Last week we talked about the basics of scene building in fiction. You can check out that information here: Scene Building Basics. Today, let’s focus a little more deeply on one aspect of a scene: the launch. It’s the kickoff for your scene. It’s the opportunity to pull readers into the action or hook them with the intensity of the moment. The launch is the grab that piques a reader’s interest and keeps them turning the pages.
In the last post, I divided launches into three categories: Action, Narrative, and Setting. Let’s look at each in a little more detail, consider the important factors for each type, and think about when to use which.
An action launch is just what it sounds like – a scene that starts with action! It could be a spaceship crash, a patient rushed into the ER, an explosion in the marketplace, the dragon swooping in over the village.
When crafting an action launch, remember this won’t be the time for flowery language or detailed descriptions. Pack a punch in the opening lines by using powerful verbs and a quick pace. Make sure the characters are speaking and acting with the appropriate emotion and behavior in response to the action that’s happening.
For example: As soon as the doors slid open, he bolted out of the train car and ran full speed toward the exit. Taking the stairs two at a time, he maneuvered around the few people in his way. When he cleared the stairway, he risked a backward glance to see that the woman was, in fact, chasing him.
While this type of launch is exciting for readers and helps with pacing, you won’t be able to start every scene this way. Even heart-pounding action scenes will sometimes need to build momentum before the action kicks in.
Not every action needs to be detailed in a scene. I think about using a narrative launch when I have to communicate information to readers before the start of the action or dialogue. A brief summary might be appropriate so readers know how a character got from point A to point B.
For example: It took him three days before he was able to arrange a meeting with someone who knew someone who might be willing to talk to them.
Details from this character’s three days’ worth of activity wouldn’t be interesting to the reader, but we do need to know the results of his efforts and the fact that some time has passed since we’ve seen him last.
Perhaps you need to get inside the mind of a character before diving into the scene. We may need to understand something about the inner state of a character’s mind that won’t be revealed in their coming actions or speech. For example, what if a character has just learned some devastating news and is distracted, but has to show up for an undercover operation anyway. It’s probably important that the reader understand this, so potential repercussions from her state of mind make sense later.
Details about setting are woven into the narrative throughout a story when they’re necessary to help readers create a picture in their imagination. But when and how should a scene launch with the setting front and center? If the setting itself is crucial to the action or narrative of the particular scene, this type of launch may be appropriate.
I have a scene in one of my novels where the main character rescues an injured pilot from a crash near her hidden camp in the forest. Part of the tension of the scene is created when she must traverse the overgrown brush and rocky terrain, attempting to get him to safety before an enemy patrol finds them. The physical landscape plays an essential role in the scene and if felt appropriate to launch by setting the stage. As with any part of the narrative, be careful not to info dump in a launch. You don’t want readers eyes to glaze over. Keep the language alive and the pace moving. Some ideas on how to do this:
- Reveal details of the setting by having the character interact with it. Sharp brambles carved stinging scrapes into her legs.
- Use multiple senses to create the description: the briny scent of seawater; the sharp crack of thunder over the open plain; the stinging cold against bare skin.
One of the things I do during a round of edits is consider my scene launches. Choosing the best launch style for each scene helps with the overall pacing of the story. Launches should be effective, appropriate for the action that’s about to unfold, and designed to pull readers in.