Book Therapist: How To Exit A Scene Early

Hey all,


Taking a break this week from fairytales to answer a question from one of our MBT faithful. We’ll go back to fairytale structure next week. But here’s the question:

UnknownQ: How do you to leave a scene early and end with some kind of “disaster?” They seem to counter act the other.

 A: Great question. I understand the dilemma but actually, exiting a scene early is exactly how you leave the reader wanting more and turning the pages. Let’s review what encompasses a great scene.

Scene goal. All scenes need some kind of goal. Any thing that advances the plot, even a little bit, is moving the story forward and probably hints at or answers some part of the over all story goal and question. Ask yourself, “What is the point of this scene?” Not all scenes need to be high tension or full of action but all scenes must move the story farther down the road.

In the movie The Proposal, there’s a scene where Margaret dances in the woods with 90 year old Gammy. It’s a fun if not wild scene and there is no conflict other than Gammy thinking Margaret has lost her mind for a moment. But the scene goal is to show Margaret in a state we’ve not seen her to this point — fun, letting go and letting loose. We see a part of her essence.

How did the scene end? Not with Gammy and Margaret having a long heart to heart on how Margaret was so alone in life and afraid of letting anyone into her heart. No. Drew came up with the news Margaret’s phone was in town and he was going to pick it up. Margaret decided to go with him leaving the “freeing” moment with Gammy right there on the forest floor. But transformation was beginning.

Tension. Every scene needs some level of tension. Margaret’s dance scene had a small bit of tension because we’re not exactly sure what’s going on with her or how Gammy will react. Yet, in an earlier scene when Margaret fires one of the editors who worked for her, Bob, the tension is high. He gets crazy eyes and confronts her in the hallway, in front of everyone. The scene both advanced the story, raised the stakes and spiked the tension.

The scene ended in the hallway with Margaret threatening security on Bob. Now, if Bob had continued arguing with her or perhaps recanted, apologized and begged for his job back, the scene would’ve gone on too long.

Ask yourself, have you achieved the proper tension? Have you advance the story? If yes, then exit.

Emotion. Scenes work best if we emotionally connect with the readers. The protagonist must be facing a dilemma or story problem. He is faced with a heart tugging or wrenching decision. Something must be at stake.

For Margaret, if she didn’t get married and stay in the country, her career, which was her life, would be over. And she wasn’t going to let that happen. So every scene reflects her goal of keeping her job, therefore keeping her life. Once you’ve achieved the emotional goal of the scene, then exit.

When Margaret met Gertrude, Drew’s ex-girlfriend, they had a little chat about Drew and Gert’s relationship. How and why it ended. It gave Margaret a better glimpse of Drew but it also set up a stake — was she violating true love by forcing Drew to marry her? Was Gertrude the better choice for him? But the writer didn’t push that point. She let the conversation about their past end once she showed the Gert was a good woman and Margaret was beginning to doubt the marriage charade.

It would’ve been tempting to keep the scene going with Margaret probing Gertrude for information. Or maybe Drew joining them and supposedly upping the tension by having Drew, Gert and Margaret — the past and the present — on screen together. But no, we didn’t need all of that drama. Once the writer established the hint of doubt on Margaret’s part, she exited the scene.

Now, there are more elements to a scene that the ones I listed, but you get the point of a scene. You get the gist. Once you set up the scene goal and emotion, advancing the story question, you exit.

Now, how do you exit? Exit on a question, a doubt, a hint of love, a moment of tension or suspense. Yes, even a disaster. But not every scene can end with, “I just found out you’re not my father” kind of tension!

The moment you see or feel you’ve said all you want to say, end the scene. Often, I write a line that sums up the whole scene and I know, “That’s it, I’m done.” Time to exit.

If you weave the scene with the stakes escalating or the story moving forward, then you will automatically end on a hook or with a story question.

This is where it’s VERY vital to know 1. what the story is about 2. what the heroine/hero wants and 3. what will they do in the end they can’t do in the beginning.

If I’m writing a scene where the hero tells the heroine “I love you,” I might end the scene once he confesses. Or give a hint of her emotional response.

“I love you,” he said.

“Y-You love me?”

“With every fiber of my being.” He kissed her forehead gently.

“We’ve only known each other for two days.” She couldn’t breath. His nearness warmed her. Frightened her. “H-how can you–”

“Trust me. I love you.”

His kiss emptied her of all breath and she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to speak when he broke away. Love? How could she tell him? He’d just confessed the impossible.

See? That’s how you end with a hook and exit early. The temptation would be to go on, have the discussion about why she can’t love him, or with her trying to get away from him, but instead, I left the scene with a question.

Something is up. Something is wrong. The reader turns the page to find out what!

Make sense? Send your book therapy questions to



Rachel Hauck

Best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She excels in seeing the deeper layers of a story. With a love for teaching and mentoring, Rachel comes alongside writers to help them craft their novel.

A worship leader, board member of ACFW and popular writing teacher, Rachel is the author of over 15 novels. She lives in Florida with her husband and her dog, Lola. Contact her at:

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3 Responses to Book Therapist: How To Exit A Scene Early

  1. Tari Faris March 7, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

    Thanks, Rachel – So helpful. I think this is a difficult concept as a beginning writer. We hear so often that the scene needs to end in disaster we assume the person needs to fall off the cliff when often it is more suspensiful if they are left hanging on the edge. Or even putting their first foot on the mountian. (of course, that is just a figurative example since Rom Coms don’t have a lot of people on cliffs. :) ) Thanks again.

  2. dtopliff March 7, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    Very helpful w/ great examples. Thanks so much, Rachel! (again)

  3. Lisa Jordan March 7, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    Terrific post, Rach. The point is to keep that reader up way past her bedtime with “one more page.”

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