I work with several writing students whose scenes are always improving. Yet one of their more difficult challenges seems to be learning where to begin a scene.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s review a few tips for good scene openings.
That Old Middle
The first rule of scene writing is to open a scene in media res—in the middle of the action. Refresh the in media res idea HERE. If you start too far back in time, readers may become confused or bored before the real action begins. This is usually called Throat clearing—as in the writer putting down too much information in the wrong place.
Throat clearing information, especially in memoir, is usually true. The problem is that what really happened may not matter to the scene’s purpose. Even in fiction, information that doesn’t point to a scene’s purpose will likely fall flat. Readers think, “Why is the writer telling me all this?” And if the info is extraneous, the answer to their question never arrives.
When you write a scene, remember to locate the reason for the scene. Readers will gladly forgo a lot of background information in order to get to the action. Ask yourself, “Why is this scene important to the overall story?” If the answer is “because it happened” or “to give background,” you may want to rethink the scene.
Remember to locate the reason for each scene.
The Tipping Point
Where’s the in media res moment? Just before the action begins. Readers do need a set-up: a place/time, a character (or two) and a tiny hint at why these characters here and now. Always place this set-up as near to the scene’s opening as possible. You don’t want your readers to have to circle back to understand what’s happening.
The scene’s build-up is where the action flies. By this point readers need to know what the characters are vying for. Good scenes push and pull the characters so that readers aren’t sure who will “win” the scene. Only at the pay-off or end, will readers get the satisfaction of any kind of resolution.
During your scene, avoid other throat clearing pitfalls such as lengthy descriptions, dialogue without tension and in general anything which doesn’t give readers a feeling of movement or progress. In many scenes, your protagonist must lose, but readers still want to see that character fighting for the goal. Let this character lose, regroup and try again—creating tension which engages readers.
Dropping Thematic Hints
Back at your scene’s opening, throat clearing muddies your scene’s purpose by giving information not relevant to that particular point in the story. Readers prefer their info on a need to know basis. A character’s back story, for instance, may be vital to the story. Yet readers won’t understand why they’re being told a character’s life story at first. That’s why most back stories should be leaked out slowly, as you need them.
When you write details, be sure they are necessary details. Evaluate your character’s history and include the items which most closely influence the person’s motivations in the story. Good scenes place much of this background info directly into the character’s point of view instead of as narrative. This helps readers identify closely with the character, giving them incentive to keep reading. You can use internal thoughts as a way to plant info without slowing your scene’s pace.
Throat clearing is often discovered after you’ve drafted a piece and let it sit for a time. Don’t be afraid to look for the moment where your interest picks up or there’s an arresting sentence. Don’t be afraid to lop off a weak opening or move up that great sentence closer to the beginning. These are often great places to open a scene, leaving throat clearing in the dust.