The way a scene begins — or launches — prepares the reader for whatever lies ahead. When I was young, my mother often reminded me that “first impressions are lasting ones.” Your scene’s launch sets the tone for all the prose that follows. And it’s your only chance to make the right first impression.
Books are built on individual scenes, each of which should make a tangible contribution to the story. From the first sentence, your scenes should feel both natural and necessary: a well-placed part of a logical progression. If a reader has to ask what’s going on, or even why a scene is there in the first place, you still have some editing left to do.
Each scene has a job to do.
It’s easy for writers to grow attached to specific scenes. Maybe we’re proud of a clever turn of events or a passage of gorgeous prose. However, a scene’s first job is to advance the story. That’s not to say you should pack every scene with plot-driving action. That would rush readers too much for them to connect with your characters. But you should be able to justify each scene’s presence in your book based on its contributions to the story.
In addition to revealing plot points, scenes can teach us important information about characters, relationships, and setting details. For a character’s behavior to make sense in the context of the story, readers need to get to know them. We get to know characters the same way we get to know people in real life: we spend time with them and observe the way they interact with the world.
When you begin a scene, ask yourself a few questions: what is your character trying to do? Will they succeed? Why is it useful for the reader to see this particular action, event, or introspection? What do we learn from this scene that we didn’t know before? Then launch your scene in a place that hooks readers’ attention and primes them for what’s to come.
Your opening sets the tone.
There are a few ways to launch your scene:
- A narrative approach begins inside your character’s head.
- A setting-focused launch starts with the physical surroundings.
- Action launches throw the reader right into an event.
Determine the best launch based on your intentions for the scene. If setting plays a major role, or can be used to to foreshadow events to come, you may want to lead with it. Narrative launches can pull the reader out of the story, but sometimes your main character’s internal monologue really makes the scene. A well-executed action launch will grab readers’ attention and make your book difficult to put down. Whatever technique you use, make sure it supports your intentions and doesn’t break the flow of your story.
In addition to aligning with your intentions, your scene’s launch should provide variety. Any technique or element of style will become a distraction if you overuse it. You might love launching scenes with rich setting descriptions. However, this may eventually cause readers to wonder what you’re really writing about: the story, or the place where it happens. Vary how you launch your scenes to keep your prose interesting.
Scenes should launch in the most authentic and engaging way possible.
Launch your scene from an angle and location (in both time and space) that will make readers take notice. You want to intrigue them enough to keep them reading. This means using a variety of launch styles — narrative, setting, action — to control the pace and keep from fatiguing your readers. It also means being careful not to start too late. Trust the reader’s intellect. Don’t include too much lead-up, or they won’t have enough patience to get to the meat of the scene.
At the same time, provide enough context for readers to orient themselves in the scene. We’ve all read scene openers that feel jarring and leave us more disoriented than excited to read more. It can be a tricky balance, but — like any writing skill — you’ll launch your scenes with more confidence as you gain practice.