Different Ways to Start a Scene: Part 2

Most people have a favorite way to start a scene and a chapter. One way usually comes more naturally. But variety is important for the reader and for the writer. Why is it important for you? Because different types of openings have different effects. They resume the story at different points in the stimulus – reaction – action sequence. In this way, different openings can fill different narrative needs. And experimenting with different types of openings will expand your skills as a writer.

Theater Festival 6
Theater Festival 6 (Photo credit: Niels Linneberg)

Scenes rarely begin with a flashback but it can be done effectively. One benefit to starting a scene with a flashback as opposed to using the flashback later in the scene is that there is less of a sense that the events of the flashback have already been resolved. Since the flashback takes place in the past, the effects of events have already been felt – mostly. Consider leaving some questions in your flashback unresolved and when you return to the story’s present, make the unanswered question a central issue of the scene. A downside of flashbacks is that you have to reorient your reader each time you change time periods. By starting a scene with a flashback, you reduce the number of times you have to reorient from three times to two.

The typical flow of action is stimulus – reaction – action. But you can mix things up a bit by starting a scene with a reaction. The reaction may be to an action that ended the last scene. Or it could be (since this is the start of a scene) a reaction to a stimulus that you have not shown. A reaction is the feeling or thought that the stimulus (immediate conflict or obstacle) generates in the view point character. The reader will read on to find out what caused this reaction so be sure to answer their questions at some point.

A slower way to start a scene is through description. I say slow but it does not have to be that way. Short sentences, short paragraphs, and active verbs all can hasten the pace. Description is an easy way to ground the reader – especially when the setting has changed. Description, when not using the omniscient point-of-view, is limited to what the view point character can experience. A benefit of point-of-view description is that it is easier to establish both character mood and over-all mood. Point-of-view description gives the character a chance to react to surroundings, maybe drop a bit of background information, or even introduce inner conflict.

Most writers have a favorite way to start a scene but they also often become limited in the options that they use. Consider the needs of your scene and experiment with different types of openings. You may even be inspired.

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One thought on “Different Ways to Start a Scene: Part 2

  1. I am reminded of Roger Zelanzny’s “Doorways In The Sand”, in which every chapter begins with a cliffhanger, and then goes on to explain how the character got into that situation. It sounds contrived, but he actually handles the form well enough that the story flows very naturally.

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