Wednesday, August 10, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 24: Beginnings and Endings of Scenes and Chapters

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

A quick reminder that a word war is happening here on the blog next week. 

What is a word war?

It's a friendly competition to motivate participants to write as many words as they can between next Monday and Friday. 

While some word wars are shorter (fifteen minutes or an hour) and quite strict, next week's word war will be a come-and-go, write-when-you-can style of war. Start when you want, participate whatever you can. No stress. No worries. No hard and fast rules. This is about encouraging each other and writing a lot of words. We hope you can join in the fun.

Welcome to week twenty-four of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. Chapter 24 of THIRST, the final chapter, has been posted over on my author website. It has some issues, but the first draft is done! Click here to read it.



Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:

A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.

Week three was Storyworld.
Week four: maps and floorplans.
Week five: protagonists and main characters.
Week six: side characters.
Week seven: prewriting.
Week eight: plot structures. 
Week nine: Theme.
Week ten: creating a plot outline or list of key scenes.
Week eleven: point of view.
Week twelve: narrative modes.

Week thirteen: how to write a scene.

Week fourteen: Where to start.

Week fifteen: Prologues.
Week sixteen: Dividing Your Book Into Chapters and Scenes Week seventeen: Write Fast and Free
Week eighteen: Dialogue and Thought
Week nineteen: Character and Author Voice
Week twenty: Action
Week twenty-one: Description

Week twenty-two: Exposition
Week twenty-three: Pacing

Today's Topic: Writing Action

We are nearing the end of the #WeWriteBooks series, and my next few posts are related to troubleshooting, rewriting, and editing. One of the things I like to do in edits is to go through the entire book and look at all my chapter/scene beginnings and endings. I read them aloud. I look hard at word choice and rhythm. But mostly I’m looking for how those first and last sentences keep the reader engaged and asking, “What is going to happen next?”

Before we get too far into this post, I want to throw out a reminder. Back in Week 13 we talked about how to write a scene and how each scene should have a purpose or goal. So when you go in to tweak your scene beginnings and endings, first skim over your scene and remind yourself of the goal. What important thing is going to happen in this scene? What crucial information is going to be revealed? That should help you be more strategic as you write opening and ending sentences. You might even write a one or two-sentence summary for each scene. And example from my book King's Blood is, “In this scene we learn that the island is too small to accommodate everyone.”


Since I'm a visual learner, I decided to take some extra time to find examples for lost of my points in this post. I pulled a random assortment of books off my shelf, some mine, some simply favorites. So, the start of a scene should do several things. 

Give us a character with a goal.
Ask yourself, what does the character want in this scene? Give some hints at that goal. Rick Riordan does this well at the start of chapter fifteen in The Lightning Thief, when Annabeth states a goal straight off.
       The next afternoon, June 14, seven days before the solstice, our train rolled into Denver. We hadn't eaten since the night before in the dining car, somewhere in Kansas. We hadn't taken a shower since Half-Blood Hill, and I was sure that was obvious.
       "Let's try to contact Chiron," Annabeth said. "I want to tell him about your talk with the river spirit."

Hook the reader with conflict and tension.
Hooking the reader doesn't have to be anything major. Something out of the normal can work great. Ask yourself what's wrong? Could you start with that? Here is an intriguing opening to chapter four from Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember:
       One day when Lina had been a messenger for several weeks, she came home to find that Granny had thrown all the cushions from the couch onto the floor, ripped up a corner of the couch's lining, and was pulling out wads of stuffing.
       "What are you doing?" Lina cried.
       Granny looked up. Wisps of sofa stuffing stuck to the front of her dress and clung to her hair. "Something is lost," she said. "I think it might be in here."
       "What's lost, Granny?"
       "I don't quite recall," said the old woman. "Something important."

Establish the setting, briefly. 
It's a good idea to establish your setting, but if you're in a strange place, a place the reader wouldn't expect your character to be, it's especially important. Eoin Colfer does a great job of this in the first chapter of Artemis Fowl.
       Ho Chi Minh City in the summer. Sweltering by anyone’s standards. Needless to say, Artemis Fowl would not have been willing to put up with such discomfort if something extremely important had not been at stake. Important to the plan.
       Sun did not suit Artemis. He did not look well in it. Long hours indoors in front of a computer screen had bleached the glow from his skin. He was white as a vampire and almost as testy in the light of day.
       “I hope this isn’t another wild-goose chase, Butler,” he said, his voice soft and clipped. “Especially after Cairo.”
       It was a gentle rebuke. They had traveled to Egypt on the word of Butler’s informant.
       “No, sir. I’m certain this time. Nguyen is a good man.”
       “Hmm,” droned Artemis, unconvinced.
       Passersby would have been amazed to hear the large Eurasian man refer to the boy as sir. This was, after all, the third millennium. But this was no ordinary relationship, and these were no ordinary tourists.

Establish the tone.
Conveying tone to your reader is a great way to set the mood. Is your character anxious, stressful, sarcastic, or scared? Spencer is frustrated here at the start of chapter ten in Chokepoint.
       Beth of all people? I mean, come on. I'd hoped to not fight her at all. Frankly, I was surprised she'd ended up in the losers' bracket. Kolmorgen had beaten herprobably with his clinch holds. Huh. I hadn't lost to Kolmorgen by all that much.
       Maybe I could beat her.

Give a head count.
If there are a lot of people in a scene, let us know up front who is there. *Note* I don't recommend scenes with large casts until chapters that happen later on in the book when the reader already knows the people mentioned. Starting a book with lots of names is an easy way to lose readers. Here is an example of giving a head count from a later scene from my book Outcasts.
       Levi, Omar, and Shaylinn all put on pairs of gloves that held ghoulie tags, which were SimTags Zane made that reflected numbers on their cheeks and hands but were off-grid. And just in case, Levi tossed the lace gloves Bender had given Shay into a dumpster.
       When they arrived at the cafĂ©, Jordan and Zane were already eating at a table in the back corner. Levi, Omar, and Shaylinn joined them, and within seconds, the waitress appeared.

Either continue on from the end of the previous scene or establish a new scene.
You kind of have to do one or the other. Here is an example of the end of chapter twenty-three and the start of chapter twenty-four from my book By Darkness Hid.
       Sparrow cleared his throat. “Chairman Levy, my lord. I have information invaluable to this proceeding. I beg a private audience to discuss the matter.”
       Sir Gavin turned to Achan, bushy white eyebrows raised in question.
       Achan shrugged. He had no idea what Sparrow was doing. Maybe he had more information about Lord Nathak’s dealings with Macoun Hadar.
       Lord Levy leaned forward to peer over the edge of the table. “What’s this?”
       “Please, my lord,” Sparrow said. “A moment of your time to refute this . . . proxy.”

Chapter 24
       Vrell lifted her chin. This was the only way. If she did not reveal herself now, they would vote for Lord Nathak’s son. If the impostor were to take the throne, he might still seek Vrell’s hand. She shivered. All along, the man who had sought her hand had been a fraud. Thank Arman he had been exposed. She would do her part to see the impostor fail.

And here is chapter three of Chokepoint, in which Spencer arrives at a new scene.

       Kip lived on Snob Hill in a sprawling, one-story beige house with a Spanish tile roof. Kip and I sat in the living room in the dark, taking turns playing Torch, a first-person action game that he had just bought. He’d logged in online too, which was stupid since he didn’t know how to play yet. Every two steps someone killed him.

Keep things tight.
Tight writing is always a good practice, but really try to keep your beginnings clean. Don’t ramble, don’t describe too much, don't give too much information. Try to set the scene, establish a mood, and get to the action or conflict as soon as you can. That can be really challenging, especially in a sequel in which you have to do some level of recap. Here is the opening from my book Outcasts, book two in The Safe Lands trilogy. 
       Almost there.
       Kendall strode around the curve of Belleview Drive and fixed her gaze on the messenger sign at the end of the block. The flying white envelope on a red circle flickered in the night.
       She wanted to run—to at least jog—but held back, forcing her legs into long strides. Kendall swung her arms and breathed in the scents of dryer sheets and waffle cones from the Belleview Laundry and Cinnamonster ice cream shop.
       Barely four weeks had passed since she’d given birth in the Surgery Center, and only two since she’d moved out of the harem and back to the Midlands. Kendall’s medic had told her to wait at least six weeks before doing serious exercise. So Kendall walked everywhere, determined to firm up her abdomen, look normal again. Determined to forget.
       She wasn’t supposed to work for six weeks, either. But staying home with no baby to hold … Add to that her depressing thoughts, worry over the girls from Glenrock, and the task director general’s summons—it had been too much. She’d begged Tayo to let her come back to the messenger office early.
       Kendall picked up her pace. What could the task director want now? He’d taken everything from her. She’d served her term in the harem, had given the ultimate sacrifice. This couldn’t be a surrogacy request. Safe Lands customs said she deserved a two-year reprieve for her service to the nation.
       This summons had to be personal.

Set expectations for the scene.
It can be important to try and hint at what's to come. What promises are you making? Here is the opening of chapter sixteen of my book Replication. This scene tells the reader not only that Martyr is going to see a lot of different looking people (as a clone, he has seen very little), but Pastor Scott also parked next to JD's truck. And JD is the guy that Marty looks identical to. And they haven't met yet. So this beginning sets up for the reader that Marty and JD are going to see each other. Soon. 
       Martyr sat in the front seat of Pastor Scott’s car, which he called a van. Pastor Scott had driven to Abby’s high school. The building was not a skyscraper, though. It was only two levels, very long, and the color of pancakes.
       “School is out, so they should be coming any minute,” Pastor Scott said.
       He’d parked his white van that said “Fishhook Community Church” on the side, next to a blue truck. Pastor Scott had explained the different types of vehicles to Martyr on the ride over, and Martyr was still amazed at how many kinds and colors there were. He especially liked the shiny, blue truck sitting beside the van. Pastor Scott said it belonged to JD Kane. For some reason, Pastor Scott had hoped Martyr might recognize it.
       He did not.

Establishing a new scene

If you’re changing point of view, changing locations, or skipping over a long section of time in your new scene, the list above still applies for writing beginnings, but you also need to make sure that you ground your reader. Make certain to give the time and place, remind us in narrative who your POV character is, what she is doing, what her goal is. Remind us of her emotions. If your book has multiple points of view, your reader might need a refresher each time a new one comes around. I found this very important in King’s Folly since it has so many points of view. I needed to always remind my readers of what was going on. For example:
       The next morning, a single knock preceded Hinck’s arrival. Cadoc let him in and shut the door behind him. Trevn waved away the garment Beal was holding. “Too lacy. What else is there? Something a knighten would wear. Plain but at the same time… I don’t know, strong.”
       “I will look again, Your Highness,” Beal rasped, retreating into Trevn’s wardrobe.
       “What are you doing?” Hinck asked, coming to stand beside him.
       Trevn took a bite of fig bread. “Getting ready for court,” he said over his full mouth. “I need people to like me. Especially Queen Brelenah.”
       “You’re a prince. People will like you for that alone. And if you’re worried about Brelenah, take her a puppy.”


Scenes can end in a variety of ways. Always try to give the reader something new and exciting. I have a bad tendency to end chapters with characters either getting knocked out or falling asleep. The latter is a huge no no. If your character is falling asleep at the end of a chapter, your reader might too! Getting knocked out is okay once, just make sure that you don’t do it more than once—at least as a scene ending.

Use cliffhangers. 
Cliffhangers are one of the most popular ways to end a chapter, and there are many ways to execute them. You might end with a question. You might end with a revelation that makes the reader wonder what will happen next. You could always end with impending danger. Cliffhangers don’t always have to be the first half of a sentence that is continued on the next page. That works well sometimes, but it’s not always right for the scene. Here is an example of that type of cliffhanger from Holes by Louis Sachar. 

       Stanley felt tiny claws dig into the side of his face as the lizard pulled itself off his neck and up past his chin.
       "It won't be long now," the Warden said.
       Stanley could hear his heart beat. Each beat told him he was still alive, at least for one more second.

Chapter 46

       Five hundred seconds later, his heart was still beating.

Introduce a new character 
Remember that scene up above where Spencer went to his friend Kip's house? Here is the chapter ending that came right before it. In this scene, Spencer is researching a building that blew up over a decade ago. He finds several articles online that might be the incident he is looking for. He decides he could really use the help of a police officer, which makes him think of Kip, his best friend. We know Kip from book one, but this is the first mention of Kip in Chokepoint, and it's how chapter two comes to an end. Here are the last five paragraphs:
       None of the stories gave the names of the dead or injured. LAPD Online said I could only order a crime report if I was an authorized person, like the victim or the victim’s lawyer.
       How about the dead victim’s son?
       They probably wouldn’t give one to a minor anyway. Plus I didn’t have any case numbers. I needed a plan B.
       Kip. Having a best friend whose dad was a police officer in Pilot Point might come in handy. Maybe I could talk him into helping me.
       It was worth a shot.

End with fear.
Here is the ending from chapter twelve of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins when Peeta has finally been rescued by rebels. Katniss can't wait to see him, but she doesn't get the greeting she expected.   
       Peeta’s awake already, sitting on the side of the bed, looking bewildered as a trio of doctors reassure him, flash lights in his eyes, check his pulse. I’m disappointed that mine was not the first face he saw when he woke, but he sees it now. His features register disbelief and something more intense that I can’t quite place. Desire? Desperation? Surely both, for he sweeps the doctors aside, leaps to his feet, and moves toward me. I run to meet him, my arms extended to embrace him. His hands are reaching for me, too, to caress my face, I think.
       My lips are just forming his name when his fingers lock around my throat.

End with pondering narrative.
A good way to end a chapter is to use narrative thought. Perhaps your character just found out something of big impact. He is thinking through the implications and will end on a question, a hopeful phrase, or a foreboding thought. Mason feels hopeful at the end of chapter sixteen in my book Rebels.

       Mason hadn’t minded tasking on the feedlot. But this news took the pressure off Lonn’s demand that he steal meds and a blood meter this very afternoon. He now had time to conduct his investigation. And being here would allow him to check up on Omar as well.
       This felt like a new beginning. He and Lonn could look for a cure for the thin plague. And if they found one, it would change everything.

Story shifts
Story shifts are a good place to end scenes. There are lots of different types of story shifts. Your characters might be going to a new place. Time might be about to pass. Perhaps you are going to switch point of view in the next chapter. You might be about to embark upon a new section of the story arc. Or if you’ve come to the end of a story arc, you might be ready to transition. 

Here is the end of chapter three from Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl that sets up a time shift in the story. This takes place when Ani has set off on the long journey to Bayern. This scene happens as they settle down to camp for the night. We get a glimpse that something is wrong with Selia. Then chapter four begins with several weeks having passed by.
       “Selia, are you angry?”
       Selia turned to her, and in the dark of a night before the moon and too far from the fire, all Ani could see was the pale outline of her cheek and the glint of one eye.
       “No, of course not, Crown Princess,” said Selia. Her voice was ordinary again, a lilting tone, pleasing and artless.
       “Once we get to Bayern,” said Ani, “there will, thankfully, be hot water and beds again.”
       “A very apt observation, Crown Princess.” Her voice was still even and polite. “Yet I believe in Bayern there will be much more waiting for me than just water and goose feathers.”
       “What do you mean?”
       Selia did not answer. Someone added wood to the fire, and in the sudden flush of light she could see Selia’s face. She was looking across the camp. Ani turned. Ungolad stood by the fire. His eyes were on Ani. He smiled a closed smile, not showing any teeth.

Here are several more ways to end a chapter or scene:
-End with action that grabs the reader’s attention.
-Reveal a truth about a character or a situation.
-Reveal a secret.
-Introduce a new problem.
-End with a question.
-End with a statement that ties back to something in the scene.
-End with the main character finally understanding something they’d been missing before.

Again . . . Arrive late and leave early

Remember the concept of arriving late and leaving early? As I dug through the archives, I found this quote from one of Stephanie’s old posts that I thought was genius. She said: “Don't force your reader to be there for the set-up and tear-down of the scene. The reader gets to be the bride or groom, okay? They get to enter the church after everyone has gathered, and they get to jet out early while others stay behind to sweep up the rice.”

With scenes, give us the best and cut everything else.

More posts to help you

Assignment time

1. If you're having trouble with beginnings or endings, try cutting your current first or last sentence or scene and starting with the next/previous one instead.

2. Ask yourself if your endings meet the expectations you built up for your readers in the beginning.

3. Can't come up with any good cliffhangers? Try cutting one scene in half at a moment of high tension or conflict.

Any questions? Ask me in the comments.


  1. This was a great post Jill, thank you! And YAY we get more Word Wars next week! *happy dance* I'm looking forward to that :D.

    1. It's when writers all word hard to write as much as they can at the same time. You can keep track of your word count and compare with each other, just for fun. The idea is to get a lot of words written, and it works when you know everyone is writing at the same time, racing.

  2. YAY! I can't wait for more Word Wars! They're so fun!;)
    Great post! I'm going to try putting it to use!:)

    1. Thanks, Emma. Yes, I hope you log lots of words next week. :-)

  3. I've had lots of practice skipping time in my second novel due to the fact that I have to cram twelve years into the first half of the (long) book. I do have a tendency to knock my characters out a lot to end a scene. :) I'll have to work on that. Great quote from Mrs. Morrill, too! I really enjoyed and benefited from this article, so thanks for sharing!

    1. You're welcome, Olivia! I know. Knocking people out just seems so dramatic, but it is a little funny when I catch myself doing it over and over. My poor characters, anyway...