If the opening line of a scene is the doorway to the party, what follows is the welcoming handshake and introductions that draw readers into the mix. Effective scene openings extend beyond the fireworks of a provocative opening hook, ushering readers into the new space with no awkward stumbles or feeling out of place.
Here’s how to whisk readers effortlessly into a scene’s flow.
Go in Late …
The first technique is all about judging the point at which to enter the scene. Screenwriters have a saying: Go in late, get out early. Don’t overexplain on either end.
Since stories are about significance (why did the character make those choices, and how did it matter?), scenes should be constructed of significant stuff—stuff that matters, not all the characters’ dull daily duties.
Cut out the boring stuff. Short of a few scenes way back in the first act of your book while you’re establishing the character’s normal world, it’s almost never interesting to show a character waking up, getting dressed, drinking coffee, and getting ready for the scene. Get to the point. Readers come to your book for engaging story action, not the mundane business they’ve already slogged through themselves so they can sit down and read.
Transitions are a common tripping point. You can almost always do away with travel to the next location in the story (unless the journey itself is the point). Travel, arrivals, greetings, goodbyes—those are interstitial moments, not the story itself. None of that merits your precious word count.
Scenes dip in and out of the story at key points of conflict and tension, when things are popping that actually change what’s happening. Spend your time showing the characters doing things that affect the story line, not merely getting ready. It’s like a theatrical play—don’t show the stagehands changing the scenery, just raise the curtain on the next scene.
Aim to begin on the upswing into the conflict or juiciest part of the scene. Some scenes need a little more set-up, but you’ll be surprised how quickly readers catch on if you simply dive in.
This technique of going in late (or in medias res, in the middle of things) is often honed during revision. Write first, hone later. You’ll be surprised how much you can slice away without shaking readers’ ability to follow where the story moves next. Save anything you remove during revisions in your graveyard file, in case you need parts of it again later.
Test out shortened scenes on readers who don’t know your story. They may not know the details of the story, but can they slide into the spirit of the scene anyway? Could you prune away still more? You can always add removed content back a snippet at a time.
Bonus Tip: … Get Out Early
Speaking of petering out, the reverse of “go in late” holds true on the back end of the scene: Get out early. Once you’ve hit the peak—the conflict or surprise or complication—get the heck out of Dodge. Don’t overstay the scene’s welcome by dragging out the characters’ reactions (reaction/emotion, dilemma, and decision). This isn’t the time for lengthy debates …
… unless, of course, it is. If the characters and readers need time to grapple with the ramifications of what just happened, indulge in a full sequel scene.
Anchoring Scenes: The 3 Ws
Once you’ve chosen the right place to begin the scene, it’s time to invite readers in. Readers can’t sink into immersion until they’re oriented in the story. Whose view are they seeing this scene from? Where and when are they?
Within the first page of every scene—preferably within the opening paragraphs—ground readers by establishing the 3 Ws.
- WHO the viewpoint character is (and WHO ELSE is present in the scene)
- WHERE the scene is taking place
- WHEN the scene is taking place, or a sense of how much time has passed since the last scene
1. WHO Nothing in a scene makes sense until readers have context for what they’re reading. Whose experience is this? Establish the viewpoint character unambiguously within the first paragraph or two, ideally within the first two sentences.
Readers usually assume that the first character named in a scene is the viewpoint character. Positioning the viewpoint character in the opening has the added benefit of launching them into motion, doing or speaking or considering or noticing. Now viewpoint character has agency in driving the scene.
Also near the top of a scene, establish who else is present. Ideally, this should happen within the first page or so. You want to avoid the sort of confusion when some character pops off on the last page with a snarky observation, only readers didn’t even realize they were there. A glimpse of each character is sufficient, even a collective mention such as The others armed themselves with plastic forks and swarmed the defenseless box of cake on the counter.
2. WHERE A scene will feel like a snippet acted out in front of a green screen on a movie soundstage if readers don’t know where it’s unfolding. Don’t infodump the details in a steaming lump at the front of the scene. Parse it out.
The things the viewpoint character notices should reflect their personal mindset: their knowledge, priorities, taste, immediate agenda, hopes, fears … What is the viewpoint character doing here in this scene? They’re not sitting around and blinking around at a static world; they should be actively engaged in something that’s obviously headed somewhere interesting.
3. WHEN Pull readers across the chasm between scenes by seeding the next scene opening with cues as to how much time has passed. Unless the timeline is integral to the plot, it’s not necessary to be overt about this. In slower stories or sections, a mention of late-afternoon sun or a brisk autumn breeze gets the job done. The shorter the story’s overall timeline, the more granular you’ll need to be with these references.
Many books benefit from timestamps at the beginning of each chapter (22:58:07 11/12/2093, Bridge of the Atlantis) to help orient readers. Caveat: Not every reader notices or absorbs timestamps, and even those who do are unlikely to parse out the number of days or weeks between dates to grasp the relative passage of time (with the exception of something like the breathless hour-by-hour countdown of a thriller).
Revising Scene Openings
Pro revision tip: Make a single revision pass dedicated exclusively to tightening scene openings. Don’t get sucked into editing past the first few paragraphs. Try starting at the end of the manuscript and working backward scene by scene, forcing you to tackle each scene in its own right rather than in relation to the previous scene.
First, check to see that you’ve started each scene as late as possible, just before things get juicy. Since every scene should cause the next one to come about, like a chain of dominoes, you could also use this revision pass to check that scenes wrap up promptly (“get out early”), before the momentum has a chance to start petering out.
Next, move back to the scene opening to check for the 3 Ws: who, where, when.
Continue to work your way through the manuscript one scene at a time from back to front, checking only for scene opening issues. The result will be a smoother read that invites readers into the action every time.
Lisa Poisso specializes in helping new and emerging querying and self-publishing writers. A classically trained dancer, her approach to writing is grounded in structure, form, and technique as doorways to freedom of movement on the page. Lisa and her industrious team of #45mphcouchpotato greyhounds can be found at LisaPoisso.com. Visit her Linktree for help with your early steps as a writer, join the Clarity for Writers community at Substack, and download a free Manuscript Prep guide. Connect with Lisa on Instagram, Facebook, and X/Twitter.