Scene Elements: Beginnings = Orientation

Scenes! They begin at their beginnings. But what, exactly, does that mean? What elements do you need to ensure you include in a scene’s beginning?

1. Beginnings Element: Scene Positioning, aka Reader Orientation

“Generally, when you look at published fiction to isolate and examine scenes, you may experience some initial difficulty locating the start of a scene,” says Deborah Chester, “That’s because authors do a bit of what I call scene positioning.”

What is scene positioning?

Scene positioning, also known as reader orientation, “sets up for the scene to come, either through description or narrative,” says Ms. Chester.

“Pay special attention to how each scene opens,” says Karen S. Wiesner. “Readers must be led through the story world step by step with information that first anchors, then orients, and finally allows them to move forward with a sense of anticipation.”

What is “orienting information”?

The 5 Ws

“Scenes can’t really function without time and place being indicated early (and concisely) enough so your reader doesn’t become lost, looking to establish where he is, was, and where he’s going,” says Ms. Wiesner. “The secret to providing scenes that anchor and orient readers, and lead them with purpose throughout your story landscape, always with a whisper of what’s to come, is . . . show readers the five W’s (who, what, where, when, why).”

“The reader of your novel has to be kept aware of where the action is taking place, when it’s happening, who is involved and what is going on,” says Jack Bickham, “It’s vital, too, for the reader to understand why something is happening.”

“[A]lmost every time a new scene opens after a time break or change in locale, the novelist must make sure to reorient the reader on all the five Ws. (The only exception would be the very occasional situation where you, the writer, want the reader to be confused.),” says Mr. Bickham.

Each “scene should show a realistic, vivid picture of the story landscape within the first few paragraphs and as succinctly as possible such that the reader can step into it right alongside the main character and feel informed and eager for the next plot development,” says Ms. Wiesner.

In particular, says Ms. Wiesner, “[I]t’s vitally important that you give a definable sense of how much time has passed since this particular POV character’s last scene. . . . How much time has passed since the last scene needs to be stated upfront, either succinctly, or written in such a way that the amount of time that’s passed is assumed within the first few paragraphs of the scene.”

The Point-of-View

“Your scene openings must quickly establish the viewpoint character,” says James Scott Bell.

Alicia Rasley suggests that a solid anchoring passage “places the scene squarely in the perspective of” the point of view character by giving their emotional response to what’s been set up.

Which details do I show?

Whatever you’re seeing in your imagination.

“[T]he general principle might be restated this way: Be sure to show the reader enough of what you’re seeing in your imagination,” says Mr. Bickham. “[W]riters so very often fail to distinguish between what they’re seeing in their imagination as they write, and what they are actually putting down on paper for the reader to see. (And, of course, when I use the word ‘see,’ I also mean ‘hear,’ ‘smell,’ etc.)”

How much orienting do I need?

“Write as little setup, explanation, description, etc., as possible,” says Peter Rubie and Gary Provost.

That said . . . “[R]emember that the reader has to be put into the scene,” says Mr. Bickham, “You must provide enough concise, evocative detail to let the reader imagine the rest for herself. Which means, probably, that you first write in too much description and mention of character feelings, but then trim them back, honing every word, to provide just enough sharply suggestive detail.”

That said . . . If you’re prone to wordiness and lengthy openings, Larry Brooks suggests that you ask yourself: “Is the setup of the scene necessary? Are there extraneous chit-chatty character greetings or side conversations? Is there gratuitous characterization or unnecessary backstory? Are descriptions of places and people required to get the point (the mission) across? Are you giving the reader enough credit to see and get the moment, without slamming them over the head with the obvious or mundane?”

If you’re still wondering how much orientation detail to include, look to your genre. The acceptable or expected amount of detail will vary depending on whether you’re writing a rich historical or high fantasy novel or a Jack Reacher novel.

Bottom line?

“Keep the reader clearly oriented,” says Mr. Bickham.

2. Beginnings Element: Scene Goal

Once you’ve got all of the above set up . . . “Next, tell us what is important to that viewpoint character,” says Mr. Bell.

“The scene doesn’t start until the protagonist thinks, states, or acts on a scene goal,” says Ms. Chester.

Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy agree: “You should try to establish two things very early in each proactive scene: Who is the primary POV character? What is his or her goal for this scene?”

“This is vital,” says Carolyn Wheat, “Every single scene in the book must start from a position of wanting.”

Darcy Pattison agrees: “A scene starts with a character who wants something, who has a goal.”

As does Jordan Rosenfeld: “Every scene must have a character goal.”

“The prototypical scene begins with the most important character–invariably the viewpoint character–walking into a situation with a definite, clear-cut, specific goal which appears to be immediately attainable,” says Mr. Bickham.

“Your reader needs to know what your hero proposes to attempt. Or at least that he proposes to attempt something. For if no attempt is made, how can there be struggle?” says Dwight Swain.

(More on scene goals in the next scene tools post.)

3. Beginnings Element: Inciting Incident (actually, there’s two)

In general, an inciting incident is a catalyst. It’s something that causes something else to happen. And, in general again, each scene has two:

The one that happens before–and causes–the scene

“Every scene is one further task on the road to achieving your larger plot goals,” says Ms. Rosenfeld, “In every scene your character should have a specific goal for that scene, which probably arises out of the scene before it.”

“Let’s look at the inciting incident,” says Rubie and Provost. “What has caused the events in the scene? If you’ve been sending your manuscripts out, perhaps an editor or agent has commented that your work is episodic. What that means is that the inciting incident in your scene is occurring too often within each scene without real regard for the scenes that have happened before or will happen next.

“Ideally,” says Rubie and Provost, “when you write a scene, the inciting incident–that is, the thing that propelled your character into the florist’s shop on a Thursday afternoon, for example–happened in a previous scene.  It can be one scene ago, perhaps it was several scenes before.”

Be wary of any scenes that do not have this preceding, causal inciting incident. As Rubie and Provost say: If “the inciting incident for a scene occurs within the scene rather than before it . . . [Then] this inciting incident is also independent of other scenes and is not really linked, in any material or emotionally charged way, with any other scene in the story.”

The one that happens in–and reveals the conflict of–the scene

Shawn Coyne says the scene’s inciting incident is “a minor event that destabilizes” the scene, such as “an action . . . that unsettles the relationship between two characters.”

“[W]hat the Inciting Incident must do,” says Mr. Coyne, “is upset the life balance of your lead protagonist(s). It must make them uncomfortably out of sync…for good or for ill.” It “can occur in one of two ways: 1. Cause 2. Coincidence.” “A causal inciting incident is the result of an active choice . . . A coincidental inciting incident is when something unexpected or random or accidental happens. . . . What your choice of inciting incidents . . . must do is arouse a reaction by your protagonist.”

This inciting incident is the one that launches us into the Middle of the scene. But we’ve got some more Beginning stuff to get through before we get to Middles, so let’s keep going . . .

4. Beginnings Element: Hook

“Where you begin a scene is just as important as where you begin the novel,” says Mr. Bell, “You don’t want to give a reader any reason to put your book down. . . . Create something at the beginning of a scene/chapter that pulls the reader in.”

“The beginning of a scene has only one mission: hook the reader.  It must make that reader want to keep reading,” says Raymond Obstfeld.

“Each scene makes a promise to the reader,” says Mr. Obstfeld. “The promise has only one function: to tease the reader into being compelled to see how the scene turns out.”

“Remember that a scene launch is an invitation to the reader, beckoning him to come further along with you,” says Ms. Rosenfeld, “Make your invitations as alluring as possible.”

How do I write a beginning that includes all of this stuff?

Ms. Wiesner says, “Keep in mind that your ‘orienting’ set-up doesn’t have to, nor should it necessarily, be inserted as a single, first paragraph. Just make sure within the first few paragraphs that the reader has what he needs to figure out the basics of the scene.”

“[O]rientation work can . . . be done . . . briefly, in a word or two here and there, as the scene moves along,” says Mr. Bickham. “But steps cannot be left out. So you must not only give me brief points as to who, where and when, but you must also give them to me in the sequence in which they take place.”

Open the Scene In Medias Res

“If you try to begin every scene at its very beginning, you might fall into one of these tension-killing habits: explaining information to the reader in exposition, describing the setting in a long-winded way . . . [or] falling into character backstory or summary to regurgitate what happened in the last scene. You want to avoid all of these habits,” says Ms. Rosenfeld. “[S]o I prefer to use the term launch, which more clearly suggests the place where the reader’s attention is engaged anew.”

“A good default setting, even in literary fiction, is to start a scene as close to the scene action as possible,” says Mr. Bell, “By central action I mean the heart of the scene, the reason you’re writing it.”

Syd Field agrees: Consider not entering a scene “until the last possible moment; that is, just before the ending of some specific action in the scene.

As do Rubie and Provost: “Broadly, the scene should begin as close to the ‘meat’ of the action in the scene as possible.”

“Enter your scene at the last possible moment,” says Mr. Brooks, “This can only happen if you do, in fact, understand the mission of the scene and have defined the single kernel of essential exposition it delivers to the reader.”

Ms. Rosenfeld gives us several ways to begin the scene in medias res:

  • “Launch with action. When in doubt always choose action first. . . .
  • Launch with conflict or the promise of conflict. If you can’t launch with action, always launch with conflict–it can be inner conflict . . .
  • Launch with a character’s emotional turmoil. . . .
  • Launch with a surprise or twist. Scene launches are a powerful place to throw something new or unexpected at the characters and reader alike.”

“Dialogue is another good hook technique, as it means something is happening,” says Mr. Bell. Also, “You can use setting to begin a scene if you make it interesting enough, and then get to the action.”

Craft the Scene’s Opening Sentence

“One way to look at the beginning of a scene is to treat it as if it were a blind date,” says Mr. Obstfeld, “The reader is the date sitting at the table waiting for you. He or she is gorgeous–your dream date–and you want to make a good impression as soon as you meet. You know the first words out of your mouth will set the tone for the rest of the evening. So what do you say?”

“The most effective openings are unusual, evocative, emotional, and incident based,” says Jane K. Cleland, “Let’s look at each of these factors independently.

  • Unusual. Publishers want stories that they haven’t seen before. Think about it…if what you write isn’t unusual, it will read as unoriginal.
  • Evocative. The best writing thrusts you into a memory or a feeling or a mood–it evokes something sensory-based and relatable.
  • Emotional. Never neglect story. Don’t get so involved with your people that you forget plot, and the best plots, as we’ve discussed, are infused with longing and conflict.
  • Incident Based. Don’t start with backstory, memory, or reflections. Start with action. ‘Action’ doesn’t necessarily mean a car chase or a shoot-’em-up moment; it refers to any incident–any event–that sets your plot in motion.”

“Vary your openings,” says Mr. Bell, “Don’t always lead off with the same rhythms. Use dialogue, thoughts, and description, but always put them close to the hot spot.”

Devise a Strategy for Opening Each Scene

“Consider your scene openings,” says Mr. Bell, “Once the novel is rolling along, you want to jump into scenes fairly quickly. A logical pattern of a scene goes like this:

A = the opening description, to set the scene
B = the characters coming on stage
C = the actual meat of the scene, the conflict or central point

Many times you can get right to the characters and drop in description as needed. A scene pattern might look like this: B, A, C or C, B, A.”

“Take your time with a scene launch,” says Ms. Rosenfeld, “Craft each one as carefully and strategically as you would any other aspect of your scene.”

“How you open a scene is a matter of strategy,” says Mr. Bell, “What is the feel you want your book to have? Is it fast moving or does it take its time? Is it more about the interior character life or outward threats? . . . You will choose scene openings accordingly.”

Mr. Brooks, referencing William Goldman, says, “writers should enter scenes at the last possible moment. This is called cutting deep into the scene, and it’s a powerful technique for pacing. While this is solid gold wisdom, it must be interpreted. For it to work, the writer must be absolutely clear on what the mission of the scene needs to be. Why? Because part of the scene strategy could be a deliberate attempt to stretch the tension of a scene to great lengths, and in excruciating detail, rather than cutting directly to the moment at hand. And when that’s part of the mission–to take the reader for a vicarious ride–it defines how the scene needs to unfold.”

Best Books on Scene Beginnings

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A post on scene goals. See you Monday!


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