The Rest Of Your First Scene

Now you have three brilliant paragraphs (or maybe even five, or eight, or ten). You have a genuine character on the page. You've hinted at conflict. Your details are well chosen and concrete. You've caught your reader's attention. But a handful of paragraphs—even brilliant ones—do not constitute a scene. What will happen during the remainder of that crucial first scene?

Well, what do you want that first scene to accomplish in terms of your story? Put another way, what should be different at the end of the scene from the beginning of the scene?

Scenes in fiction are of two types: dramatic and expository. Expository scenes, which we'll discuss in more detail in the next chapter, essentially summarize action that isn't new enough or important enough to need full dramatic treatment. Suppose, for instance, you're writing a mystery novel and your detective is interviewing three neighbors of the victim, none of whom has any relevant information. Nor do any of them have anything to say important to later plot developments. Rather than write three full interviews in which nothing happens to change the basic situation, you would probably summarize those scenes in a few sentences of exposition:

Next I talked to the neighbors. Mrs. Catalin, in 3-C, had slept through the shouting, the gunshots, the screaming. She was sleeping again when I rang her bell, and didn't appreciate being woken. Ancient and half-deaf Mr. Harrison in 3-B, on the other hand, was overjoyed to see me—or anybody—and it was twenty minutes before I could escape, having learned only that the victim "wasn't over friendly-like." 3-D, Ms. Kilgore, the fourth-grade teacher who seemed about as home in that building as a Biblical scholar in the Combat Zone, had been in school at the time of the shooting. She'd only lived there four days, and had never met the victim. Nada.

The first scene ofyour short story shouldn't be a summary scene. In fact, scene one can't be a scene in which the situation doesn't change, because thejob ofscene one is to give us the initial situation. Anything you tell us is going to be a change from what we knew at the start of the story—nothing—and therefore the first scene should be dramatized. You can, of course, just have your characters stand around discussing a situation they're all already familiar with but we're not. However, the first scene will be much more interesting—and much easier to write—if something is different at the end of the scene than existed at the beginning. Thus, your first job in finishing that first scene is to figure out what that change might be. Here are some possibilities:

•A character discovers that a task he is starting is more complicated than he'd hoped.

• A character learns a disturbing piece of information.

• A character arrives someplace new.

• A character meets someone who will significantly alter his life; even in the first scene the new acquaintance has begun to change the character's immediate goals or ideas.

•An event occurs—a murder, a spaceship landing, the arrival of a letter—that will lead to significant change. The first scene details the event and hints at the kind of repercussions that will follow.

We could go on and on. The point is that each of these first scenes introduces a change or potential change. In addition, each is potent enough for endless variations. For instance, "A character discovers that a task he is starting is more complicated than he'd hoped" describes the first scenes of Bonfire of the Vanities, To Kill a Mockingbird, and "Lily Red," in which the "tasks" are campaigning in Harlem, making recluse Boo Radley come out of his house, and escaping one's ordinary life.

So—what change will be introduced in your first scene? In whose life? How will that person feel about it? Once you know these answers, you can build on your strong opening to finish your first scene.

A word about the way you end that first scene. The last sentence ofa scene, just before the scene break, is the power position (just as the last word in a paragraph is a power position, and the last line of a chapter, and the last paragraph of a novel). Make it count. The closing sentence of a first scene should evoke some emotion—not blatantly, but through a telling detail that means more than just itself.

It's more difficult to give examples of meaningful end lines than ofopening lines, because end lines only become meaningful in the context of the entire scene. But let's try anyway. The following line is the last sentence of the first scene of Alice Hoffman's novel Seventh Heaven. The novel is set in 1950s suburbia. The first scene deals with the problem of a vacant house on Hemlock Street, which is going to seed and must be sold before it erodes property values. The scene also deals subtly with the changes that have come over this neighborhood since the starry-eyed young couples first moved from the city into their brand-new, all-alike tract houses. The last paragraph concerns the housewives' typical day; it ends with this sentence:

Then they faced the mirror and took the bobby pins out of their hair and combed out their pin curls, but by the time they went back to their bedrooms their husbands were already asleep, and the fireflies were hidden between the blades of grass on their own front lawns.

This sentence is poignant because it depicts in concrete form the stagnation that has set in on Hemlock Street. Even sex, the life force, is on the verge ofwinking out: Wives prepare for it ritually (and after dutifully scrubbing out the bathtub), but husbands are already asleep. Nature, so dazzling to city eyes when they first moved to Hemlock Street, has likewise become invisible to those same eyes, hidden "on their own front lawns." Desire for life might, like the fireflies, still be present, but it isn't doing anybody much good.

Note that none of this is stated overtly. A hasty reader might not even pick it up. But it's there, coloring the last line of the scene with subtle emotion—loss, regret, delicate frustration.

This sentence also, incidentally, paves the way for the next scene. If there were ever a place ripe for change, it's dimmed-out and stagnant Hemlock Street. This change arrives in scene two, in the form of Nora Silk, who is unlike anyone already living in the neighborhood. And the novel is off and running.

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