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Marginal Notes

And . . . Scene

Dan Brown has mastered the art of writing books that are hard to put down. This is remarkable because, in the course of most of his novels, he also introduces a wealth of background information. Just The da Vinci Code alone – to take his most popular example – educated readers on everything from Gnostic pseudo-Gospels to Renaissance cryptography. Yet his story keeps driving forward at a fast pace that never feels forced. One of the ways he does it is by creating effective scene endings.

Of course, your denouement needs to be clearly defined, wrapping up the plot questions you introduced near the beginning and giving readers a satisfying sense of closure. Your chapter endings need to be sharp, teasing future events to keep readers from closing the book at a convenient stopping point.

Scene endings are trickier to manage simply because there are so many of them. If you work too hard to bring a cliffhanger or sudden revelation to every scene, it won’t be long before your readers feel manipulated. You want endings that are subtle enough to feel organic, but still make readers want to keep binging your scenes like a Neflix series. So how does Brown do it?

Warning: there will be spoilers. I’ll be describing the content of key scenes so even those of you who haven’t read The da Vinci Code will be able to follow what’s going on. An additional warning: I’m well aware of Brown’s other literary shortcomings. He tells a ripping good tale, but as I read through it again for this article, I often itched to pick up my editing pencil.

So . . . the obvious candidate for a good scene ending is some new revelation that leads you to keep reading to find out what it means. And Brown does a fair amount of this – the second scene of chapter 86, where Remy, Leigh Teabing’s servant, reveals that he’s secretly working for the mysterious Teacher by turning a gun on Teabing. Or the end of chapter 98, where we discover that Teabing is, in fact, the Teacher and the earlier attack was staged.

But as I say, you can only include so many of these kinds of revelations. Brown often changes things up by ending a scene, not with new information, but with a revelation that rewrites what you think you already know.

Take, for instance, the opening scenes of chapter eight. Robert Langdon, an expert on symbolism, has just been brought in on the murder of Jacques Saunier, a curator at the Louvre, who wrote a series of cryptic and possibly satanic symbols next to his body while he was dying. Most of the first scene is spent on what the symbolism might mean, with the devout Captain Fache, the police inspector who summoned Langdon, acting hostile and suspicious toward the symbols’ satanic implications. Finally Langdon makes an obvious point that, if Saunier wanted to lead police to who killed him, he would have simply written down a name.

“As Langdon spoke those words, a smug smile crossed Fache’s lips for the first time that night. ‘Precisement,’ Fache said. ‘Precisement.’” And . . . scene.

Note that the ending reaches back into the emotional core of the scene – the mystery of the symbols next to Saunier’s body. Tying back to the central emotion of the scene is what makes the ending feel organic. Yet the last line of the scene gives what you’ve just read a new meaning. Fache’s smugness when Langdon mentions the absence of a name shows that Fache’s hostility so far hasn’t been directed against the symbolism, but against Langdon himself. You want to keep reading to find out what this new information might mean.

And a few scenes later, we find that Saunier had written Langdon’s name next to his body, but that the police had erased it before he arrived. Langdon has secretly been Fache’s prime suspect from the beginning. Saunier’s death was already mysterious, but Fache’s reaction at the end of the scene both opens up and personalizes the mystery.

Instead of advancing the plot, some of Brown’s scene endings move the characters forward. The scene in Teabring’s car that opens chapter 67 is mostly about the details of flying out of France on Teabing’s private plane. The emotional core of the scene is Sophie and Langdon realizing they can escape from the French police. In the midst of this relatively peaceful scene – relatively, since they do discover the police are waiting for them at Teabing’s estate, and they have the evil albino tied up in the trunk – readers see a bond building between Langdon and Sophie.

“Sophie sat back in her seat, and Langdon saw a quiet smile cross her lips. He realized that he too was now grinning.” And . . . scene.

One of the ways Brown keeps his pace from feeling breakneck is that he develops several different threads that move at different speeds. One of the more gentle and slow-moving, amid the international race to discover the keystone to the grail, is the growing attraction between Sophie and Langdon. Dipping into this slow-moving subplot now and again gives readers a sense of respite, even in the middle of the action.

Then there’s the second scene in chapter 21. At the end of the previous chapter, Langdon had cracked the meaning of the strange words written next to Saunier’s body – they’re a reference to the Mona Lisa. By this point, Sophie, Saunier’s granddaughter and a policewoman herself, is shielding Langdon from the police and helping him try to understand what happened to her grandfather. When Langdon explains the message’s meaning, she has a flashback to when she was six and her grandfather gave her a private showing of the Mona Lisa after hours. Sophie didn’t like the painting because the Mona Lisa looked like she was keeping a secret and asked her grandfather to tell her why she was smiling. Her grandfather refused.

“Sophie stamped her foot. ‘I told you, I don’t like secrets!’

‘Princess,’ he smiled [ed. ouch!]. ‘Life is filled with secrets. You can’t learn them all at once.’” And . . . scene.

Note that the flashback tells us a bit more about Sophie and her relationship to her grandfather, and the final two lines reach back to Sophie’s dislike of secrets, which is the emotional core of the scene. The ending also captures the emotional core of the novel – finally uncovering all the long-held secrets is what the book is about. So this cozy, innocuous flashback essentially summarizes the entire story, in the two lines of the ending.

So how do you write the kind of scene endings that Brown specializes in? Chances are, the ending is already in there somewhere. All you need to do is find it.

The first step is to look back at the core of the scene. What role does it play in moving the plot forward? Can you delay the revelation of that role until the final moments of the scene? What is the scene’s dominant emotion? Can you somehow summarize that emotion in the last couple of lines? If you learn to be aware of what each scene means, you can create the kind of scene endings that feel natural yet keep driving readers forward. Your scenes will end, but your readers’ interest will just keep growing.