Getting Started: Scene Starters to Smash Your Writer's Block to Bits
Maybe you've had a crazy day at work or school or with the kids. Maybe you've dragged yourself out of bed at some ungodly hour and grabbed the first caffeinated beverage you could find. Maybe this is your full-time job! Regardless of your situation, you've made it to your computer, and it's finally time to start tapping out some words.
BUT WAIT! Oh, shit. That blank page is staring into your soul. The words are just beyond your reach... because you have no clue where to start.
It's like trying to use a hiking trail map without the little "YOU ARE HERE" star. You can eventually puzzle out a route back to your car, I'm sure... but it's a hell of a lot easier to find the right path forward if you at least know where to begin.
Basically, if you're looking for a spark that might get your writing energy primed and ready to roll, this post might be just what the doctor ordered. Let's get started with 5 kickass ways to start your next (or first!) scene.
Writer's Block: A Quick Note
Every writer I know has wrestled with writer's block at one time or another in their day. Actually, strike that - we've all wrestled with it way more than just one time. It's a fact of life that comes with the territory of being a writer.
In my mind, writer's block is one thing, and burnout is another. Burnout happens when your brain just flips you the bird and says, "nah." When that happens, your best bet is to take some time to refill your well. Read some cool stuff, make other art, take a nap, go for a run, whatever floats your boat.
Writer's block, on the other hand, is what happens when you're allowing your manuscript to intimidate you. That's fair, honestly. Manuscripts are fucking intimidating. fifty-to-two-hundred thousand words of perfectly crafted characters, plot, action, and emotion? Terrifying.
For me, the key to crushing my writer's block is generally to remember to take the manuscript chunk by chunk rather than thinking about the whole thing at once. Hence, the topic of this post. Starting points are just one chunk of any scene.
Though you can start a scene literally any way you damn well please, sometimes it's useful to start from a jumping-off point. And so, here you go! 5 of my personal favorite ways to kick off a new scene. Let's get into it.
1. Start with Dialogue
I fucking love dialogue. It's one of my favorite things to write in general. Is there anything better in fiction than some snarky banter, a heated argument, or a tearful heart-to-heart?
In addition to being extremely fun to write (again, personal opinion, your mileage may vary), I think dialogue can be a great way to get your reader immersed in the scene and in the character's voice right from the first line.
Now, of course, I don't mean dialogue like this:
"Alright. Are you ready to break into the vault where the largest diamond in the world is currently kept, helping us become millionaires and pay off the debt to the gangster who has been ruining our lives ever since Mom died?"
That's clunky and info-dumpy and obviously horrible, haha.
Instead, check out this example from Nicholas Eames's Kings of the Wyld:
"So where are we headed?" Clay asked, shortly before they were robbed on the road to Conthas.
"First things first," said Gabriel. "I need to get Vellichor back."
In this example, we get some valuable information about what is going on, some clues about what is to come in the rest of the scene, and some of Eames's trademark humor.
2. Start with Character Description
Books are about the plot, of course... but at heart, they aren't, really. Books are about characters. Plot is why we stick with a book, but characters are why the book sticks with us.
What better way to kick off a scene, then, than by giving us a clear picture of the main character in that scene. You've got to do more than describe them, though. We need to be able to understand just from a line or two why we should give a shit about them.
Check out this example from J. S. Dewes's The Last Watch.
Adequin Rake sat on the bridge of the Argus in a captain's chair she had no right sitting in.
Just from that one sentence, we get a sense of the setting, and we learn something crucial about Adequin Rake's character. It's intriguing: Has she conned her way into this chair? Is she wrestling with impostor syndrome? It makes you want to keep reading to find out more... and conveniently, it sets up some of the blocking for the rest of the scene.
3. Start with Visual Imagery
You want readers to get lost in your story. Awesome - give them a setting to get lost in, then! You don't have to get too purple with your prose here, either. Just set the scene for your readers and your characters in the same breath.
When you strike that balance right, the reader will be immersed in the scene right away, and you'll give yourself helpful hints as to your setting, so you know what your characters have at hand to interact with later on.
One great example is the opening paragraph of H. M. Long's Hall of Smoke.
The shrine in the meadow before me was little more than a weathered collection of beams and tiles and stark angles. Poppies were scattered around it, fluttering under the gathering skies, and wood was stacked beside the low stone altar. But there were no ashes in the offering bowl, no scuffs on the earthen floor - only a handful of dangling bones, grey feathers and carved owls.
These opening lines are short - Long doesn't go on for paragraph after paragraph describing every detail of the main character's surroundings. But she gives us just enough detail that we can feel the chill in the air and hear the clattering of the bones dangling from the altar.
4. Start by Catching the Reader Up
Has some time passed since your last scene? Or, maybe it's the first scene in the book but your characters have been stagnant for a very long time. Whatever your reasoning, sometimes, you may find yourself needing to catch the reader up quickly on some things that happened off-page.
Again, this can fall into dangerous info-dump territory if you're not careful. It's best to keep this as short and sweet as possible. Providing less detail upfront in this situation gives you the opportunity to tease out a mystery, which can be compelling for the reader.
Alternately, maybe there's no mystery to tease. Maybe the things that happened off-page happened there because they're boring. Cool - then quickly state the bare minimum the reader needs to know and move on with it. Like this example from Kameron Hurley's The Light Brigade:
I was in quarantine for seventy-two hours. A woman from corporate intelligence came in once I was able to eat solid food.
In two short sentences, Hurley tells us all we needed to know: It's been seventy-two hours since our main character was last on-page, and they're now sitting and talking with a woman from corporate intelligence. Perfect. Now we're off to the races again.
5. Start in the Middle of the Action
We've all heard the advice to start "in medias res." Basically, this Latin phrase means you should be starting in the middle of the plot.
This is a trick that works particularly well in cinema: You start in on a battlefield with swords flashing and men shouting. Or, perhaps the film starts with speeding cars and screaming sirens.
In a book, this same trick can work to an extent, but you have to remember: You don't have flashy explosions or pumping music to help you keep readers engaged. For a reader to care about action, they need to connect with a character, and they need to understand the stakes.
Let's take a look at the opening lines from my novel, Among Thieves:
There were guards nearby. Ryia could smell them - and not just because they stank of wine. She ducked into an archway, pressing her back against the stone and holding her breath.
We don't know much about Ryia yet, but we know she's hiding from these guards, and from the way she's holding her breath, we can surmise there will be consequences worth avoiding if she's caught. Also, we get a sense of her humorous narrative voice here in the first sentence, hopefully giving the readers a reason to care about her desire to avoid those consequences.
Fuck Off, Writer's Block
There you have it! Five excellent options for starting the next scene in your project. Are these the only five options you can use to start a scene? Absolutely not. There are hundreds. Thousands. I'd honestly argue that, as long as it works for the story and the characters, there isn't definitively a wrong way to start a scene.
Or, actually, I take that back. There is a wrong way to start a scene: Not starting it and staring at your blinking cursor instead.
So, get back in that doc and tell the blank page and your writer's block to fuck off so you can get back to doing what you love.