[Exit, pursued by a bear.]

Extra points if you catch the title reference. (For those who don’t, the famous direction appears in Act III, Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale.)

In addition to meeting today’s “Starts with E” requirement, the direction points to the topic of today’s Writing Wednesday post: getting your characters out of Dodge. Or off the beach. (Or into the mouth of a bear. Your call.)

Closing a scene often proves more difficult than anticipated. If your characters act like mine do, they often refuse to move along when their time onstage expires. Instead they draw out scenes until the awkward silence springs from the laptop and hovers palpably in the room like the Ghost of Usefulness Past. No amount of chain-or-saber rattling will convince them to exeunt quietly.

In first drafts I let them ramble, at least for a while. Sometimes they have useful information which rewrites the scene – or others – in ways I didn’t anticipate. In writing, as in life, you can learn a lot by listening when characters speak.

But when editing, bring out the bears.

Not every scene ends with car chases, explosions, or ursine violence. (Most of them don’t unless you read my margin notes, which are not for the faint of heart.) Yet every scene must end, and sooner rather than later is the rule.

Part of the difficulty is that we don’t live in novels. We live in the spaces between. Nobody visits the toilet in Star Wars, but you’d better believe they had facilities on the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon too. I’ve never seen James Bond brush his teeth, but he would do a lot less kissing if he didn’t. We don’t see these things because they doesn’t advance the plot (unless they do, in which case you’d better lock your protagonist in a porta-potty with an angry marmot post-haste – and send me a copy, I’d like to see that scene).

The key is learning how much information the reader needs to understand your characters’ lives and how much, as they say, is fluff. It makes sense to pick up the dry-cleaning in The Devil Wears Prada but not in The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society, and even less in A Game of Thrones (extra points if you understand why). The devil – and the difference – is in the details.

There is no one-shot cure for the scene exit problem, but here are a few guidelines I’ve developed in editing my own:

1.Someone has an appointment.  In addition to being the first thing out of my mouth when one of the cats goes racing through the room for no apparent reason, this is a great way to end a scene. It takes a little planning on the front end, however, because you need to set up the scene so that your characters go into the conversation with limited time to spend. (This tracks “real life” well, too – how many times have you picked up the phone to make one last call before running out the door, or had the doorbell ring when you were on your way out?)

2. Trump cards – play ’em if you got ’em. This works well with characters in conflict. Let one deliver a trump line and depart – or, better yet, let the recipient walk out before your protagonist has the chance, and close the scene with him-her-or-it realizing what should have been said. Again, art mirrors life, and the scene can close with a bang or a whimper – or both, as circumstances permit.

3. Just end it. Cut to the next scene in sequence, either by ending the chapter or simply moving on to another scene. If the reader can follow the action without difficulty, you may not even need a “transition” per se. One note here: I prefer to break chapters mid-scene (or, more accurately, at the start) so a “reveal” or action of some kind takes place on the first page of the new chapter.  As long as it’s not too artificial it keeps the reader turning pages past the point where one normally puts a book down. Don’t end a scene at the end of a chapter if you can avoid it because that gives your audience a chance to leave, and you don’t want that if you can avoid it.

These are just three of the infinite number of ways to end a scene, but the point isn’t really how you end them – it’s getting them over before they drag on into boredom, so the reader keeps turning pages and hoping for more.

And if all else fails, quote Shakespeare:

Exit, pursued by a bear.

Have you got a favorite scene ending, in your own writing or someone else’s? Hop into the comments, I’d love to hear.

One thought on “[Exit, pursued by a bear.]

  • April 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    “From the very beginning, from the first moment, I may almost say, of my aquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.
    “You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”
    And with these words he hastily left the room, and Elizabeth heard him the next moment open the front door and quit the house.

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