Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Should Scenes Always End in Disasters?

Some time back, I ran across a blog post describing the author's routine for developing scenes. She would work out the scene goal, the conflict, the setting, the character’s motivation, the dialogue beats she would use to set the tone, and the end of scene disaster. And it’s that last item I want to discuss.

One of the unwritten rules I've found for writing fiction is that every scene has to end on a disaster. The MC goes into a scene with a goal and the scene ends when the MC fails to meet that goal. Alternatively, the MC might attain the goal, but then discovers the resulting consequences have pushed their ultimate story ending goal even farther away. In other words, the MC has taken a step back.

I don’t always agree with this rule.

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't have end of scene disasters. They're a useful technique for keeping the tension and stakes high enough to make the reader turn pages. My beef is with the idea that “every” scene has to end in a disaster. In my opinion, unless you’re writing some sort of non-stop action thriller, you'll wear out your reader if you do this every time. Occasional successes by the MC, without the subsequent “oops, I guess this wasn't the best thing after all” moment, in my opinion, are good for the reader. It allows them to catch their breath.

Consider the first Harry Potter book, “The Sorceror's Stone.” In chapter eleven, we find Harry approaching his first Quidditch match, and his goal is to not embarrass himself or cause his team to lose. His team wins the match, of course, due to Harry's successful snagging of the Snitch, and the chapter ends with no ill effects. In fact, on the very last page, Hagrid accidentally reveals a clue that’s been eluding Harry for the last several chapters. A win-win all around, with no hint of a disaster. (Although Hagrid might have disagreed.)

The scene works because it ends on a promise. A promise that the stalled investigation is about to make some headway. And that's the most important thing when ending a scene. Leaving a new question in the reader's mind. What’s going to happen next? It doesn’t have to be a disaster to keep the reader interested.

To be honest, many authors get around this problem by defining “disaster” rather loosely -- considering anything that adds tension at the end of a scene to be a disaster, even if it’s good for the MC. Fine. I can live with that.  My problem is with those authors who insist that the MC should always be worse off when the scene ends.

What's your opinion on end of scene disasters?


  1. I'm with you Ken. I think it is best to try and end every scene so that the reader feels compelled to say 'oh, even though i should really go to bed now... just ONE more chapter'

    There are many ways we can get them to do that. One of the ways is having them in a dangerous situation. Another is with romance on the brink, or a new plot point or question. I think varying the ending of chapters is important.

    Great post!

  2. I completely agree. Varying the end of chapters is just as important as varying the pace, or sentence length, or almost everything else in writing. Thanks for the comment.

  3. In 5 or 6 writers' conferences I never heard any writer say every scene had to end in disaster. The longer the book, the more important it is to have stopping places. Julie Kagawa divided her lengthy The Immortal Rules into three books. The key is to make each stopping place temporary by keeping up the interest level to get back to reading soon. I agree that disasters are only one way to do that. Throwing out a clue works great. Putting a character just past a turning point, having survived the disaster, with no choice but to pursue the next goal, also works. I finally remembered to subscribe by email, BTW.