The Not-Yet Happy Ending
The book has to end happy.
The last chapter has to end happy.
The others? They don’t.
In fact, they shouldn’t. Because a chapter that ends with everything happy is a great reason to put down the book with a sigh of contentment, turn out the light and go to sleep.
So how should a chapter end? For that matter, how should every scene end?
Right. With the reader wanting more.
Anticipation is good. Suspense is good. Not the kind of suspense you get from Raymond Chandler’s famous “two guys with guns,” but the kind that leaves readers wondering what’s gonna happen next.
This doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger. In fact, cliffhangers can get old. I remember reading a romantic suspense in which literally every chapter ended with a sudden burst of gunfire, a ticking bomb, a villain leaping from behind the door, and after a while it started to get old.
It felt contrived.
Excitement, anticipation and suspense can all feel contrived if they’re not handled smoothly. But when they’re drawn out over several chapters, when you can’t wait for this couple to finally realize they’re in love, you can tell the author’s done a great job of building anticipation.
So how do you build anticipation into your scene endings? Here are a few techniques:
WRITE SHORTER. The closer you get to the ending, the faster things happen. And the faster things happen, the faster you tell it. Use shorter sentences. One-sentence paragraphs. Just a few words.
Abrupt writing looks more dramatic on the page.
Make sure, though, that there really IS something dramatic happening on the page. Otherwise the reader will feel cheated!
SHOW A DECISION. Two guys with guns is intriguing, yes, but a decision can be equally — if not more — intriguing. When a character makes a decision, you know something’s about to happen. Something’s about to change.
What better way to raise questions?
Change means suspense.
CALL IT ROSY. A scene ending should never let the READER think everything is resolved. But once in a while it can be tremendously effective to end a scene with the CHARACTER thinking how great things are. “Scarlett knew that from now on, her life would be perfect” is a pretty good hint that trouble is waiting right around the corner.
Hmm, what kind of trouble?
Make ’em turn the page.
PAYOFF, THEN SETUP. Usually, scenes are structured so they start with a setup and conclude with a payoff: “On the night of the ball, Cinderella was heart broken that her stepsisters left her behind (setup) until her magical fairy godmother appeared with the offer of a beautiful gown and a pumpkin coach to whisk her away.” (payoff)
But instead, try opening with the payoff and concluding with a setup for the next scene: “With her fairy godmother’s help, Cinderella changed into the beautiful gown and left in the pumpkin coach (payoff), which dropped her off at the door of the prince’s castle.” (setup)
Dropping her off at the castle door might not sound quite as dramatic as the magical fairy godmother’s appearance, but you can bet readers will turn the page!
Because they’ve just been promised an exciting moment.
Moments — not chapters, not scenes, but MOMENTS — are what keep the reader involved. Moments are what sparkle. Moments are the magic in our craft.
And all you need for a great scene-ending moment is an incident, a phrase, a discovery that leaves your reader thinking “ooh.”
So give her a question. A thrill of confirmation. Give her that “ooh” and make her wonder what’s coming next.
Leave her intrigued.
She’ll keep reading, and she’ll love you for it.
And, really, isn’t that why we’re writing romance? We all want the love. We all want the happy ending.
Just…not quite yet.