Any story or novel is, in essence, a series of scenes strung together like beads on a wire, with narrative summary adding texture and color between. A work of fiction will comprise many scenes, and each one of these individual scenes must be built with a structure most easily described as having a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of each scene is what we’ll address here.
The word beginning is a bit misleading since some scenes pick up in the middle of the action or continue where others left off, so I prefer the term launch, which more clearly suggests the place where the reader’s attention is engaged anew.
Visually, in a manuscript a new scene is usually signified by the start of a chapter, by a break of four lines (called a soft hiatus) between the last paragraph of one scene and the first paragraph of the next one, or sometimes by a symbol such as an asterisk, to let the reader know that time has passed.
Each new scene still has a responsibility to the idea or plot you started with, and that is to communicate your idea in a way that is vivifying for the reader and that provides an experience, not a lecture. Scene launches, therefore, pave the way for all the robust consequences of the idea or plot to unfurl. Each scene launch is a reintroduction, capturing your reader’s attention all over again. Start each scene by asking yourself two key questions:
- Where are my characters in the plot? Where did I leave them and what are they doing now?
- What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene?
Only you and the course of your narrative can decide which kinds of launches will work best for each scene, and choosing the right launch often takes some experimentation. Here we’ll cover 10 key techniques for launching scenes in three main ways: with action, narrative summary, or setting.
The sooner you start the action in a scene, the more momentum it has to carry the reader forward. If you find yourself explaining an action, then you’re not demonstrating the action any longer; you’re floating in a distant star system known as Nebulous Intellectulus—more commonly known as your head—and so is the reader.
Keep in mind the key elements of action: time and momentum. It takes time to plan a murder over late-night whispers; to cause an embarrassing scene by drunkenly dropping a jar at the grocery; to blackmail a betraying spouse; or to haul off and kick a wall in anger. These things don’t happen spontaneously, they happen over a period of time. They are sometimes quick, sometimes slow, but once started, they unfold until finished.
The key to creating strong momentum is to start an action without explaining anything:
Albert leads them all into the dining room and everyone drifts around the large teak table, studying the busily constructed salads at each place setting—salads, which, with their knobs of cheese, jutting chives and little folios of frisée, resemble small Easter hats.
“Do we wear these or eat them?” asks Jack. In his mouth is a piece of gray chewing gum like a rat’s brain.
Lorrie Moore plunges her reader into the above scene in the story “Beautiful Grade.” Although the action is quiet, there is physical movement and a sense of real time. The lack of explanation for what is happening forces the reader to press on to learn more. The action gives clues to the reader: The characters are led into a room full of wildly decorated salads that one character is uncertain whether he should eat or wear, which gives a sense of the environment—probably chic. We get a feeling for Jack—he’s got a good sense of humor. Clearly something more is going to happen in this environment, and judging from the tone of the paragraph, we can probably expect irony and humor.
Action launches tend to energize the reader’s physical senses. To create an action launch:
1. Get Straight to the Action.
Don’t drag your feet here. “Jimmy jumped off the cliff” rather than “Jimmy stared at the water, imagining how cold it would feel when he jumped.”
2. Hook the Reader With Big or Surprising Actions.
An outburst, car crash, violent heart attack or public fight at the launch of a scene allows for more possibilities within it.
3. Be Sure That the Action Is True to Your Character.
Don’t have a shy character choose to become suddenly uninhibited at the launch of a scene. Do have a bossy character belittle another character in a way that creates conflict.
4. Act First, Think Later.
If a character is going to think in your action opening, let the action come first, as in, “Elizabeth slapped the Prince. When his face turned pink, horror filled her. What have I done? she thought.”
Writers often try to include narrative summary, such as descriptions of the history of a place or the backstory of characters, right at the launch of a scene, believing that the reader will not be patient enough to allow actions and dialogue to tell the story. In large doses, narrative summaries are to scenes what voice-overs are to movies—distractions and interruptions.
Yet a scene launch is actually one of the easier places to use a judicious amount of narrative summary, so long as you don’t keep the reader captive too long. Take the opening of this scene in Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel How to Be Lost:
The afternoon before, I planned how I would tell her. I would begin with my age and maturity, allude to a new lover, and finish with a bouquet of promises: grandchildren, handwritten letters, boxes from Tiffany sent in time to beat the rush. I sat in my apartment drinking Scotch and planning the words.
The above bit is almost entirely narrative summary, and the only action—drinking Scotch—is described, not demonstrated. There is no real setting, and the only visual cues the reader has are vague and abstract. However, the narrative summary does demonstrate the nature of the character, Caroline—she feels she must butter her mother up, bribe her even, in order to ask for something she needs, which turns out to be a relatively small thing. It reflects Caroline’s tendency to live in her head, and shows us she’s the kind of person who must prepare herself mentally for difficult things—a theme that recurs throughout the book. It’s also useful because Caroline spends a lot of time by herself, cutting herself off from her relationships, and, therefore, it is very true to her personality. In just one short paragraph of narrative summary, the reader learns a lot about Caroline, and Ward gets to action in the next paragraph:
Georgette stretched lazily on the balcony. Below, an ambulance wailed. A man with a shopping cart stood underneath my apartment building, eating chicken wings and whistling.
If the entire scene had continued in narrative summary, it would have had a sedative effect on the reader, and the scene’s momentum would have been lost.
A narrative approach is best used with the following launch strategies:
5. Save Time by Beginning With Summary.
Sometimes actions will simply take up more time and space in the scene than you would like. A scene beginning needs to move fairly quickly and, on occasion, summary will get the reader there faster.
6. Communicate Necessary Information to the Reader Before the Action Kicks in.
Sometimes information needs to be imparted simply in order to set action in motion later in the scene. Opening sentences such as, “My mother was dead before I arrived,” “The war had begun” and, “The storm left half of the city underwater,” could easily lead to action.
7. Reveal a Character’s Thoughts or Intentions That Cannot Be Shown Through Action.
Coma victims, elderly characters, small children, and other characters sometimes cannot speak or act for physical, mental, or emotional reasons; therefore the scene may need to launch with narration to let the reader know what they think and feel.
Sometimes setting details—like a jungle on fire, or moonlight sparkling on a lake—are so important to plot or character development that it’s appropriate to include visual setting at the launch of a scene. This is often the case in books set in unusual, exotic or challenging locations such as snowy Himalayan mountains, lush islands or brutal desert climates. If the setting is going to bear dramatically on the characters and the plot, then there is every reason to let it lead into the scene that will follow.
John Fowles’ novel The Magus is set mostly on a Greek island that leaves an indelible imprint on the main character, Nicholas. He becomes involved with an eccentric man whose isolated villa in the Greek countryside becomes the stage upon which the major drama of the novel unfolds. Therefore, it makes sense for him to launch a scene in this manner:
It was a Sunday in late May, blue as a bird’s wing. I climbed up the goat-paths to the island’s ridge-back, from where the green froth of the pine-tops rolled two miles down to the coast. The sea stretched like a silk carpet across to the shadowy wall of mountains on the mainland to the west. … It was an azure world, stupendously pure, and as always when I stood on the central ridge of the island and saw it before me, I forgot most of my troubles.
The reader needs to be able to see in detail the empty Greek countryside in which Nicholas becomes so isolated. It sets the scene for something beautiful and strange to happen, and Fowles does not disappoint.
These final three methods can create an effective scenic launch:
8. Engage With Specific Visual Details.
If your character is deserted on an island, the reader needs to know the lay of the land. Any fruit trees in sight? What color sand? Are there rocks, shelter or wild, roaming beasts?
9. Use Scenery to Set the Tone of the Scene.
Say your scene opens in a jungle where your character is going to face danger; you can describe the scenery in language that conveys darkness, fear and mystery.
10. Reflect a Character’s Feelings Through Setting.
Say you have a sad character walking through a residential neighborhood. The descriptions of the homes can reflect that sadness—houses can be in disrepair, with rotting wood and untended yards. You can use weather in the same way. A bright, powerfully sunny day can reflect a mood of great cheer in a character.
Scene launches happen so quickly and are so soon forgotten that it’s easy to rush through them, figuring it doesn’t really matter how you get it started. Don’t fall prey to that thinking. Take your time with each scene launch. Craft it as carefully and strategically as you would any other aspect of your scene. Remember that a scene launch is an invitation to the reader, beckoning him to come further along with you. Make your invitation as alluring as possible.