Writing Tips: 4 Essential Elements for Setting the First Scene

This is part three of a series on how to start a Hero’s Journey story. Our goal is to include these elements in the opening scene:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
  2. Raise questions that the reader wants answered
  3. Provide a goal for the protagonist
  4. Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
  5. Set the physical scene with only essential details
  6. Begin building a bridge to the back story
  7. Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
  8. Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure

To illustrate each element, I provided an example from my book Reapers (See first post), and we are now on #5.

5. Set the physical scene with only essential details: At the beginning of the story, we are trying to hook the reader in a way that will keep the pages turning. On the first page, readers likely aren’t interested in textures, colors, how furniture is arranged, or how many bulbs are in a light fixture. Yet, we need to provide enough clues for readers to paint the essential mental picture.

We do this by employing the following methods:

  1. Place the scene in a relatively familiar setting
  2. Use quality words to paint the scene rather than a quantity of words
  3. Describe a few items that are unusual for that setting or details that act as foreshadowing
  4. Have the protagonist interact with one or more of these items

I will illustrate these items by using the Reapers example provided in an earlier post:

1. Place the scene in a relatively familiar setting: “stalked across my one-room apartment to the window.” Stating that this is a one-room apartment provides an immediate mental picture. The reader’s image might not match the author’s, but that’s not important, at least at this stage. We will get to how to make important elements match in item #3.

You might use a school classroom, a library, a spaceship cabin (readers have seen them in movies), a forest, or a museum. Once you mention one of these labels, readers will paint an initial image and fill it in with the details you provide, as we will see in item #2.

2. Use quality words to paint the scene rather than a quantity of words: In Reapers“moth-eaten reading chair” indicates that this apartment might be dingy or in poor repair, which makes the reader imagine such a room. In their mental picture, maybe paint is peeling from the walls, a faucet leaks, or bare spots in the carpet expose worn wood. Whether or not a reader is correct doesn’t matter, because these details are not crucial to your story. Yet, a mental setting is crucial, and such phrases allow the images to develop.

Also, “leaned into the darkness of the urban alley” paints a picture of the outside setting. There was no need to mention trash cans, graffiti on walls, or scurrying rats. Again, these details don’t matter, so you shouldn’t write about them yet, because this is the time to hook readers, not drown them with details. Let the reader paint these pictures from your high-quality words.

3. Describe a few items that are unusual for that setting or details that act as foreshadowing: As authors, we have in mind a few important details in the opening scene, so we should mention these in order to clarify the setting. In the Reapers example, “the hanging lantern’s flame” is such a detail. I give it because the lantern is unusual in an apartment setting, and it provides foreshadowing that the city residents have no electricity after a certain hour.

I also included the following two details:

“I touched the metallic gateway valve embedded in my chest at the top of my sternum.” – This valve is a crucial difference between a Reaper and a normal human, so I wanted to show as early as possible a burden that Reapers have to bear.

“Prickly vibrations raced along my cloak from the baggy sleeves to the top of the hood, tickling the two-day stubble across my cheeks and chin.” The cloak is a crucial element in the story that I use constantly, so I made sure to describe it right away. Also, I mentioned the stubble to give the protagonist’s gender. To this point the character could have been male or female.

In summary, the idea is to provide a few quality phrases that allow the reader to paint an initial image, the details of which are not crucial, and add the important details that clarify the image and foreshadow future events.

4. Have the protagonist interact with one or more of these items: Notice that the protagonist blows out the flame, touches the valve, leans out into the alley, and feels the prickly vibrations. Each detail comes to life as the character experiences it. Simply describing the details as if the scene were a still-life painting halts the action and raises the risk of boredom. Keep the story going, and readers will feel as if they are experiencing the surroundings along with the character in real time.

Next Monday, I will look at element #6 from the list of items to accomplish in our opening scene – Begin building a bridge to the back story.

If you have questions or comments, please post them.

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7 replies

  1. I notice when I write I use a lot of -ly words ( she said gently, softly, quietly); it gives things a funny flow. How can I have the same image without using so many -ly words?

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    • Adverbs (the ly words) are functional words, but overuse is a problem. You can often get rid of them by selecting more precise and vivid verbs.

      For example:

      Change “Fred drank the coffee slowly.” to “Fred sipped the coffee.”

      Change “Ellen walked slowly to the car.” to “Ellen ambled (or strolled) to the car.”

      Some teachers say to get rid of all adverbs, but that’s not reasonable advice. An adverb can be effective, and if they are scattered here and there, they should pose no problem.

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  2. Very good points, Mr. Davis.
    Thank you!
    [In One Year Adventure Novel I’m supposed to write in first person, and I’m used to reading/writing in third person. This is very helpful. Thanks, again!]

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  3. This post brings back memories of your writing workshop. The interaction with details makes me think of “Bob the librarian” sneezing at the dust. 🙂

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  4. I pray that God will give you light and wisdom on your journey.

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