Friday, October 30, 2009

First Scene

The first scene in your narrative bears the greatest burden of all, because it must do all of the following:

  • Hatch your plot in the form of your significant situation;
  • Introduce your protagonist and provide a brief glance into his inner or outer struggles;
  • Establish a distinct, rich setting and subtly evoke the senses without being overbearing;
  • Set up a feeling of dramatic tension that hints at complications and conflict to come.

First scenes are most successful when they begin with an air of mystery, a question or situation that needs and answer, or a crisis from which the protagonist needs to be extricated. The first scene should be compelling enough--with enough action and plot information--that the reader does not need any backstory or expository summary in order to keep reading without getting confused.

What does your first scene need to be successful? The following, for starters:

  • A significant situation that challenges your protagonist's status quo. Roger is on a ship sailing across the Bay of Bengal which is attacked by a privateer.
  • A catalyst with whom the protagonist can interact. Captain Coates forces Roger to change his plans and go to Mergen instead of Pegu.
  • A quick introduction to your protagonist's immediate intentions. Roger had intended to go to Pegu in search of his brother.
  • A glimpse of your protagonist's personal history and personality, which should shed further light on her motivation. The reader gets a quick glimpse into Roger's life as a clerk at Madras who is jilted by Betsy Eden.
  • A course of action or a decision on the part of the protagonist that leads immediately to more complications. Life gets more complicated for Roger by scene's end, as he is now about to leave his old life and let chance take him where ever it may.

The Core Elements and the First Scene.

  • Setting; It's tempting to paint a dramatic canvas of setting in the first scene, but be careful not to let setting absorb the attention of your scene, which should be lightly drawn unless the setting itself is part of your signficant situation in some dramatic way (like if your protagonist is lost in a wild jungle or scaling a mountain).
  • Subtext and Dramatic Tension; Subtext foreshadows aspects of your plot through the strategic placement of thematic imagery, subtle indications of character behavior, and by showing parallel actions in the background of the scene. Not all genres need as much subtext. Literary fiction often relies upon more subtext, since the genre emphasizes lyrical language, slower pacing, and richer character development.
  • Pacing; Pace should match the emotional content of your scene. First scenes should get going with an emotional bang--start big or dramatic, ratchet up the suspense or lay on the fear, since you're capturing the reader here.
  • Ending the First Scene. Eventually, your significant situation will have to taper off to its close. No matter what kind of plot you choose--a quiet, character-driven one, or an action-based one as your genre and writing style demand--end your first scene with a feeling that trouble, conflict, crisis, or a dilemma has only just begun, and you will almost certainly guarantee the reader keeps on going to the next scene. To do this: Leave the consequences of the significant situation unresolved; End the scene before the character makes a major decision; Allow your protagonist to have a disturbing realization that ultimately changes everything in his life; Let your protagonist have a knee-jerk reaction to a signficant situation.
First Scenes vs. Prologues.

A prologue is a short scene or chapter at the very beginning of a narrative--it is the very first part of the narrative that will be read, and it comes before the first scene and chapter. A prologue may actually take place in the future, or even in the distant past. In fact, it may not fit into the linear chronology of the narrative at all, because its purpose is to provide information that the narrative will not or cannot just yet, but that is somehow needed. Some writers use a prologue as a hook--to tempt the reader with information that the plot will not deliver for many more hundreds of pages. Some writers believe that the first scene should successfully provide that hook, and that if you work hard to write an effective, enticing, vivid first scene, you won't need a prologue.

Points to Ponder.

  • Plot and character cannot be separated. Your significant situation is the something bad, difficult, mysterious, or tragic that happens to your protagonist in real-time action--in other words, it feels as though it is happening at the moment the reader reads it because it isn't narrated in exposition and it isn't a flashback scene. The action is happening now!
  • This monumental event is what sets your story in motion, what compels your character to take action, because, after all, the problem belongs to your protagonist first and foremost. Through other plot twists and complications, the significant situation may lead to a whole host of trouble for other characters, but not at page one. The opening scene belongs to your main character.
  • Your significant situation should happen within the first couple of paragraphs. If you force the reader to wait too long for the event that they hope is coming, you stand to lose them before ever getting to it.
  • When you kick off your significant situation, be sure that it directly involves your protagonist and reveals something about her character--whether you only show her actions, or you let us into her interior world. Your situation should challenge your protagonist's status quo. Plot and character are bound together and one without the other will cause your first scene to flop.
  • In your first scene you aren't going to focus too much on character development; your goal is to introduce your protagonist as quickly and with as little intrigue as possible while getting your story started and hooking the reader.
  • Introduce your protagonist and the significant situation simultaneously.
  • Match your pace to the emotional content of the scene.
  • Use thematic images to foreshadow an outcome. If your protagonist's life is in danger, set an eerie mood, and use setting objects that conjure up images of death or darkness--a knife, a raven, even a shift in light from bright to dark.
  • Unbalance the reader's expecations through setting by employing what is not expected, such as featuring a monastery as the site of a violent crime, or a prison as a setting of a surprising revelation of innocence.
  • Keep a tight pace--notice if you are using too much explication or description that drags the pace down; and watch for lengthy, unbroken passages of dialogue or actions that push the pace too quickly.
  • End with your protagonist in trouble or with an uncertain fate, setting up the next scene.


  • Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Make a Scene, Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time;