Four Elements That Must Be In The Opening Scene

I bet you know what I thought when I saw this post title at Writers Helping Writers: Four Must-Haves in the First Two Paragraphs of Every Chapter or Scene

I thought: Sure, uh huh, tell me, what are these four essential elements that have to be there?

However, I was wrong. I actually agree with all four essential elements. I even agree these elements need to be in the first two paragraphs. Does that alone let you figure out what those four elements are? What would you think? If I’d asked myself Okay, what ARE really essential things in the first couple paragraphs of every single scene? then I might have realized there actually are a handful of essentials.

Here’s the one I should definitely have thought of, and you probably did:

1 — WHOSE POV IS THIS?

Of course, if the whole novel sticks to just one pov from chapter one all the way through, then this is not a concern. If you’re switching pov, then it’s a big concern. This is why I tagged each chapter in MARAG with either Sinowa’s name or Marag’s name at the top, even though chapters strictly alternate AND it’s usually clear enough from the first couple of paragraphs, even without the header.

It’s usually fine to just signal this in the first couple of paragraphs by using the character’s name. I’ve done that before, plenty of times. Especially if the story is being told in third person, that’s usually easy to do. However, adding the pov character’s name as a chapter heading removes any possible ambiguity and may also simply make the reader feel totally secure about whose pov they’re in. That last may make the chapter heading worthwhile all by itself. I don’t think there’s much ambiguity in MARAG, but still, why not? It’s easy enough, and also this is the first Tuyo-world book with multiple pov protagonists, so it makes sense to signal the reader as clearly as possible that pov is switching.

If you’re not using chapter headings OR you’re switching more often that at the top of a chapter, then it’s absolutely crucial to cue the reader every time you switch pov. Within the first two paragraphs is generous. Within the first two sentences is probably better. This is true even if the voices of the characters are very distinctive, but certainly very distinctive voices does help too. I’m sure we’ve all read books where we suddenly thought, “Wait, who is this?” and had to go back to the top of the chapter to check. Ugh. That really shouldn’t ever happen. The author should signal the reader VERY CLEARLY when pov shifts AND on top of that the voices should be distinctive.

What’s the next thing? Now that we’re thinking about orienting the reader, I bet it’s much easier to get the rest of the four essential elements:

2 — WHERE ARE YOU?

3 — WHEN ARE YOU?

Those elements are indeed essential, and I remember now how Navah Wolfe, my S&S editor, asked me to include a clear time referent at the beginning of each chapter in Winter of Ice and Iron.

That’s when I named all the months, so that I could refer to Apple Blossom Month and Wolf Month and so on as we counted down toward the dark hinge of winter, the shortest days of the year, when the dragons come through the wall of storms and various sorts of disaster may occur. The passage of time is really important in that book, so it was crucial to help the reader keep track.

You also have to orient the reader in space, especially if your characters are traveling, especially if you’ve compressed time. But even if you haven’t, even if your protagonist is just walking from one room to another inside a house, you still have to draw the new room. Not, probably, in a lot of detail, but in enough detail that the reader doesn’t feel like the characters are walking through the dreaded featureless “white room.” This all ties back to the recent post on description, because the new scene may include scents or sounds or whatever as well as things to look at, plus the protagonist may react emotionally to something in the room, and all of that can be important in keeping the story grounded in the world.

I think I also said recently that this is one reason (I suddenly realized) that every book is longer than I expect: because moving into each scene takes more words than I really think it will. That’s because of the need to move protagonists into each scene in a way that makes sense and get the characters from one important event to another in a way that flows. (nd then I introduce a new side character and find myself looking for something for that secondary character to do, which just happened with RIHASI, and I’m like, this is all very well, but jeez, no wonder everything takes so many words.)

What’s the fourth element?

4 — WHO IS PRESENT

Yes yes yes, especially if there is a clutter of characters, your reader is going to forget someone is there (in fact, *I* am likely to forget someone is there), so you have to remind the reader (and yourself) who, besides the protagonist, is present. And that gets into the whole crowd scene thing, which is genuinely difficult. But besides crowd scenes, the linked post also adds:

There is nothing more jarring than thinking a character is alone in a scene and having a second character speak up or yell on page two, while standing right beside them, as if they appeared out of thin air.

I can’t offhand remember that happening, but it would certainly be jarring. It’s like a version of the white room — a ghostly secondary character who is invisible until he speaks.

Basically this whole things boils down to: Read your story as though you were the reader, and make sure the reader remains oriented in time, grounded in space, and basically present in the world of the story. Even if that takes a lot of words. It really is crucial.

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1 thought on “Four Elements That Must Be In The Opening Scene”

  1. I glad to see someone providing this advice. I’ve had a string of things I’ve discarded due to lack of those cues – apparently if it’s the latest entry in a long series some writers and editors assume they can stop providing setting cues. Me – no. These are just talking heads. Maybe the inclusion of one particular person was supposed to clue me in that we were in her rooms, but it would have been nice to get it on the page. And don’t get me started on character voice.

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