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Monday, February 8, 2021

4 Key Elements of Scene Openings


Several weeks ago, I did a post breaking down the differences between scenes and summaries and when to use which. Scenes happen in real time, are dramatized ("show" more than "tell"), have characters acting in a specific location, and tend to be more concrete. Most scenes still utilize some summary.

Today I wanted to follow up by talking about four elements that are important for scene openings

Just like the opening of a story, a scene opening has a lot to accomplish and convey. Thankfully, however, scene openings don't need to accomplish and convey as much as a whole story's opening. 

Scenes are a structural unit, and as such, they follow the same basic structure that a whole story does:


In fact, this shape is a fractal in storytelling, and it goes on and on and on. Whether you are working with a scene, sequence, act, or whole plot, it all follows this structure, with the smaller pieces fitting inside the bigger pieces like a nesting doll. It can even work on a level smaller than a scene, such as a passage of description. 

In most books, scenes are where the story actually plays out for the audience. This means that weak scenes = uninteresting stories. In future posts, I'll break down scenes more, but for today, I want to focus on openings.


4 Key Elements of Scene Openings



1. Hook

(I'm sure this surprises no one. 😉) 

A great scene will open with a hook. Ideally, it's the first sentence, but if not, it's the second sentence, or the first paragraph, but hopefully, it's at least on the first page. 

Hooks work by getting the audience to look forward to and anticipate a future point in the story. They often fit into at least one of these categories:

- Get the audience to fear something might happen.

- Get the audience to hope something might happen.

- Make the audience curious about what will come later.

Each of these things motivates the audience to read on. They either need to see if what they think might happen, does happen, or they need to read on to learn more information.

Having a hook early is important because the slowest part of that basic structure, is the beginning. Imagine you are starting an uphill hike that you aren't positive you want to go on. You might be thinking about other things you need or would like to do instead. If there is an interesting feature at the beginning of the hike, or a sign that promises an amazing view later, you'll likely become more invested in making the climb, even if it takes a few minutes before you fall into a rhythm.

This is what scene openings are like. And this is why any opening can feel a little slow without a hook. As an editor, I do a lot of reading. I've found that when my mind wants to wander or thinks of taking a break, it's almost always at the start of this structural unit (no joke). It's usually at the start of a scene that doesn't have a great hook, or doesn't have a hook at all. 

How much more effective it is when the writer opens with a hook, something that can snag me and reel me over the beginning until I find my own inertia (aka investment, in the scene). 

When there is a great hook in the opening, it's a treat to keep reading. 


2. Setup

I have sometimes heard this called "grounding." Much of the time, a new scene means we've changed settings, time, or characters. As a reader, I need to quickly know where and when we are, and who is there. Even if the scene is a direct continuation of the previous scene, that needs to be implied.

If there are multiple viewpoint characters, I need to know whose head I'm in. It's important to get this early, so I can sink into the story. A rule of thumb is that usually the first viewpoint character name that appears, is whom the reader assumes is the current viewpoint character. If you are writing in first person with multiple viewpoints, it's usually a good idea to have a subheading of the viewpoint character's name under the chapter heading. 

These are just guidelines, though, and there are exceptions.

Nonetheless, without the proper setup, I'm stuck wondering how much time has passed or who is present. 

It's hard to hike uphill, when I don't know what trail I'm on.


3. Goal

The "main character" (often the viewpoint character) of the scene should almost always have a goal. Everyone wants something pretty much all of the time. When readers know what the character wants, they're more likely to stick around to see if he or she succeeds in getting it. 

I sometimes find that when my scenes are lagging, it's because I haven't figured out my viewpoint character's goal. No goal = less driving force. 

And when I say goal, I mean the goal for that particular scene. Yes, characters have overarching goals in the story as a whole, but in most scenes, they have small-scale goals. 

Often the bigger, overarching goals are broken down into smaller pieces that are then illustrated in scenes. For example, if the character's overall goal for the story is to find love, then a goal for one scene may be to fill out a dating profile. 

And of course, the "main character" of a particular scene, may not be The Main Character™️ 😉 of the story (thus the use of quotations). But since a scene is a mini rendition of overall basic story structure, then it too has a sort of "main character." If that all makes sense 😅

Basically, just as the whole story has a main character who has a goal, each scene will usually have a "main character" who has a smaller goal. 


4. Stakes

Stakes are what are at risk in the story. Personally, I like to think of them as potential consequences that fit well into an "If . . . then" statement. For example, "If [the antagonist] succeeds, then our whole town will be destroyed!" Or something. 

Scenes should have stakes too. Remember that character goal? Yeah, there likely needs to be some potential consequences tied to getting it or not getting it. Otherwise it doesn't matter that much. Who cares if Cindy fails to fill out her dating profile, if she can just do it tomorrow? Well, if filling it out after midnight somehow means missing her window to reconnect with that promising old crush she ran into yesterday, then we suddenly care a lot more. This is her last chance. 

What do the characters stand to lose or gain in the scene? Make sure the audience knows what it is.

Once they know, they'll want to see what happens. 

 

Basically, a hook, setup, goal, and stakes draw the audience in and help them get invested in the scene. From there, it's time to unleash the beasts--aka, the obstacles and conflicts--which are what make up the middle of the scene. That struggle will then get us to a climax or turning point, before falling back down. 

More or less. 


Putting it All Together



I've listed out the elements in this order because it's usually a safe and surefire way to go: hook the audience, set up the circumstances, relay the goal, explain the stakes. 

But it's not the necessary order. You can mention the stakes before the goal. Or you can set up the circumstances before using a hook. And even beyond that, some of the elements can overlap. For example, you may open up with stakes, which simultaneously work as a hook. Because, I mean, if the stakes are great, the audience will be drawn in. 

Similarly, sometimes just the situation itself can work as a hook, like if you set up that the hero and villain must work together. Who wouldn't want to read on?

Along those lines, in some scenes, each of these elements may take up a paragraph or more, in others, they may each be a sentence or less (or simply implied). 

I've been playing around in my head with a scene opening I'm preparing to write. Here is a tweaked rendition that contains all four elements:

Other than at Mahoney's funeral, Scott had never seen a dead body, and yet here he was before sunrise, searching through the tall grass of the riverbank, hoping to glimpse the slender arm or blond head of Allie Suttor, before police arrived. Otherwise, he knew, they'd focus on the wrong suspect. 


Here are the pieces:

Other than at Mahoney's funeral, Scott had never seen a dead body [hook], and yet here he was before sunrise, searching through the tall grass of the riverbank [setup], hoping to glimpse the slender arm or blonde head of Allie Suttor [goal], before police arrived. Otherwise, he knew, they'd focus on the wrong suspect [stakes].

This may not be perfect, but it proves the point. 

Keep in mind, there are always exceptions. You will sometimes find scenes that break the rules to great effect. For example, sometimes withholding some of these elements creates a great teaser or a sense of mystery. But for most scenes, most of the time, you want these elements in the opening--whether they are properly implied or stated directly on the page.

Usually the sooner the reader has them, the better--because he or she will be more likely to stick around. 

And with all that said, as always, remember that these things are meant to help you write better. They exist to help you. They don't exist for you to be a slave to. 

But if you need something to work on in your writing, take a look at your scene openings. It might be that these things will help you take them to the next level. 


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