Three Tasks for Scene Openings

Do your first lines make these essentials clear?

I thought I knew the way. But heading from the unfamiliar location, I took a wrong turn. What I saw didn’t align with what I’d assumed. My only recourse was to go back, check things more carefully, and start afresh.

I’ve experienced that not only when driving, but also while reading novels—finding myself lost as I tried to negotiate a new scene.

Besides attracting and keeping reader interest, the first paragraph of each new scene has three vital tasks:

1. Communicate Point of View
2. Establish Location
3. Identify Time

Point of View
If you present the entire story from one character’s perspective, readers will assume each new scene, like all those before, will be from that person’s perspective.

But many novelists use several POV characters. So orient your readers at the start of each scene by citing the character immediately—in the first or second sentence.

White lights danced on the horizon like welcoming beacons of death. Captain Vadim Rostov of the Imperial Russian Navy counted five orbs, each from a separate Ottoman warship standing picket at the entrance to the Bosphorus Strait.

Location
If your previous scene ended with characters heading somewhere, readers will expect the next scene to begin there, or en route.

Especially if you interweave scenes from different storylines, your readers need information—right away—not only about the POV character, but also where the new scene takes place.

In the original version of this scene, readers could only guess the location—until they reached the end of the second paragraph.

The grim faces that greeted Hendriks foretold of the bad news.

“I wasn’t expecting to conference in person, but it is good of you to visit on short notice,” Mankedo said, ushering the Dutchman into his salvage yard office.

In my editing, I moved the location to the first sentence, and also reminded readers of a few details.

The grim faces that greeted Martin Hendriks at the marine salvage yard 30 miles north of Burgas foretold bad news.

“I wasn’t expecting to speak with you in person,” Valentin Mankedo said, “but it is good of you to visit on short notice.” He ushering the Dutch industrialist and Ilya Vasko into his office.

As soon as possible, alert readers to where they are.

Time
Readers assume time passes to the next scene. If you include parallel storylines—or if there’s been a big jump—immediately clarify the time.

In editing an international thriller, I encountered this scene with two law officers on a stakeout. I assumed it took place in daylight. Only after several paragraphs did the author signal the action took place at night.

To orient readers, I added a phrase to a character’s line in the second paragraph: “even if I wanted a midnight snack.”

“Do you want the last banitsa?”

Ana Belova looked at the grease-stained bag thrust in her direction and shook her head. “No thanks. Even if I wanted a midnight snack, I prefer to keep my arteries unblocked.”

I also wanted to make sure readers envisioned them in a car. So in the next paragraph I added that the pastries lay “on the car seat between them.”

Her partner, a stout man named Petar Ralin, slipped a hand into the bag on the car seat between them, fished out the apple-filled pastry, and stuffed it into his mouth. The Bulgarian lawman always traveled with a bag of bread or sweets.

In the next paragraphs, the author describes the setting, one detail at a time, in a way that makes sense to the characters’ perspectives.

He brushed a crumb from his shirt. “Looks like the directorate’s informant is a bust. There hasn’t been a truck through this crossing in two hours.”

Ana peered out the windshield of their gray Skoda sedan at the Malko Tarnovo border station. …

As you edit each of your scenes, remember these three elements. Orient your readers so they won’t make a wrong turn.

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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