All great novels and stories start out with a mere idea. Maybe it’s a large idea that spans centuries and crosses continents, like Patrick Rothfuss’s first book in The Kingkiller Chronicles series, The Name of the Wind; or maybe it’s magic realism manifest into stories, like Aimee Bender’s books. No matter how grand or ordinary, strange or beguiling your idea, you must take it through an alchemical process that transforms it into a story. How do you do that? This is the function of the scene; it is your story maker. Inside each scene, the vivid details, information, and action breathe life into your flat idea and round it out into something in which a reader participates.
Jordan Rosenfeld is the author of the writing guides Make A Scene Revised and Expanded Edition, Writing the Intimate Character, Writing Deep Scenes with Martha Alderson, A Writer's Guide to Persistence, and Write Free with Rebecca Lawton. She is also the author of suspense novels Women in Red, Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Jordan's articles and essays have been published in such places as The Atlantic, mental_floss, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Pacific Standard, Quartz, Scientific American, Writer's Digest, The Writer, and more. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.
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, the number of which varies for each individual project. And each one of these individual scenes must be built with a structure most easily described as beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of each scene is the focus of this chapter.
The word beginning is a bit confusing, since some scenes pick up in the midst of an action or continue where other actions left off; so I prefer to use the term launch, which more clearly suggests the place where the reader’s attention is engaged anew.
In a manuscript, a new scene is usually signified visually by a break of four lines (called a “soft hiatus”) between the last paragraph of the previous scene and the first paragraph of the next one, or sometimes by a symbol such as an asterisk or a dingbat, to let the reader know that time has passed and a new scene is beginning.
Each new scene is a spoke in the wheel of the plot you started with, and the spoke must be revealed in a way that is vivifying for the reader and 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 to your character and the situation she is embroiled in, capturing your reader’s attention all over again.
You can launch a scene using characters, actions, narrative summary, and setting, but this particular post will focus just on launching a scene with action.
The Action Launch
Many writers believe they must explain every bit of action that is going on right from the start of a scene, but narrative summary defeats action. The sooner you start the action in a scene, the more momentum is available 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; for a drunk character to drop a jar at the grocery; to blackmail a betraying spouse; or to 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. A scene from M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts does just that:
When the key turns in the door, she stops counting and opens her eyes. Sergeant comes in with his gun and points it at her. Then two of Sergeant’s people come in and tighten and buckle the straps of the chair around Melanie’s wrists and ankles. There’s also a strap for her neck; they tighten that one last of all, when her hands and feet are fastened up all the way, and they always do it from behind. The strap is designed so they never have to put their hands in front of Melanie’s face. Melanie sometimes says, “I won’t bite.” She says it as a joke, but Sergeant’s people never laugh. Sergeant did once, the first time she said it, but it was a nasty laugh. And then he said, “Like we’d ever give you the chance, sugar plum.”
M.R. Carey plunges his reader into the scene in this novel. For a significant portion of the early scenes, the reader doesn’t know why Melanie, a ten-year-old child, is restrained in this way. The lack of explanation for what is happening forces the reader to press on to learn more. The action here gives the reader clues: Something about Melanie is either threatening or dangerous, though, based on her internal narration, we don’t yet know what. We want to know what grown men, including a Sergeant, no less, would have to fear from a child so much that he would have to strap her into a chair and point a gun at her the whole time. Clearly something more is going to happen in this environment, and judging from the tone of the paragraph, we can probably expect something intense and thrilling. Action launches tend to energize the reader’s physical senses.
Here’s how to create an action launch:
- Get straight to the action. Don’t drag your feet here. “Jimmy jumped off the cliff”; not “Jimmy stared at the water, imagining how cold it would feel when he jumped.”
- Hook the reader with big or surprising actions. A big or surprising action—outburst, car crash, violent heart attack, public fight—at the launch of a scene can then be the stage for a bunch of consequences to unfold. One caveat: You’ll be unlikely to pull this off in every scene.
- 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—save that for scene middles. Do have a bossy character belittle another character in a way that creates conflict.
- Act first, think later. If a character is going to think in your action opening, let the action come first and the thought be a reaction. “Elizabeth slapped the Prince. When his face turned pink, horror filled her. What have I done? she thought.”
Scenes are the building blocks for any work of fiction—the DNA sequence that makes a novel un-put-downable and unforgettable. When writers are able to craft effective, engaging scenes, they
can develop a complete, cohesive story—and a mesmerizing experience for readers. Make a Scene Revised and Expanded Edition takes you step-by-step through the elements of strong scene construction and demonstrates how the essential aspects of a compelling story—including character, plot, and dramatic tension—function within the framework of individual scenes to give momentum to the whole narrative.