For me, one of the hardest parts of writing is knowing where to start a scene.
The obvious answer: Well, at the beginning, of course.
But just where is the beginning?
Do you do as Elmore Leonard is always credited with saying, leave out the boring parts?
Let’s use the example of someone arriving at their office to find they’ve been fired. Following are two places you could begin the scene:
Option #1: The traffic on the freeway was thick as Joseph headed into the office. He punched absently at the radio buttons and sipped his coffee, thinking on the morning’s news. It had been a grim start. A fire downtown. A burglary down the block. It reminded him of that summer he’d spent in Boston, when he’d shared an apartment over a bakery with his ex-girlfriend and her best friend…
Fred Morris gave Joseph a weary look from the other side of his long desk.
“I’m sorry, Joe. You’re a good kid. I wish there was some other way.”
Joseph stared dully at the framed picture of his boss’s third wife on the wall, his head spinning. No. This wasn’t happening.
He swallowed. “You’re…you’re firing me?”
See what I mean? I don’t care so much about the traffic Joseph faces getting to work. He lives in a city. He drives on the freeway. Facing traffic seems obvious to me, and frankly, I don’t appreciate you the writer making me suffer it along with him. Unless, of course, Joseph commutes with a key character and that agonizing drive can serve as an opportunity to move the plot forward through dialog (useful dialog) then it’s just filler and a real mood and pacing killer.
Now myself, I tend to start scenes in the thick. The first line is often a line of dialog, and usually something dramatic, such as: “Here he comes!” or “You did what?”
Does this work? Sometimes. But only if I can successfully ground my reader in the scene ASAP. Never assume your reader knows where they are at all times. You are the tour guide, you lead your reader to landmarks, points of interest, etc. But keep in mind (and this is spoken by someone who was a tour guide in a past life), no one likes a long-winded tour guide. Keep a group of tourists standing too long in the hot sun while you elaborate on the finer points of gambrel roofs and you’ll see a lot of blank and grumpy faces.
The same holds true for your readers. They signed on to your tour because they want to see stuff. They want to learn and they want to peek. They want smells and sounds and sights and tastes. And frankly, they want it as soon as possible, so don’t belabor your introductions. Get to it. Bring them into the carriage house and show them the old wheels, the old beams, the scrawled numbers on the vertical boards where the builder did some last-minute math. The cool stuff.
Now, once you have them in the carriage house, once they are settled in, by all means, give them a bit of exposition, but only once they are comfortable, in the shaded cool, and with lots of stuff to look at while they listen.
So when it comes to knowing where to start my scenes, I try to:
–establish place, as quickly and succinctly as possible
–then, whenever possible, start at the point of conflict, or as close as you can without confusing your reader or changing the tone of your pacing
Anyone else care to share how and where they like to start their scenes?