Saturday, December 03, 2005


Most of us are all guilty at one time or another of starting a scene like this:

It was a dark and stormy night.

Unless you write scenery very well, it's a boring way to start a scene. I try to enter the scenes I write as late as possible, preferably in the midst of dialogue or action, and skip the travel log.

If the character is in a new place I want the reader to see, dialogue and action can show the place (versus me telling the reader about it):

"More pink," Alexandra said as she looked around the beach house. "Holy Toledo. Is there some state law that says every other thing in Florida has to be pink?"


"Why am I here instead of at home trying to sleep through Gloria’s game shows?" Harry demanded as he dropped his tray on the cafeteria lunch table.

I also sometimes start with a bit of condensed backstory needed to give perspective to the action:

Lucan had been trying to wake Samantha from the catatonic trance she had fallen into after Faryl’s escape, with no luck. He had tried cold water compresses, a capsule of ammonia from Burke’s first aid kit, and brandy. Nothing roused her.

And even an impaired character can still show what's happening through senses and dialogue:

"Hey." Someone was shaking her. "Time to make the donuts."

Sam groped for a pillow, found one, and put it over her face to block out the noise and the light. "Go away."

"I’d be happy to, Officer, but you’re in my apartment."

If I have to go with a descriptive opener, I like showing the characters versus the setting:

Byrne came out of the shadows, the hem of his great coat swirling in the faint mist. He pulled back the scarf covering his head, revealing blood-red hair that fell over his shoulders in waves, some of which had been woven into thin, tight braids. Byrne’s garnet mane contrasted sharply with the enigmatic swirls and lines of the dark blue tattoos on his face. He moved with the quick, easy power of a man accustomed to climbing mountains on foot.

What are some of the ways you open a novel scene?


  1. I generally come right out and say where the character is and what he or she is doing. I like to orient the reader immediately, although I vary it a bit so every scene doesn't start the same way.

  2. I don't have a ton of experience, being only 3/4 of the way through my first (and who knows whether it is even publishable), but I try to start with some sort of action and let whatever description is required flow from that.

    It's like your last example: rather than simply describing the character, you show him coming out of the shadows and then hang the description from that.

  3. Anonymous9:21 AM

    I like to start at the beginning of the story, or sometimes a little further in than the beginning. Then drop "grounding" or backstory in as needed.

    This requires trust on the reader's part.

  4. Scenery tends to get on my last nerve as an book or chapter opener, but I'm reading the Edge Chronicles to my kids and there are lots of descriptions of the world...beautifully done. (We're on Stormchasers just now) The chapters often start with descriptions of the location. In fact I think the world is a more interesting, complex character than the other characters.

    One of my favorite romance writers, Diane Farr, started a story with a two-page description of a rainstorm in London. Fit the story and the main character.

  5. I think the "scenery" needs to be active in the story. It can't just be describing the trees because they're there. However, it's a whole different if the heroine is in danger and walking through the woods. Then the scenery can be used to evoke a mood, terror, suspense, danger, and anything else needed to enhance the story.

  6. I usually do the character in the setting thing, showing the setting from his or her pov.

  7. I have to consciously think about adding scenery or I won't. I tend to open books with action or at the very least an interesting first paragraph. Reading your examples shows me once again how much I have to learn about the craft of writing. Sigh. (Taking notes now.)

  8. Anonymous1:56 PM

    Simon wrote: I like to orient the reader immediately, although I vary it a bit so every scene doesn't start the same way.

    I like variety too, but I look for repetition in my openers when I'm editing versus planning or plotting them out as I write.

    Dean wrote: I try to start with some sort of action and let whatever description is required flow from that.

    Description flows more naturally from action for me as I write. When I open with setting description, I feel like I'm writing a school report (although I've forced myself to do it for a couple of books because an editor wanted setting as an opener.)

    Touch of Ink wrote: I like to start at the beginning of the story, or sometimes a little further in than the beginning. Then drop "grounding" or backstory in as needed.

    I'm always looking for new ways to integrate backstory without the prerequisite infodumps or As-you-know-Bobs. It's an ongoing headache with writing series novels, especially when you hit book six or seven. I used to depend on prologues, but I personally don't like writing them and I've been trying to get away from them and weave backstory in other ways. You know who's really good at weaving in backstory without the reader ever really being aware of it -- Michele Albert. She did a great job of it with One Way Out.

    Carter wrote: I like to think of scenes as micro-stories within the larger stories

    Never thought of scenes like that -- interesting way to approach them.

    Kate r. wrote: One of my favorite romance writers, Diane Farr, started a story with a two-page description of a rainstorm in London. Fit the story and the main character.

    What was the title of that book, Kate?

    Linda Adams wrote: I think the "scenery" needs to be active in the story.

    Agreed. There are some writers who make setting come alive through very subtle interaction with the story -- Holly Lisle and Doug Clegg are experts at it -- but I hate setting so much I have to force myself to write it, and I think the mental block keeps me from using it as well as I could.

    Shelly wrote: I usually do the character in the setting thing, showing the setting from his or her pov.

    My characters won't behave long enough for me to do that. They're always ticked off or in a rush to go somewhere. :)

    Jordan wrote: I have to consciously think about adding scenery or I won't.

    80% of my setting usually appears during the editing phase versus the writing phase, Jordan, so you're not alone.

  9. I try very hard to open with action - as though you've just turned on a movie that's already started.

    The large oak doors swung open with a loud groan. Isifaer felt a cool rush of air before the doorway was filled with a large man.

    I have always admired writers who can weave descriptions into diaglogue and action. Authors who give every bit of description all in one paragraph - like it's from a police report - are usually harder to read for me, because I get pulled away from the action of the story.

  10. Anonymous2:41 PM

    Interesting question. I tend to do it instinctively, and haven't really sat and analysed what I do, but here are some results from a quick read through my current unedited WIP:

    * About half of the scenes open with dialogue. These are usually scenes in a location that has been used previously, but not always.

    * Many other scenes start with one character's impression of another. Most of these don't describe scenery at all. The first paragraph is a good example:

    High Lord Camlik looked over the faces of the Lords' Council with contempt. Not one of them, it seemed, had guessed his plans, and he would have to describe them one step at a time to allow the fools time to understand.

    * New scenes tend to get just one or two details in the opening paragraph. The details tend to be ones that either cause the POV character a problem, or are very apparent. Examples:

    Tahron urged his horse onwards as night began to fall on the path to Padnara. It would not be long until the darkness made the path unsafe, but the town's gates were not much farther.

    The room was dark, and at first Deia could not see the interior clearly. Smoke hung unmoving in the air, and Deia could still smell the last remnants of the incense that must have burned out hours ago.

    Other details may be filled in later -- or just left to the reader's imagination.

    * If a location really needs a description, I'll try to use terms that the POV character would naturally use:

    That afternoon, Tahron accompanied the King and General Penric across the river. The appointed meeting place was a disused barn, the farmer having long-since moved to a safer location on the other side of the river. The building was on low land, with nowhere nearby for archers to lay an ambush. As near as possible, it was a safe meeting place.

    Here, the POV character is the king's personal bodyguard. His king is moving into a potentially dangerous situation, and he's evaluating it.

    So, basically, I cheat. I don't describe places, I describe my characters' reactions to them.

  11. I'm big into starting with dialogue... usually a short sentence that I hope will catch the reader's attention. I start with action sometimes, too. Not usually a lot of scene-setting unless it's important for some reason. Then again, I'm terrible at description and tend to skimp on it, so my openings may reflect that:-). Since I write romance, my books usually start with the meeting of the hero and heroine, or just before.

  12. bah.

    I had to go find the book and it turned out to be an Edith Layton trad regency called the Mysterious Heir. THere isn't nearly as much rain as I recalled. I think on some loop or another she mentioned she had pages and pages of rain and her editor made her cut it--I must have remember her remark more clearly than the book.

  13. Anonymous9:55 PM

    So much depends on the kind of story you're writing and your personal style or voice. I've never thought "it was a dark and stormy night," was an intrinsically bad way to begin a story. So, sue me. ;+)

    Depending on what genre I'm writing, I like to begin with something startling, similar to your fourth example, only I'd have started at "Go away," I think, anyway, something that grabs or startles the reader. But I write mostly romantic comedy/suspense, so that's appropriate.

    In the fantasy I'm working on, though, I start with the scenery, the atmosphere. It's as much a character in the story as the "people" who populate it. So, it all depends on where you're going.

    Readers have different expectations of different genres. They also have different levels of tolerance for slow pacing, or complex language and sentence structure depending on whether it's literary fiction or popular/mainstream fiction.

    In the end, the way a story begins says something about the author, at least the author in relation to the story they are about to tell. I'd hope that if you started a story with the equivalent of "it was a dark and stormy night," that your readers would say, "Hey, she's doing something different," rather than, "What a hack." Gotta go for at least a paragraph before knowing if that was a good beginning, or not so good. IMO as both reader and writer.

  14. Looking back over the chapter I just finished editing, it seems like I try to open each scene with a combination of setting, mood, and a glimpse of the POV character's personality. Maybe that's too much for one paragraph, but that's what I like to do. I don't think I've consciously set out to do that.

    Here's the para that introduces one of my minor POV characters. (He's a bird with arms instead of wings. I keep my aliens simple ;o)

    Envelope in hand, Gen Edra skipped back to Noima Kanasta’s trailer. He was one happy Huuran. Noima had just ruffled his feathers big time, and with luck he might snatch another bit of tail before it was time to go. Fluff me, just look at her, singin’ in the window. Creamy yellow from crown to nub, and such a bright red ring around her eyes. With flutter like, what old cock wouldn’t be able to fluff like a youngster? Holy Ki-Ni, thank you for making dumb blondes.

  15. Hehe, I was the one who slapped a fat dab of description at the beginning of most chapters when I started writing. Shades of reading too much Balzac and Co. :-)

    I'm getting better at that, though I still like to have some description, but more like an expressionist painting - some brushes of colour that make an image only if you take a step back and read it within context. I aim for atmosphere more than details.

    I often see adding description like a camera zooming in and out and swinging round; sometimes it's close in the character's POV, sometimes it's more a narrative additon that - hopefully - blends in well.

    Cailthearn stood amidst the carnage. His grip on the sword relaxed and the point slowly sank towards the ground; a few drops of blood splashing on the wet earth. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and looked around. The battle was over.

    The last rays of a setting sun highlighted the scarlet of the dead Romans' cloaks, reflected on their iron armour with a dull gleam and lent a wet shine to the bloodied spears and swords scattered on the ground. Dark bundles on the blackened, muddy grass betrayed slain tribal warriors. A raven croaked, its call was answered in the distance.

    Where was Talorcan? Men gathered in groups; shoulders sagging, limbs bloody, they supported each other to walk away from the slaughter, but Cailthearn could not see the tall figure of their leader. He swallowed. Bellona, not him!
    (Storm over Hadrian's Wall)

    See what I mean: camera zoom on Cailthearn and his actions, then swing over the battlefield, then zoom back to Cailthearn again and seing the scene through his eyes, hear his thoughts.

    The next one has the camera swing briefly to other people than the two involved in the discussion, foreboding a street quarrel.

    "I'm not selling you a book, filthy barbarian." The shopkeeper laid his pudgy hands on the polished oakwood counter, shoving aside a partly unrolled parchment scroll in the process. He leaned forward. "The firm of Apollonius Burrus is used to deal with patricians. You can't even read, I bet."

    At the sound of his barking, several heads peeked out from beneath the brightly painted wooden screens framing the shops which lined the arcades of the Vicus Tuscus.

    "It's for a friend," the other man said in a calm voice. He untied a leather pouch from his belt with a crisp move, opened it and planked down some coins on the counter. "One, two, three silver denarii. It's good, solid money, and now you give me that scroll."
    (Endangered Frontiers)

    And finally, a revised chapter opening from the first novel, the one with the big description dabs.

    A glint of light caught Alastair O'Duibhne's attention. He stood atop the newly built stone tower of Talla Dearg and gazed across Loch Awe. In the grey evening, the lake shone the colour of molten lead; the mountains merged as darker shadows into the twilight. He rested his forearms on the battlement and inhaled the cool breeze carrying the tang of salt and seaweed from the nearby shore; a breeze that whipped back his long auburn hair.

    There it was again, on the mainland to the right of the Chonnel island, a flash, as though the fading light had glinted off polished steel. Alastair stared in that direction: Shadows that were not boulders. A group of men hiding in the heather, betrayed by their polished spearheads.
    (Kings and Rebels)

    I've now connected the scenery to the character and shortened the whole thing without losing the atmosphere - a peaceful sunset with a hidden danger.

  16. My natural urge is to start with dialogue and then figure out what the hell is going on from there. Like others I try to vary it though.

    I get itchy fingers when I read reams and reams of setting description where nothing happens, and it bugs the hairy parts off me when it's thrown in to break up dialogue... So I'm pretty hard to please, I suppose.

    I like subtlety best. Cook the scene for me: give me the aroma and taste of the place, not the 64 page recipe of what's in it.

  17. I think it's also a bit genre dependant. You'll get away with some more description in Fantasy and Historical Fiction than fe. in contemporary Mystery.

    Which doesn't mean that not some Fantasy writers overdo it and deliver wordy descriptions that don't really paint an image. What makes an epic whole in Lord of the Rings comes across as clumsy in a book I recently read and which ended up against the wall for many reasons.

  18. Anonymous9:12 AM

    For me, it seems to depend entirely on the characters. The openings to the two MindWalker books I've written (one finished, one mid-way through), open with scenery from Gielle's POV and reflect her state of mind: in the first one, she compares the jungles of Corton to her home planet as a way of feeling she's safe and "home" again after a horrific stop on Terra Nova; in the second, it's an impending storm out on the sea as she returns home, sliding immediately into her turmoil over needing to decide if she wants her throne or her place in the Project. Because Gielle is a strongly emotional character, the scenery becomes important for connecting her thoughts.

    For my stand alone, Cat's Paw, though, Blanchette is close to unemotional, and she's driven by action and words - so that book opens with dialogue, an argument, actually. The setting filters in later, but the focus is completely on conversation (and her revulsion for the people she has to talk to).

    I can't really put myself down to one rule for all, because they really don't always work. Sometimes I have to go back and remind myself that setting is needed, and other times I have to trim it out a bit. It just depends on what the characters are like and how they perceive their world; I take my cues from them.

  19. Anonymous3:31 PM

    I try to start with humor.

    My current WIP starts...

    If Tommy Brady didn't stop trying to look down her shirt, she was going to smack him; gun or no gun.


  20. Anonymous2:59 PM

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