What is Happening in Your Opening Scene?

A scene is a unit of storytelling. It incorporates all major elements: action, character, setting, inner story, voice, narrative thrust.

If your opening scene is lacking or weak in any of those elements, then your story is in danger of being uninteresting, passive, slow. It just doesn’t grab the reader. Nothing is happening.

The most engaging method these days is to begin in medias res which means “into the middle of things.” The protagonist is not thinking, dreaming, wondering, waiting, eating, ruminating, relaxing, contemplating, etc.

Rather, something is happening to the protagonist (ideally, books these days introduce the protagonist on page one, although it isn’t uncommon to kick off with the antagonist), and the protagonist reacts.

Making a tough decision will help fuel narrative thrust in your stories, always a key component in a scene cycle.

This act-react-act-react is what propels your story forward. It takes a blah scene where you could easily get mired in character or setting description into an engaging scene where you meet the protagonist on an emotional level and care about what is happening to him or her.

“Rye and her two friends had never intended to steal the banned book from the Angry Poet—they’d just hoped to read it. In truth, it was nothing more than curiosity that brought them to the strange little bookstore wedged between a grogshop and the coffin maker. But the store’s owner overreacted so strongly that they fled without thinking, the illicit tome still clutched under Rye’s arm.” — THE LUCK UGLIES ~ Paul Durham.

This opening paragraph gives us plenty of intriguing information that urges us to read on. We know who the main character is, that she has friends, that they’re a little sneaky. We get a sense of genre and setting with words like Angry Poet, grogshop, coffin maker, and the fact there is a banned book in the mix. And of course, there’s action—kids running off with a stolen book—who doesn’t want to see what’s going to happen next?

breaking down scenes into six major parts: goal, conflict, disaster, reaction, dilemma, decision will help ensure something happens in your scene.

“Everywhere I look, there are signs of a struggle… There’s one single faint footprint at the threshold of the living room, pointing toward the dead body of my son, Jacob.

He is sprawled like a starfish in front of the fireplace. Blood covers his temple and his hands. For a moment, I can’t move, can’t breathe.

Suddenly, he sits up. “Mom,” Jacob says, “you’re not even trying.”

This is not real, I remind myself, and I watch him lie back down in the exact same position—on his back, his legs twisted to the left.

“Um, there was a fight.”

Jacob’s mouth barely moves. “And …?”

“Oh, Jacob, don’t tell me you used up all my corn syrup again—”

“Mom! Focus!” — HOUSE RULES ~ Jodi Picoult.

Through believable dialogue we learn that Jacob likes to analyze crime scenes to the point he creates his own and forces his mother to play along. We want to see what will happen to this relationship as it is clearly the focus of the story.

How to create a scene where things happen!

All scenes should have an arc with beginning, middle, and end. The end of each scene should prompt a new goal for the next scene. Asking yourself three questions to help you construct your scene will help you make sure that enough happens in that scene to propel your reader onward.

Question #1 – what do the characters want? (beginning of scene)

Question #2—what obstacle will interfere yet still move the plot? (middle of scene)

Question #3—what changes? (end of scene)

Break Down Your Scene into Parts

Goal – Conflict – Setback – Reaction – Dilemma – Decision

–> The choice the character makes at the end of the scene launches a new goal for the next scene, and the cycle begins anew.

Built into the above six parts is action – reaction. Action is necessary to move the plot (narrative thrust). But reaction is equally important to develop your characters, reveal motivation, and help us care about your characters. Knowing how your scene works based on these parts will help you see if there is enough happening.

Not all scenes will have these parts occurring in a tidy cycle. Sometimes, your character may have a delay in reaction or decision depending on the event. Or there may be back-to-back conflicts. That’s okay!

As long as your character is reacting to events at the appropriate time for that character, and as long as the conflicts are creating enough of an obstacle to thwart your character’s plan, then the order of things doesn’t always have to be sequential.

Is enough happening in your opening scene? Do you have the six parts of the scene cycle in place? What methods do you use to craft a “happening” scene?

Have a writerly day!

6 thoughts on “What is Happening in Your Opening Scene?”

  1. It took me a while to really get the act-react sequence. Without it, action is too close to narrative. I’m not naturally a person who dwells on my inner self so this was particularly difficult!

    • That makes sense, Jacqui. Personally, I don’t enjoy writing the reaction scenes as much as I do the action scenes. I find I manage it better when I weave them together as opposed to keeping them separate, in their own little containers.

  2. Great post. I’ve found with my novels that my first draft starts in the beginning. But my second draft deletes the first one or two chapters, and THEN the story begins, kind of in the middle.

    • Hey Pam–yes! I think this is true for so many of us. I’ve read from literary agents that they often end up telling authors that their stories actually don’t really start until 50 pages in…that’s a lot of weight to shed when you think you’re ready to query your book! Can be so difficult to tell the difference between stuff that the author needs to know in order to write the book, and stuff that needs to be in the book. 😉


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