her scene, sets up a story question that propels us into the next part of the book.

My favourite “good-bye” at the end of scene – one that works dramatically well – is the penultimate scene from Gone with the Wind, in which Rhett walks out on Scarlett with the famous line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

But if you look at the scene itself, you’ll see that although he tells her he’s leaving, we don’t actually see him walk out the door. Not until the next – and final – scene in which Scarlett picks herself up from the disaster, determined to go back to Tara, which always gives her strength, and figure out a way to win him back.

As a writer you don’t need to begin or end the scene where the character enters or leaves the setting. Begin it as close to the central conflict of the scene as possible and end it as soon as possible after the scene reaches its climax. In the Gone with the Wind scene, the climax is the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.
The ending to the GWTW scene twists around not just love scene we as readers expect (Scarlett entered the scene determined to tell Rhett she finally realized she loves him), but the whole the Happily Ever After ending, as well.

As a hook, the scene works magnificently, setting up at the last minute a new story question that leads us to read the last scene, which is not action, but introspection. GWTW is one of those novels in which the novelist doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, but the author has painted such a vivid portrait of a young woman who always manages to get what she wants, that the reader know Scarlett will somehow find a way to win back Rhett. On the other hand, it does leave open the question of how. If Margaret Mitchell had chosen to write a sequel, it, like GWTW, would have been a runaway best seller.

We can learn a couple more things from this scene:

  • Good hooks often set up story questions – things the reader is dying to know.
  • Good hooks surprise the reader.
Look at your scene ending. Is it predictable? How can you twist the scene and make it different?

Lori Wilde, to whom I am indebted for much of what I’ve learned on layering, suggests a couple of ways to do this:

  • End the scene the opposite of how you begin it
  • Look for a different motivation for the character’s behaviour
  • Add what Lori Wilde calls a “Shrek Moment”. A Shrek Moment – taken from the animated film Shrek – turns a cliché on its head. Shrek is filled with these. Most of them take iconic Disney conventions and give them an ironic twist. My favourite is the morning after Shrek has rescued Princess Fiona from the dragon. They are still in the forest. She hears birds singing and spots a mother bird on its next. In a typical Disney animation, this is a cue for the heroine to burst into song. Instead, the next scene shows a frying pan full of eggs.
Alexandra Sokoloff says that a good scene ending should contain a “disaster”. Like the ending I quoted earlier from Margaret Mahy, it should swivel the protagonist and the plot around in a new direction.

To create a disaster, ask yourself:

  •  What surprises can occur?
  •  How can I make things worse?
Next week: Layering Your Scene by Enriching the Language

1 comment:

  1. Vicky, thank you for sharing these tips with us, I've been reading them all, and learning from them.