A bit of a crowd-sourcing question for my author friends. Do you always set the scene at the very beginning, or do you sometimes start with a bit of action and then set the scene in context. I'm talking about the difference between a quick action paragraph or something noteworthy about the character, followed by the scene description...versus scene description as paragraph one of the story or section. I have heard it said that you need a quick scene description before anything else to put the reader there, but, do you really? Thoughts?

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It depends what you're writing. Genre fiction has its own set of traditions - usually that the book has to start with something dramatic, some 'action'; literary fiction can afford to be a bit more expository in terms of scene and character.

The one fundamental rule is that your first paragraph has to be interesting. There has to be some 'hook' that will keep the reader reading and make him or her want to know what the consequence of that first paragraph is. Merely describing a setting will rarely fulfill this requirement (although you will find examples of writers doing it in literary fiction - try looking up the start of Steinbeck's East of Eden for an example of the most boring, uninviting opening paragraph/page in literature!)

There's an old adage among genre fiction writers: 'start the story where the story starts'. In most cases, this will be when something happens, not when a character is sitting in a field admiring the daisies for no reason other than that they are beautiful. The story starts when the plane crashes into the river at the bottom of the field, so that should be the first paragraph. The beautiful flowers can wait until the plane is on fire, then be introduced through the smoke and burning fuel as a contrast. They'll be much more effective and relevant, and you'll have the reader hooked.

Of course, writers are free to bend or break the rules at will, but should bear in mind that readers have expectations, and if you don't fulfill them, you won't have many readers!


Alan, I agree. As a thriller writer, I like to start with action. It's jarring to readers of other genres that like to read about the rolling hills before they get to the action. Thanks for the reply!

I agree with you, Alan, starting Steinbeck's East of Eden is a real challenge. If you're done with the opening, you can take the whole book. I think nowadays no publisher would accept that script at all, as you've got to catch your readers.

Basically it depends what you're intending to write and my experience is, not every idea you get for a story will work out. Sometimes you get stuck and there's no moving forward at all. I call these drafts "maybe later" and wait for the moment I get the idea how to get the action going on. Best thing to happen is you know the ending yourself already, you know your characters and you know their steps on the way to the ending. If you see the plot already, go on and write. While you're writing, you'll get inspired, you'll find some more scene descriptions and work out your characters. It's easier to do when you tell yourself, it's not the final version, as even some great novels were finished and published the way they are after 16 versions.

Anyway, the beginning has to capture the reader and it's never wrong to open with some action, and you can also describe the scene with a few words or sentences between, but always as much as it doesn't distract from what really matters.

Wishing you good luck!

I find that I start by writing the action since that's the heart of the scene.  Once I'm satisfied that I've described the events to my satisfaction, I go back and fill out the rest.  I've learned from reading some of my favorite authors that a scene needs to be like a painting where every inch of the canvas is filled with exquisite detail.  I make sure to describe the setting, the weather, the smells, the sounds, and what other characters might be doing in the background.  Ultimately, I want my reader to see it as if they're watching a film rather than reading a book.

Irina Shapiro



To grab my interest a book must start with action or conflict. Only then am I interested enough to stick around for the set up. Grounding a reader in place and time is essential, but if they don't have a reason to go there, they won't. Nice topic!

My personal opinion is that in most books, setting a scene can be very static. I like to start with some sort of activity and sort of work relevant scene information into the book as I go. In the past many books spent pages setting up the countryside or whatever before introducing any characters, but these days people demand some action. With so many books available, we have to catch the reader immediately or else. I've read entire books where practically nothing was introduced to describe the surroundings. Only the barest hint; a dilapidated building, a lonely road, etc. All the emphasis was on the character(s) and dialogue or thoughts. It didn't hurt the book in my estimation.

I totally agree - I would personally always go for action. Suck the reader in, then you can build a picture after.

Although I think perhaps in the case of non-fiction it can be slightly different. My own book, for example, opens with more of a statement about my situation than an action scene (still very character focused, but not exactly action or conflict).

In this day and age, action of some kind is the general way of starting things.  With many classics, scene setting and vivid description was more the norm.  Many writer's, having been hammered over the head in school with the classic's, subconsciously feel they have to open their work with lots of scene setting and description.  I wonder if that's why I had such a hard time reading classic's - for me, so few of them came out of the gate running.


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