As I’ve mentioned before, I come from a scriptwriting background. I find it advantageous to write in scenes rather than chapters. That means for every change of locale or character viewpoint, I outline and write a separate scene. It’s during my second draft that I stitch the scenes together into chapters.
I outline all my scenes before writing the first draft. The last two things I put on my scene outline are the climax and the exit line. Every one of my scenes has some sort of mini-culmination. Not all are hugely dramatic, but they all have a solid climax. I accomplish my scene endings in a variety of ways to keep the reader captivated.
Throwing Obstacles at the Character
One of the ways to pull off a scene ending is to present your viewpoint character with a problem they didn’t expect. Some new factor shows up that throws them off their original path. This can be as profound as a sudden tragedy that completely knocks them off the rails or as subtle as a surprising stray thought. This latter example is what happens to Elisha in my work-in-progress The Font. He steals into the heroine’s bedroom with the intent to lie in wait and kidnap her. He’s shocked when unwelcome thoughts arise, and that’s how I end this scene:
Elisha went to the bed and drew back the thin veil of the curtain. A mountain of soft pillows awaited the head that rested there. Before he thought about what he was doing, he bent over and inhaled her scent.
So fresh and electric, yet somehow subtle too. She smelled of the woods, of nature, of life. It aroused him, and for the first time Elisha wondered if Heriolf had visited the pleasure of Naya’s bed. He thought of the lovely creature lying here, her long slender body naked, her thighs parting to admit a man…
Elisha made himself stop. He was to steal her from this place, to take her away so that Heriolf could no longer add her power to his. The woman was a means to an end, no more. Elisha vowed he would only taste her blood to verify she provided Heriolf’s strength. He had no interest in her otherwise.
Another great way to end a scene is with a huge outpouring of emotion. You have to use some restraint if you do this, or the results can seem more comical than dramatic. One way to do this is to have the character throw his fit/sob uncontrollably/laugh hysterically then draw back a little for the last one or two paragraphs of the scene:
Spittle flew as Heriolf screamed at them. “Search for as long as you can and then bury yourselves, you puling bits of refuse! For every hour she remains lost, I will kill one of you! Your pleas for mercy will ring within these walls for a century!”
The petrified guards fled immediately, and the gathered vampires, so recently there to celebrate the addition of supplicants, cringed as his hectic stare ran over them.
Unmindful of their presence, he screamed until the glass in the room shivered at the sound.
Take it Down a Notch
The opposite of leaving on a dramatic turn is to quit the scene quietly. If you’ve been dealing with high emotions throughout the scene, it might be good for your readers to be able to take a breath. Sometimes the best climax is the gentle one, not the one that has your heart racing.
After being kidnapped by vampire Elisha, Naya is kept on edge because she doesn’t know if she will be killed in the end or made his blood slave forever. High anxiety like this is not only stressful for her, it’s stressful for the reader. That’s why I ended the scene with her being glamoured to peaceful sleep:
“You don’t want to fight. You are safe.” His words were a balm, taking away the last mote of fear. She gave herself to the gentle insistence of them, knowing they were true. She had nothing to fear. “Safe,” she said, convinced of the fact.
“Very good.” His approval made her soul sing. She wanted nothing more than to please him.
Naya felt him lift her in his arms, and she felt protected by his strength. She sank down to the ground with him … no, not the ground. A soft, silken bed. He laid down in it, covering himself with her slight body. His scent, like that of dry autumn leaves, was pleasant. She sighed to feel him beneath her, his body firm where she was soft. They fit together nicely, she thought.
“Sleep now, Naya. Sleep deeply until night falls again.”
She slipped down the slope of his words into a dark tunnel, as close and comforting as a mother’s womb and knew no more.
Give the Story Away
Another effective way to close a scene is to give the reader a sneak preview of something huge that happens further in the story. I no longer have the book to reference the exact quote, but the most intense version I ever saw of a scene ending happened in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The scene in question is a sweet look into the father flying a kite with his very young son Gage. It’s not an earthshaking scene until the end when it says (and I’m paraphrasing since I no longer have the book), ‘He would never forget this moment with his son because two months later, Gage was dead.’
Wow. We now know what’s coming, but that doesn’t mean the story is ruined. Instead, the reader is left screaming, “What? How? Why?” Your preview ending doesn’t have to be this dramatic – but this extreme example gives you an idea of how it can work.
The Big Finish
The most obvious choice for a climactic scene end is the cliffhanger. It’s also the one you should use the least often. Cliffhangers are definitely under the ‘less is more’ category. But when you do use it, make it count. The heroine must be in dire jeopardy, and the reader should be on the edge of their seat wondering how she’ll ever get out of this predicament. Use it sparingly, but when you go with the cliffhanger, go all the way:
She would have been better off to run she realized as Mariel grabbed her. Fleeing through the woods might have delayed her death by a few seconds. Naya screamed as the vampire knocked the flashlight away once again and pulled her close. Mariel cupped one hand under her chin, the other around the back of her head, preparing to snap her neck. Naya pounded at her, punching the taller Mariel in the belly, kicking, battling for all she was worth. Her enemy acknowledged none of this, simply grinning down at Naya.
Mariel’s expression took all hope from Naya. Nothing she did would keep the vampire from killing her. Looking into the merciless eyes of her murderer, Naya stopped struggling and waited to die.
Just End it Already
At the opposite end of the cliffhanger is simply ending the scene. You’ve said all you had to say and you’re done:
He clapped a hand on Douglas’ shoulder, nearly knocking the smaller vampire to hurtle towards the ground. “You will feed from my table for eternity if I recover her, my loyal friend.”
Douglas rubbed his shoulder, but his narrow chest swelled with delight. Heriolf wasted no time watching him preen. He flew with the wind, flying to Savannah at top speed. He would reclaim his Naya. She was as good as back within his grasp. He could almost taste her smooth, fragrant skin already.
One last note on this subject: you want to mix up all the different ways you end scenes because if you finish them all using the same device over and over, you’ll end up with a stiff, monotonous rhythm. So vary how you come out of each scene to keep your characters and your readers on their toes.