Scenes are little stories, strung together, that make a novel. The key to understanding scenes is to realize they need to accomplish in themselves what the book as a whole does: establish setting, create character, have a plot, and make the reader want to read on. Here are three ways to start a scene: with action, through narration, or with setting.
Start with Action
One way to start a new scene is to jump into the center of the action, immediately. Consider the opening line of the first chapter of The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy (2018):
I have just taken an overly large bite of iced bun when Callum slices his finger off.
Yuck. But, the author has my attention.
In this instance, Mackenzi Lee opens her novel without preamble. She doesn’t first explain who “I” am or who Callum is. She doesn’t elaborate on where or when this sticky bun is being eaten. We know nothing about the characters or the setting before we learn this grotesque and unfortunate instance has happened to poor Callum.
As it turns out, the main character is Felicity, and even though it’s the 1700s and she’s merely a teenaged girl, Felicity intends to be a doctor. Luckily for nine-fingered Callum, she has been privately studying medicine and knows how to stitch him up.
By jumping into the middle of the action, Lee shows her readers who her protagonist is and what she can do. Felicity is not weak-kneed, she is adamant about becoming a doctor and will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. These traits are hinted at in the description of the action. Felicity does not scream or faint when this calamity happens to Callum, she remains calm. Lee uses this action opening to show character and set up the story.
From a narrative perspective, Lee is also creating drama. When you read that line, you ask yourself: What’s going to happen to Callum? Then you read on to find out. When crafting a scene, always think about creating tension. Make the reader ask what’s going to happen next. Starting in the middle of the action is one way to achieve that goal.
Start with Narration
Action is exciting, but that doesn’t mean narration can’t pique a reader’s interest. Take for instance, the first paragraph of Ruta Sepetys’ Out of the Easy (2013):
My mother’s a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.
Okay, then. But, wow, does the author have my attention. This young adult novel follows Josie, who’s the teenaged daughter of the prostitute. Instantly my reader’s mind is asking the next questions. What’s it like to lead Josie’s life? What’s going to happen to her? How is her life shaped by her mother’s lifestyle?
Remember, the goal with every scene is to make your reader curious. Why is something happening? Most importantly: what’s going to occur next?
Another element to keep in mind is: who is the main character? Josie’s matter-of-fact description of her mother’s profession reveals her personality. She’s the kind of person who takes life in stride, and the reference to the dictionary implies that maybe she understands the world through books or academics. Either way, we can see characterization through her narration.
Start with Setting
Sometimes setting is so part and parcel of the scene that it’s worth starting there. Take these opening lines from Carl Hiassen’s Skink No Surrender (2014):
I walked down to the beach and waited for Malley, but she didn’t show up.
The moon was full and the ocean breeze felt warm. Two hours I sat there on the sand—no Malley. In the beginning it was just annoying, but after a while I began to worry something was wrong.
Whether you’re a fan of Hiassen’s adult novels or his Middle Grade ones, such as this, you know that his crazy capers usually take place in Florida. The Sunshine State is almost a character unto itself, and it certainly drives the action. Here we see that someone young has gone down to the beach at night, waiting for his cousin who does not show. This makes the reader wonder: why is a kid at the beach at night? Are those two allowed to be there on their own? What are they planning to do? Where is Malley?
However you choose to open to your scene (and it should vary from one to the next), you want to choose the opening that inspires the most curiosity and interest in the reader.