Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How (where, when?) do you start scenes?

A scene is generally a unified passage of narration, chronicling an event or sequence of events and often the cause and effect therein. You can start a scene in a lot of different ways, but I'm wondering if it's an aspect of voice (everything is an aspect of voice, huh?) where you typically start a scene, if that doesn't maybe indicate what you find most important.

For example, I notice I usually start with a mental link to the last scene or what happened at the end of that, and then immediately into the head or heart (thoughts or feelings) of the scene's viewpoint character. That is, I think I value continuity a whole lot, but also the character's insides. I mean, I generally tell the whole story (not just the scene starts) from -within-, as if the reader is supposed to BE the character. 
He heard her go down the stairs, and the determined tap-tap of her footsteps made him smile. When the door slammed, he quickly attacked his bindings. He was just untying the ropes around his ankles when there was a rattle at the window, and Jace's face appeared in the glass.
Justin stared at his brother. He wasn't exactly surprised-- he wasn't sure anything could startle him at this point-- but still he felt some wonderment as he shook off the ropes and approached the casement to pull it open.
Jace, clinging to the tree branch, glanced back down the road and said rapidly, "Come on. I saw her get into a hackney. Let's go before she comes back."

If most of the book so far hadn't been Justin's POV, I might mention his name (Justin heard her go) in the first line. Also I realized that I wasn't giving much of the feelings (he's fallen in love with his kidnapper) so I added something about her footsteps making him smile, which is just the sort of sappy thing that happens when you fall in love (and it's a contrast with his usual businesslike mien). I always try to pay attention to the blocking, and I just realized that "threw open" sounds like the casement opened OUTWARDS, and if he threw it open, it would knock poor Jace off his perch. So I had it an inward opening casement (which is more common anyway)-- he "pulled it". 

I don't have anything that indicates how he feels about Jace (he doesn't like him), but that's pretty well-established earlier, and in fact, Jace's action in rescuing him is so at odds with what Justin expects, well, I don't think I could deal with that in the opening.  Mostly, I think, he's just shocked to see Jace.

Anyway, I tried to sneak in place and time, but didn't do well (is it day or night? Who knows? But of course they'd know) at that, but will try to address that in revision.  Most important for me is the link back to the previous scene, which is pretty easy because the whole story is not actually real-time, but not far from it (takes place in 3 days).  So the scene before ended with her leaving the room, and this takes up almost immediately after.  I'm not sure how I'd handle it if this were hours later. Still a reference back, maybe, like "He'd been asleep in his chair for hours when he woke and realized she wasn't coming back." Or whatever.

So that's one pattern:  Start within the POV character-- thoughts and feelings-- narration of events from within.

What's another?  Well, Theresa and I grumble about the undead trend toward dialogue openings. Let's see:

"Come on. I saw her get into a hackney. Let's go before she comes back."
It was Jace, clinging to the tree branch, peering in through the open casement window. Justin stared at his brother. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm here to rescue you!" Jace replied in an impossibly cheery voice.  His gaze traveled over the room and settled on the chair with its dangling ropes.
Justin realized that his brother was thinking the worse. "No, really, it's not what it looks like! She's really a very nice girl. Not violent at all. See?"  He held up his wrists. "She couldn't bring herself to make the ropes tight. That's how I got free."

 That's kind of cute, him trying to excuse Miranda for kidnapping him. I think I'll keep that part. But not the dialogue opening. Just not me. :)

What else? Well, how about "character in place"? Like:
Miranda peered down the busy Oxford street, looking for a hackney.  From here, it was just a mile to the Marshalsea prison, but the streetpath was crowded with Sunday strollers taking in the sun-- and pickpockets. She didn't think she could walk to the prison without losing her purse. 
How about action?
 The train was bucking like a bull!  As it came over the hill, the engineer leaned out of the cabin and shouted something panicky that was caught by the wind and blown away.  

 How about time and place, compared to the last scene, a quick summary that sets up context of the "new time"?
This is from the first Harry Potter, natch:
Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all. The sun rose on the same tidy front gardens and lit up the brass number four on the Dursleys' front door; it crept into their living room, which was almost exactly the same as it had been on the night when Mr. Dursley had seen that fateful news report about the owls. Only the photographs on the mantelpiece really showed how much time had passed. Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets--but Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby, and now the photographs showed a large blond boy riding his first bicycle, on a carousel at the fair, playing a computer game with his father, being hugged and kissed by his mother. The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too.

 Here's one that starts with "character moving through place"-- From the Victoria Strauss novel, The Awakened City:
In his private domain, a succession of cave-rooms that he had shaped and altered in very particular ways, he sought the third chamber, where a circular well was punched into the floor. He had shaped it full of water before the ceremony; now he caused the water’s patterns to dance with heat, so that steam billowed toward the ceiling. He removed the chain that held the Blood and laid it on the floor--gently, for in spite of everything he could not quite break himself of the habit of reverence.

 Here's a "meta" opening, from a Neil Gaiman story, and "meta" sounds all post-modern and 21st Century. But in fact, Trollope and Dickens would "get" this, because it's a great way of establishing the setting/cultural context in a social novel (which is what they often wrote).  What's fun with this is it's an omniscient opening to a first-person narrative,  set in the 19th C, and I'm sure you'll recognize the narrator (it's a new Watson/Holmes story, which I'm seeing a lot of-- what gives?):
Fresh from Their Stupendous European Tour, where they performed before several of the crowned heads of Europe, garnering their plaudits and praise with magnificent dramatic performances, combining both comedy and tragedy, the Strand Players wish to make it known that they shall be appearing at the Royal Court Theatre, Drury Lane, for a limited engagement in April, at which they will present My Look Alike Brother Tom!, The Littlest Violet Seller and The Great Old Ones Come (this last an Historical Epic of Pageantry and Delight); each an entire play in one act! Tickets are available now from the Box Office

Here's a scene that starts with the conflict (from The Marriage Spell by Mary Jo Putney):
Each time Jack drifted into darkness, he expected not to emerge from the shadows, for they grew steadily darker, more determined to suck him into ultimate blackness. This time he was pulled back to awareness when Ashby said, “Jack, we have a proposition for you. Miss Barton is a talented healer, and she will undertake the risks of conducting a healing circle in return for the honor of becoming your wife. It seems a fair bargain to me. Do you agree?”

 Here's one that starts with a time, with reference back to the time of the previous scene (this is from Little Women) and a quick summary:
The morning charities and ceremonies took so much time that the rest of the day was devoted to preparations for the evening festivities. Being still too young to go often to the theater, and not rich enough to afford any great outlay for private performances, the girls put their wits to work, and necessity being the mother of invention, made whatever they needed. Very clever were some of their productions, pasteboard guitars, antique lamps made of old-fashioned butter boats covered with silver paper, gorgeous robes of old cotton, glittering with tin spangles from a pickle factory, and armor covered with the same useful diamond shaped bits left inn sheets when the lids of preserve pots were cut out. The big chamber was the scene of many innocent revels. 

Here's another "place" start, from the second chapter of The Scarlet Letter (okay, generalization here... 19th C novels often start scenes with PLACE):

The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be, that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or vagrant Indian, whom the white man's fire-water had made riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators; as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.

Another "place" start, in a rather similar situation, come to think of it, public square, dreadful ceremony (Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins):
At one o’clock, we head for the square. Attendance is mandatory unless you are on death’s door. This evening, officials will come around and check to see if this is the case. If not, you’ll be imprisoned.
It’s too bad, really, that they hold the reaping in the square — one of the few places in District 12 that can be pleasant. The square’s surrounded by shops, and on public market days, especially if there’s good weather, it has a holiday feel to it. But today, despite the bright banners hanging on the buildings, there’s an air of grimness. The camera crews, perched like buzzards on rooftops, only add to the effect.
People file in silently and sign in. The reaping is a good opportunity for the Capitol to keep tabs on the population as well. Twelvethrough eighteen-year-olds are herded into roped areas marked off by ages, the oldest in the front, the young ones, like Prim, toward the back. Family members line up around the perimeter, holding tightly to one another’s hands. But there are others, too, who have no one they love at stake, or who no longer care, who slip among the crowd, taking bets on the two kids whose names will be drawn.
Odds are given on their ages, whether they’re Seam or merchant, if they will break down and weep. Most refuse dealing with the racketeers but carefully, carefully. These same people tend to be informers, and who hasn’t broken the law? I could be shot on a daily basis for hunting, but the appetites of those in charge protect me. Not everyone can claim the same.
Anyway, Gale and I agree that if we have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker.

Here's a solid "place" start-- it puts the character right in the specific place (The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connally):
The courtroom in Department 2A was crowded with lawyers negotiating and socializing on both sides of the bar when I got there. I could tell the session was going to start on time because I saw the bailiff seated at his desk. This meant the judge was close to taking the bench.
In Los Angeles County the bailiffs are actually sworn deputy sheriffs who are assigned to the jail division. I approached the bailiff, whose desk was right next to the bar railing so citizens could come up to ask questions without having to violate the space assigned to the lawyers, defendants and courtroom personnel. I saw the calendar on the clipboard in front of him. I checked the nameplate on his uniform—R. Rodriguez—before speaking.

 Here's an opening starting with a new character (not the POV character) (From To Kill a Mockbird):

Miss Caroline was no more than twenty-one. She had bright auburn hair, pink cheeks, and wore crimson fingernail polish. She also wore high-heeled pumps and a red-and-white-striped dress. She looked and smelled like a peppermint drop. She boarded across the street one door down from us in Miss Maudie Atkinson's upstairs front room, and when Miss Maudie introduced us to her, Jem was in a haze for days.

Another start with a character (this one more about the POV character's reaction to this character) from Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins:
In my mind, President Snow should be viewed in front of marble pillars hung with oversized flags. It's jarring to see him surrounded by the ordinary objects in the room. Like taking the lid off a pot and finding a fanged viper instead of stew.
What could he be doing here? My mind rushes back to the opening days of other Victory Tours. I remember seeing the winning tributes with their mentors and stylists. Even some high government officials have made appearances occasionally. But I have never seen President Snow. He attends celebrations in the Capitol. Period.
 If he's made the journey all the way from his city, it can only mean one thing. I'm in serious trouble. And if I am, so is my family. A shiver goes through me when I think of the proximity of my mother and sister to this man who despises me. Will always despise me. Because I outsmarted his sadistic Hunger Games, made the Capitol look foolish, and consequently undermined his control.
 I notice that no matter what the scene starts with, it can include other aspects, or rather move from that element (place, say) to another element, usually conflict! Big surprise there, huh? But notice that what STARTS is often an indicator of what's important. Notice the diff between the 19th Century Hawthorne start (Scarlet Letter), and a rather similar situation (female character in public ceremony) in the 21st Century Hunger Games excerpt just below. The Hawthorne opening uses the setting of the public square and the situation of the woman sacrificed to the culture's morality to examine that cultural morality, that cultural tendency to find enemies. Hester (the main character) isn't in the opening of the scene. The Suzanne Collins scene puts the main character into the situation conflict upfront (and gives us the place while showing the conflict). The situations are remarkably similar, but the Collins excerpt focus on the character's viewpoint and conflict is quite modern. (I'm going to have to compare that to The Lottery scene opening, a clear model, and in the 20th Century, so we'll have three different centuries' treatment of a similar situation.)

Okay, given all that, how do you usually start scenes?  Or do you have a particular pattern here? Scan the starts of a bunch of scenes in a finished draft, and see if 1) there's some similarity to the way you start many of them, and 2) if you can characterize the start. Try to use internal scenes, that is, not Chapter 1, scene 1, so we get more of the SCENE opening rather than the BOOK opening.

If the scene starts the chapter, do you handle it differently, like more "link-backs" with the previous scene?

This is, btw, often a useful revision exercise. Once I just looked at the scene/chapter openings in a finished book, and found I'd started about 60% of the chapters with some variation of "The next morning, (character)...."

What do you find? What does that tell you about your voice, what you value in narrative, maybe what you want to change when you revise? Do you find the openings pretty clear even without context, or confusing, or...?


Julie Harrington said...

My instincts have always led me to start with a conflict. I think it's because if there's a problem from the start, you are (as a reader) more apt to read on until you see what the solution is and it helps build interest in the characters and seeing them overcome the problem, which means (imo) curiosity leads to investment in the characters.


Edittorrent said...

JT, I wonder if you also END scenes with conflict? That is, flip back a page. Is there a conflict-ending? And is the opening the same conflict?


Julie Harrington said...

Oh that's a good question. I had to pop back and look and yeah, I'd say I end chapters with conflict a majority of the time, and yes, generally the conflict for the next chapter opening stems off the previous chapters problem.


Stevie Carroll said...

That was an interesting exercise. I picked three of the chapters from the middle third of my novel and found one chapter where three scenes opened with a place plus an action (my protagonist is exploring and finds a house; she goes inside; she goes upstairs) and one opened with the passage of time plus inner conflict (she reviews what has happened to her in the house). The next chapter had more varied scene openings involving inner conflict plus a decision; place plus action; time plus inner conflict; place and then two scenes which each start with one of the two characters asking the other a question.

I may have to do this with more chapters, so thanks for inspiring me.

Jordan said...

I'm pretty sure I can tell you the formula I tend to use for opening paragraphs off the top of my head (in my last MS anyway):

Character actioned day time-of-day. Character actions and thoughts (a compressed sequel, sometimes). Goal.

I was just critiquing someone else's chapter, and I caught a scene opening something like "A day and a half later, she was inside the drug store working on the Pepto display." To me that felt vague (and boring). I suggested starting with the character doing something, then filling in the details. But maybe it's just me!

I should definitely try some other kinds of openers.

Edittorrent said...

Stevie, place plus action... I'm thinking that would actually help keep the pace up? What do you think?

Jordan, I'm thinking maybe it's that "already in some generic action" first line that you quote-- maybe that's what makes it feel vague. It is vague. It's not a special moment or specific event. It's just setting up the context for whatever is about to happen, the REAL opening. Hmm. Good thought!!!!


Stevie Carroll said...


I think you're right about the pacing being kept up with those place-action scene openings. I need to figure out how the others fulfill their purpose too.


green_knight said...

I like starting with a character in a Situation - they have a problem they need to solve.

Miranda peered down the busy street. The sidewalks were thronged with strollers taking in the summer air, the women hiding demurely beneath their parasols, the men strutting in top hats. Now and again a pickpocket darted through the crowd, followed by faint cries of 'stop thief'.
It was only a mile to Marshalsea. If she held onto her purse- No. Better not risk it.
She looked for a hackney-

What's important about that passage isn't her location, but her destination, and her desire to get there safely. By rearranging the passage a little we get the problem - busy street & pickpockets - before the solution (hiring a cab).

[And please forgive the fashion references, I haven't got the faintest clue how people would be dressed.]

Thomas Sharkey said...

I started a steampunk novel where the protagonist is reading from a book after which she relates to past events and tells her story, but in third person.

She continues reading the book, in full, near to the end of her story and then starts on part two. The second book is written in first person, with narrations from several of the characters as they relate to their mishaps.

Here is the start:

Paris, 2012AD
It was a quiet enough day, the air was warm and the streets weren’t particularly crowded. I took my time as I walked towards the building that contained our office. The window shoppers idled along the pavement, mothers towed tired children, and office secretaries hurried back to their place of work after a hasty lunch. The traffic was light, the private horse-drawn coaches moved in a sedate fashion while Hansom cabriolets plied their trade along both sides of the street, their electric motors barely audible. There were no smiles, no words of greeting or acknowledgement as several people I had known for years passed me. The air was still, not a word was spoken by anyone. It slowly came to me and I realized that everything was a fa├žade, arranged especially for my benefit.
And then they arrived, with their silent dirigibles...

Katherine stopped there and closed the book as the study clock chimed five. She gazed out the open window at the Paris morning skyline. She could see the top of the Eiffel Tower from where she stood.

All comments are welcome.