Scene Beginnings: How the masters do it

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So over the past 1, 2, 3 scene posts, we learned that good scene beginnings:

  1. Start with a hook
  2. Establish the POV
  3. Orient the reader with the 5Ws
  4. Clue the reader in to the POV Character’s scene goal (which creates a scene question that implies action and stakes)
  5. Move into the middle of the scene with an inciting incident of conflict

I picked a scene at random from Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story and some other books I had lying around. (Alas, the library recalled Jim Butcher’s Storm Front and it has many holds, so I likely won’t get it back for a couple months. But I found a couple scenes online.)

I’m going to just lay out the scenes and color code them with what I see as fulfilling the elements (or not).

Hook, POV, 5Ws, Goal, Question (Implied Action and Stakes), Conflict.

Here we go!

Ramon’s shop was dark, with the exception of a single dim light in one of the office windows. On our way home from the mall, I’d gotten a text message from Vero’s cousin, letting me know my van was fixed and would be ready for pickup at eight, but when I’d pulled up to the shop, the garage bay doors were already rolled down and the neon sign in the window was off. The dashboard clock of his loaner car said I was right on time, but everything about the place screamed, ‘Go away, we’re closed.’
Loose pebbles in the weatherworn asphalt crackled under my sneakers as I got out of the car and nosed around the lot. I found my van parked behind the garage, but the doors were locked and I hadn’t brought a spare set of keys. I kicked the tire. Apparently, I’d driven all this way for nothing.
I groped in my purse, muttering a swear. I must have left my cell phone in my diaper bag when we’d gotten home from the mall that afternoon. Which meant my phone was at home with Vero. With a heavy sigh, I banged on the bay door. maybe Ramon was still inside somewhere.
The knock was tinny and hollow. I shouted Ramon’s name. When no one answered, I tried the side door to the office, surprised to find it open.

[Will she get her car back? Action implied: Look for Ramon. Stakes: Her car.]

Elle Cosimano, Finlay Donovan is Killing It

[In this scene, Harry Dresden is watching a meeting others are having about his apprentice, Molly Carpenter.]

Ten minutes later, I was humming under my breath and watching the gathering in Murphy’s living room. Sir Stuart stood beside me, his expression interested, curious.
‘Beg pardon, wizard,’ he said, ‘but what is that tune you’re trying to sing?’
I belted out the opening trumpet fanfare of the main theme and then said, in a deep and cheesy announcer’s voice, ‘In the great Hall of the Justice League, there are assembled the world’s four greatest heroes, created from the cosmic legends of the universe!’
Sir Stuart frowned at me. ‘Created from…’
‘The cosmic legends of the universe,’ I repeated, in the same voice.
Sir Stuart narrowed his eyes and turned slightly away from me, his shoulders straight. ‘That makes no sense. None. At all.’
‘It did on Saturday mornings in the seventies, apparently,’ I said. I nodded at the room beyond the window. ‘And we’ve got something similar going on here. Though for a Hall of the Justice League, it looks pretty small. Real estate wasn’t as expensive back then, I guess.’
‘The guests assembled inside,’ Sir Stuart asked. ‘Do you know them?’
‘Most of them,’ I said. Then I felt obliged to add, ‘Or, at least, I knew them six months ago.’
Things had changed. Murphy‘s buzz cut was just a start. I started introducing Sir Stuart to the faces I knew.
. . . [Summary of everyone present, including]
Daniel Carpenter, the eldest of my apprentice’s younger brothers. He looked as though he were seated on a hot stove rather than a comfortable couch, like he might bounce up at any second, boldly to do something ill conceived. A large part of Will‘s attention was, I thought, focused on Daniel.
‘Relax,’ Murphy told him. ‘Have some cake.’
Daniel shook his head in a jerky negative. ‘No, thank you, Ms. Murphy,’ he said. ‘I just don’t see the point of this. I should go find Molly. If I leave right now, I can be back before an hour’s up.'”

[Will he learn something actionable about Molly? Action implied: Listening. Stakes: The well-being of his apprentice.]

Jim Butcher, Ghost Story (beginning of Chapter 9)

[In this scene, Dresden just met with police about a weird case at the Madison and is now hurrying back to his office for a client appointment.]

It was several blocks to my building, and after covering half of them I slowed to a walk. I didn’t want to arrive at my appointment with Monica Missing-Man puffing like a bellows, with my hair windblown and my face streaming with sweat.
Blame it on being out of shape from an inactive winter season, but I was breathing hard. It occupied enough of my attention that I didn’t see the dark blue Cadillac until it had pulled up beside me, and a rather large man had stepped out of it onto the sidewalk in front of me. He had bright red hair and a thick neck. His face looked like someone had smashed it flat with a board, repeatedly, when he was a baby–except for his jutting eyebrows. He had narrow little blue eyes that got narrower as I sized him up.
I stopped, and backed away, then turned around. Two more men, both of them as tall as me and a good deal heavier, were slowing down from their own jog. They had apparently been following me, and they looked annoyed. One was limping slightly, and the other wore a buzz cut that had been spiked up straight with some kind of styling gel. I felt like I was in high school again, surrounded by bullying members of the football team.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” I asked. I looked around for a cop, but they were all over at the Madison, I supposed. Everyone likes to gawk.
Get in the car,” the one in front of me said. One of the others opened the rear door.

[Will Dresden make it to his appointment? Action Implied: Getting to his office. Stakes: Money.]

Jim Butcher, Storm Front (from Chapter 2)

“On the evening of July 24th, a week after the disappearance of David Brown, Trooper Benton Rhodes was driving a state police cruiser out of Haven around eight o’clock. Peter Gabbons, known to his fellow officers as Jingles, was riding shotgun. Twilight lay in ashes. These were metaphorical ashes, of course, as opposed to the ones on the hands and faces of the two state cops. Those ashes were real. Rhodes’s mind kept turning to the severed hand and arm, and to the fact that he had known instantly to whom they had once belonged. Jesus!
Stop thinking about it! he ordered his mind.
Okay, his mind agreed, and went right on thinking about it. ‘Try the radio again,’ he said. ‘I bet we’re getting interference from that damn microwave dish they put up in Troy.’
‘All right.’ Jingles grabbed the mike. ‘This is Unit 16 to Base. Do you copy, Tug? Over.’
He let go of the button and they both listened. What they heard was a peculiar screaming static, with ghostly voices buried deep inside it.'”

[This was all I read, so his goal might be to stop thinking about it, and so he tries the radio, or his goal might be to bring someone up on the radio. If the first: Will he stop thinking about it? Action Implied: Distract himself. Stakes: Mental Ease. If the second: Will they get someone on the radio? Action Implied: Try the radio. Stakes: ? From this little bit, I’m not sure. Sounds like maybe safety.]

Stephen King, The Tommy Knockers (from section 4.1)

Every other night for the next two weeks, I tell Mother I’m off to feed the hungry at the Canton Presbyterian Church, where we, fortunately, know not a soul. Of course, she’d rather I go down to the First Presbyterian, but Mother’s not one to argue with Christian works and she nods approvingly, tells me on the side to make sure I wash my hands thoroughly with soap afterward.
Hour after hour, in Aibileen’s kitchen, she reads her writing and I type, the details thickening, the babies’ faces sliding into focus. At first, I’m disappoited that Aibileen is doing most of the writing, with me just editing. But if Missus Stein likes it, I’ll be writing the other maids’ stories and that will be more than enough work. If she likes it…I find myself saying this over and over in my head, hoping it might make it so.
Aibileen’s writing is clear, honest. I tell her so.
‘Well, look who I been writing to.’ She chuckles. ‘Can’t lie to God.’
Before I was born, she actually picked cotton for a week at Longleaf, my own family’s farm. Once she lapses into talking about Constantine without my even asking.
‘Law, that Constantine could sing. Like a purebred angel, standing in the front a the church. Give everybody chills, listening to that silky voice a hers and when she wouldn’t sing no more after she had to give her baby to–‘ She stops. Looks at me.
She says, ‘Anyway.’
I tell myself not to press her. I wish I could hear everything she knows about Constantine, but I’ll wait until we’ve finished her interviews. I don’t want to put anything between us now.
‘Any word from Minny yet?’ I ask. ‘If Missus Stein likes it,’ I say, practically chanting the familiar words, ‘I just want to have the next interview set up and ready.
Aibileen shakes her head. ‘I asked Minny three times and she still say she ain’t gone do it. I spec it’s time I believed her.’
I try not to show my worry. . . .

[Will she get the next interview set up and ready? Action: Set up an interview with Minny. Stakes: Missus Stein might not like the writing nor ask for more if Minny’s interview isn’t in it.]

Kathryn Stockett, The Help (Chapter 12)

She was standing there in the orange glow of the streetlight, in a flimsy sundress, her hair wavy from the humidity. Andie. She rushed through the doorway, her arms splayed to hug me, and I hissed, ‘Wait, wait!’ and shut the door just before she wrapped herself around me. She pressed her cheek against my chest, and I put my hand on her bare back and closed my eyes. I felt a queasy mixture of relief and horror: when you finally stop an itch and realize it’s because you’ve ripped a hole in your skin.
I have a mistress. Now is the part where I have to tell you I have a mistress and you stop liking me. If you liked me to begin with. I have a pretty, very young mistress, and her name is Andie.
I know. It’s bad.
Baby, why the fuck haven’t you called me?‘ she said, her face still pressed against me.

[Will he be able to keep his mistress and keep his mistress a secret? Implied Action: Soothe the mistress while keeping her hidden. Stakes: the relationship with his mistress and keeping the police from thinking he has a motive to kill his wife]

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

That’s it for me!

What about you? What scene beginnings have you studied that were super helpful. Tell us in the comments!

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Up Next

I think we’re moving on to the middle. See you Monday!


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