Knowing how to start a scene so your reader is involved from the beginning is a skill anyone can develop. Read the following tips to ensure each set of unfolding events in your story captivates from the first few lines:
What is a scene? A quick definition
A scene is ‘A sequence of continuous action in a play, film, opera, or book.’ (Oxford English Dictionary) The key words here are ‘sequence’ and ‘action’. A scene shows the chain of cause and effect. This could be character-centered (a character’s choice and the immediate consequences that result) or situation-centered (for example, a scene showing a hurricane approaching a coastal town).
The other meanings of ‘scene’ are also useful. A scene is also ‘an incident of a specified nature’ (e.g. ‘scenes of violence’, ‘the scene of the crime’). This is important because it makes us remember that scenes, like a crime scene, have tone and mood impacted by the nature of events they show. Tone and mood can either stay mostly the same or change as the scene unfolds and new plot developments arise.
A third meaning from the stage is also useful: ‘ A subdivision of an act of a play in which the time is continuous and the setting fixed and which does not usually involve a change of characters.’
This reminds us that scenes typically focus on a single, specific setting, event and character (or group of characters). For example, a birthday party, or a murder, or an encounter with a handsome stranger.
So how do you begin a ‘sequence of continuous action’ that grips your reader?
1. Use mystery or suspense to create direction
If you’ve ever read a story that meandered all over without getting to the point, you’ll know how frustrating it is.
Direction in a scene, a feeling events are leading towards later developments, creates narrative tension. The feeling of the unknown that makes us ask ‘And then…?’
At the start of a scene, include unknowns that readers will want answered. It could be something simple, such as the reason why a character is sprinting for the bus. Where are they off to in such a hurry? This, at this point, is a mystery.
Mystery is more than strange fogs descending, unexplained screams in the night. It can be something as simple as the not-yet-explained reason why a character left their house, walked a few paces, stopped, frowned, and hurried back inside.
Let’s explore an example, the opening lines to John Le Carré’s espionage novel The Night Manager:
‘On a snow-swept January evening of 1991, Jonathan Pine, the English night manager of the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich, forsook his office behind the reception desk and, in the grip of feelings he had not known before, took up his position in the lobby as a prelude to extending his hotel’s welcome to a distinguished late arrival.’
You could say the opening sentence is a little overwrought due to it’s length. Yet thanks to this, Carré is also able to weave two mysteries into the scene’s opening lines. Firstly, the mystery of what feelings exactly are ‘gripping’ Pine. Secondly, the mystery of who the ‘distinguished late arrival’ is.
The author delays answering these questions. The next sentences immediately start to fill in details of setting, in this case time or time-period:
‘The Gulf war had just begun. Throughout the day news of the Allied bombings, discreetly relayed by the staff, had caused consternation on the Zurich stock exchange.’
This itself creates more suspense, as we wonder, perhaps, if the war is related to the night manager’s feelings.
2. Anchor your scene opening in setting
It’s also intriguing if, at the start of a scene, we have a sense of where and when events are unfolding. Setting gives a scene tone and mood, a sense of the possible (and impossible).
For example, Le Carré’s opening time setting (the beginning of the Gulf war) leads us to expect conflict of some kind. We perhaps wonder already whether the night manager is caught up in the war in some way.
When beginning a scene with setting details, ask yourself:
- What does my setting make possible? (E.g. In a war zone, it’s possible the direction of your character’s life could change drastically due to conflicts beyond their control)
- What does my setting make impossible? (For example, if characters are stuck in an alpine ravine, there’s only so long they can survive)
- What do I want the tone and mood of my setting to be? Is your scene’s setting tense, relaxed, lyrical, dramatic? Will this tone change over the course of the scene? Why?
Thinking about how setting circumscribes what can or can’t happen in your scene will help you brainstorm possible plot developments.
Start a scene with a setting that feels connected to your characters’ current desires or emotional states. For example, Le Carré’s wartime Zurich feels an apt setting for night manager’s troubled, secret thoughts.
3. Use action to create momentum
There’s no single ‘right’ way for how to start a scene. Sometimes you might begin with riveting action, sometimes with slow, lyrical place description. It depends on the tone, mood and pace you want to create from the start.
Starting a scene with action, however, helps to create immediate momentum.
Consider, for example, this scene beginning at the start of David Mitchell’s novel The Bone Clocks:
‘I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolatey eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.’
There isn’t ‘action’ in the sense of a car chase or shootout. But even the way the character opens the curtains – flinging them open – creates a sense of dynamic movement and the character’s state of desire.
The action of opening the curtains forcefully and looking outward, while thinking of Vinny, shows the character Holly’s impulsive, decisive nature. This establishes a sense of character psychology (forceful, headstrong decisiveness) that makes her subsequent running away from home feel consistent with what came before.
Great actions for starting scenes include:
- Actions that suggest impending change: E.g. Packing a travel case or stepping off a plane in an unfamiliar land
- Actions that suggest urgency or danger: A character fleeing others; a character desperately trying to get through to someone on the phone
- Actions that one wouldn’t usually expect in the given context: A character ducking behind a fence to hide from a familiar face; a character discovering a radical change in their environment or even self (like Josef K waking up to find he’s a a critter in Kafka)
4. Start a scene with context-giving summary
Because ‘show, don’t tell’ is repeated so often, you might sometimes feel unsure whether you can summarize current or prior events in narration. Yet not everything can be shown – some telling is necessary.
Depending on your genre or the point you are at in the story, you might well wish to start a scene with summary. In historical fiction, for example, you might want to start a scene with a short bit of narrative describing the historical or political backdrop for your characters’ lives.
‘The first bomb had fallen only two days before. Now the city was already shell-like, as people had piled into whatever transport they could find, beg, steal, and headed for the border.’
Summary scene openings like this immediately give your reader context for coming events. It’s similar to a theatre production, when the curtain goes up. You see the backdrop before an actor even comes on stage. That backdrop gives context, something through which you can frame and understand what follows.
A big part of starting scenes using summary well is understanding what to tell. Many beginning authors begin with characters waking up and having cute conversations with parents over breakfast.
However, unless the conversation itself (or, even, the breakfast) contains revealing incident or characterization, rather tell the reader something more relevant to the coming scene and your character’s life.
5. Start a scene with intriguing dialogue
Another ‘rule’ you may often hear is never to start a scene with dialogue. Yet if this is a rule, it’s one many authors break, and often to great effect. For example, the dialogue that opens another John le Carré book, this time The Spy who Came in from the Cold:
The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.’
Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.
Immediately we have an unknown character who we know will enter the scenes from the wings at some point in the scene (or perhaps, even later in the story). This dialogue introduces mystery to the unfolding action and shows how invested the characters are in the man’s arrival. It makes us anticipate what the story has in store for us.
The opening waiting, the tension, sets the scene for further bickering and tension. The American says to Leamas:
‘But you can’t wait for ever; he’s nine hours over schedule.’
‘If you want to go, go. You’ve been very good,’ Leamas added. ‘I’ll tell Kramer you’ve been damn good.’
‘But how long will you wait?’
‘Until he comes […] He’s waiting for the dark,’ Leamas muttered. ‘I know he is.’
This further dialogue establishes that Leamas has a closer connection to, or understanding of, the mystery man. It subtly suggests that Leamas is somehow higher – or at least different – in rank and role to the American.
Note how Le Carré reveals as much as he conceals, building relationships betwen characters subtly and his scene’s uncertain situation as it unfolds.
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