Scene Writing, The Writing Life

Scene-Building: Beginnings


Scenes are the core building blocks of my fiction writing style. I don’t think in chapters at all anymore, except as a big-picture timeline of the story. It is the individual scene where I can meet my characters head on and discover what they have to say at any given time during the tale.

Don’t be misled to think that a scene just conveys what’s happening at that moment. In fact, I believe learning how to build great individual scenes, and seamlessly and successfully connect them is so significant that I’m going to be spending the next several features delving into them with you

Just like the book itself or even the chapters, each scene should have a beginning, a middle and an end. But look further than that, and know that within this fundamental structure lie so many other cool things – different techniques, elements and many other considerations that can drive your story to a level you never thought possible.

I will say that in order to do that, the first step is to use a software that encourages scene writing. Whether you buy Scrivener or use the amazing and FREE yWriter 5, I can’t begin to tell you how much more detailed your writing can become when you use a tool that allows you to hone in on the fine print! I know many people have written entire novels in Word, using its tracking/change features, but I promise it’s worth your time to look into these other tools.

Today, I’m going to talk briefly about scene beginnings. Before I begin, it’s important to point out that scenes normally have no break in time (I will never say never to any guidance I give, because experimental writing can lead to never-before-seen results). But, the common practice is no break in time – or location. This is what allows you to put laser focus on the characters and action.

So the beginning each scene of course should be memorable. That’s a given. The creative part is that you get to choose how you launch each one. The question to ask yourself is, What has to happen to ensure the reader stays with you for the long haul.

While the beginning of each scene quickly fades into the background, you still want to choose wisely.

Let’s look at some common types of scene openings to discover their purpose.

  1. Action-Driven Scene: This type of scene puts you right into the thick of what’s happening, with little or sometimes even no explanation. Mysteries and thrillers are genres that may effectively use this type of beginning. As long as the location is a fairly familiar one (ex: bank), and you limit the number of characters involved (the robber and a getaway driver), action scenes can be a great way to catapult your story. However, if your story takes place on an unknown planet with a unique atmosphere and six odd-looking characters are struggling for the last drop of some kind of colored liquid in a bottle, I won’t know who to root for or what circumstances may doom them…make sense?
  2. Character-Driven Scene: There’s tons of examples I’m sure you can think of, but an interesting one that comes to my mind is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni (I absolutely love this book!). The opening line reads, “The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was 1899; the ship was the Baltika, crossing from Danzig to New York. The Golem’s master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her aboard in a crate and hidden her among the luggage.” The scene goes on to tell us why Rotfeld had the Golem created and provides a strong balance of dialogue and narrative to hook you right away. We know the Golemn’s purpose and quickly learn her goals for both herself and her master. The character-driven launch depends on a well thought out plan for whatever character you’re opening with. *This doesn’t always have to be a protagonist…In The Book Thief, it’s not Liesel who speaks those first haunting lines including, “Here is a small fact, you are going to die.”
  3. Narrative-Driven Scene: I have to admit, this type of scene opening may not hold my attention unless done expertly. They are good choices though to break up a book full of scenes that start with action or character. A writer choosing this type of scene opening is trying to convey a lot of information before we actually get to hear characters speak to each other. I’m a dialogue hound, so this one is tough for me. Now of course there are wonderful exceptions…what if a character can’t speak aloud? Maybe they’ve been kidnapped and are gagged (hmm, maybe an action launch would fit better here?) or maybe they’re in a coma.
  4. Setting-Driven Scene: Okay, unless you’re John Steinbeck, just don’t. Or Ray Bradbury. Two polar opposites who began such masterpieces as East of Eden and Fahrenheit 451 using settings to spotlight their stories. Do you know why this worked for them? In each, the setting was critical to the story. Sensory details were not spared…you felt the hot flames burning up from a pile of books, you smelled the black smoke. Steinbeck brought the Salinas Valley to life with his words…it was a character unto itself. In both of these books, the setting helped drove the stories develop the characters.

Think about your own story’s scenes… Try out different options to see what results you get. The goal is to learn the pros and cons of each one, and then use them in a way that gives your story those peaks and valleys that builds the tension, then lets the reader breath before diving back in.

Next up, we’ll talk about what techniques can help you build compelling middles. Until then…write on.

2 thoughts on “Scene-Building: Beginnings”

  1. I am not sold on my current opening because I don’t think it ‘grabs’ enough. It introduces the main two characters in a setting with a seductive action from her, but doesn’t “crackle” like I want. Hmmm…I need it to be incendiary…without a strong ‘hook’ maintaining interest for the long haul is tough…I need more thought.


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