If you Google “great first lines in literature” you’ll get page after page of top-100 and top-50 blog posts citing “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” Some of these articles go on to analyze what makes certain opening lines classic or great, and offer tips to writers on this daunting topic.
There’s no doubt that the very first sentence of your novel is important and has some heavy lifting to do in selling your story. But what about all your other scenes? How do you decide how to launch them?
Does it really matter?
Yes. In a well-written story, micro-level choices like the line you use to launch each scene influence and are influenced by the macro elements of genre, controlling idea, point of view, and narrative device.
In this article, we’re going to look at the three scene launch types. You’ll learn how to assess your own scenes for them, review a selection of scene launches from literature, and consider some ways to improve yours so that the reader will keep turning those pages.
The three launch types
The three scene launch types are Action, Narrative, and Setting. (Note that the term “action” here is not to be confused with the Action content genre.)
To understand how each one works, let’s imagine two scenes from two different stories. We’ll call them The Accident and Rashida Runs. We’ll try opening them both using each launch type.
First let’s give both scenes an Action launch.
- The Accident: “Damn you, Quimby! Hold him down!” the doctor ordered.
- Rashida Runs: Rashida tightened her shoelaces and set out running down Beacon Road.
The Action launch, not surprisingly, features action verbs—ordered, tightened, set off running. The action doesn’t have to be a bomb exploding. It can be as mild as a character removing a necktie after work, or simply speaking.
The key is that an Action opening is immediate and close, bringing the reader right into an unfolding event, which it shows without explanation.
In The Accident we come in on what seems to be a life-and-death situation. The doctor’s exclamation and swearing suggest an emergency involving one sick or injured “him” and someone called Quimby, whom the doctor is yelling at. Is this a seizure? A gunshot wound? What we don’t yet know feels compelling.
In Rashida Runs, we suppose from the mild-mannered verb “set out,” that she’s exercising rather than escaping or chasing someone. Nothing very urgent is going on, but we don’t know where she’s running, or why.
- Editor Pro Tip: The Action launch creates the narrative drive of mystery. This is when the reader knows less than the narrator or the character in the scene. Dropping us right into the action tells us that a lot is going on that we don’t yet understand. It poses questions. We want answers!
Now let’s see what happens when we begin the same two scenes using Narrative.
- The Accident: Quimby had never seen so much blood, and was reluctant to get it on his hands.
- Rashida Runs: Rashida usually ran earlier in the morning, but today it was just too cold.
The Narrative launch explains (narrates) something about the characters in the scene immediately before the action starts. Look for adverbs of time like usually, always, never, sometimes, seldom, or often. These establish a prior condition we should know about. Conjunctions like for (as in “for the past year”) and when (as in “when the waiter brought the check”) often work as time-transitions from the previous scene. That is, they explain a passage of time.
The Narrative launch brings the reader into proximity with the action, but not right into the middle of it the way the Action launch does. Instead of creating mystery by withholding information, a Narrative launch lets us know as much as the point-of-view character knows. Here, perhaps Quimby is a bit sheltered or squeamish, and Rashida is dedicated to her running but doesn’t like the cold.
- Pro Editor Tip: When the reader knows as much as the character knows, it creates the narrative drive of suspense. Will Quimby overcome his squeamishness? Will Rashida run later–or run into something or someone?
I’m using relatively mild examples here to drive home the point that terms like action, mystery, and suspense don’t always mean “Action! Mystery! Suspense!” They apply to quiet stories of ordinary life as well as to thrilling tales of life and death.
Finally, let’s re-launch our two scenes using the Setting launch type.
- The Accident: James’s blood had soaked through his shirt and was staining Mrs. Daltry’s white sofa.
- Rashida Runs: The few remaining leaves were frosty as Rashida left the house.
The Setting launch type features descriptive adjectives: frosty leaves, white sofa. Verbs in a Setting launch are often in the past perfect or progressive tense: the blood had soaked and was staining.
Of the three launch types, Setting creates the greatest distance between reader and characters. It’s as if the narrator is giving you a high vantage point from which to survey the literal or figurative landscape, and gather some particulars that the characters may not be aware of.
For a moment, at least, the environment is more important than the characters in it.
- Editor Pro Tip: When the reader knows more than the characters, it creates the narrative drive of dramatic irony. In large or small ways, we enjoy the feeling of having an advantage over the character, and we wait for the character to catch up.
How to choose a scene launch type
Is one launch type better for certain genres than others? Nope.
A brief and unscientific survey of novels on my shelf reveals that the Action launch is more common in external-genre stories, but it’s outnumbered everywhere by the Narrative launch. The Setting launch comes in a distant third, with only two really clear-cut examples out of the 33 scenes I looked at from eleven novels.
All types of stories have all types of scene launches. The best one for your particular scene will depend on a combination of:
- Point of view and narrative device. Whose “voice” is narrating the scene? How much does that narrator know? What is most important for the reader to know as the scene begins? Do you want the reader to feel like they’re in the midst of things, or more distant?
- Time and distance between the end of the previous scene and the beginning of this one. Do you need Narrative to explain a jump in location or time? Do you need Setting to describe the new location? Or does the Action begin immediately from the end of the prior scene without any need for transition?
- Where in the story the scene falls. If near the climax of an act, consider favoring action over narrative. Transitional scenes (maybe the scenes that lie between your 15 Core Scenes) might be better candidates for the Narrative launch. At the start of acts and sequences, the Setting launch may be more valuable.
On the other hand, a well-placed Narrative or Setting launch can provide a breather in a story full of action, while a judicious use of the Action launch can help keep the momentum going in quieter, more internal genre stories, particularly in the middle build.
Checking your own work
I track my scene beginnings in my Giant Story Grid spreadsheet. (Feel free to take a copy and make it your own.) The two columns I’ve added are:
- Opening Line/Transition. Here I simply copy and paste the opening sentence of each scene.
- LT ( Launch Type). This is where I label the scene A for Action, N for Narrative, or S for Setting.
Here’s a sample from one of my novels:
The data you put in these columns will quickly reveal whether you overuse one of the launch types. Not only does this kind of repetition feel subtly monotonous to the reader, but it’s also a mark of more significant problems in your scenes.
Let’s look at overuse of each scene launch type as a diagnostic tool.
What if you have too many Action launches?
Scene after scene begins with dialogue or with a character in the midst of doing something. Here are some things to check for in this case:
Do you have a cliffhanger habit? Do you end chapters at a crisis point and start new ones with the climax? Even in the most breakneck-paced novel, this becomes tiring for the reader. A softer Narrative or Setting launch now and then gives the reader a chance to breathe.
Is the Action launch followed immediately by an explanation in the past perfect tense? Like this: “Damn you, Quimby! Hold him down!” the doctor ordered. They had just carried James into the house and laid him on the sofa. (I see this a lot in early drafts and with new writers.)
If you have to backtrack like that more than a couple of times in a whole novel, you’re starting your scenes at the wrong point, possibly out of a misplaced belief that every scene should begin actively. If you’re the kind of writer who finds your way into a scene via dialogue or high action, it’s your job to reconsider that choice in later drafts.
What if you’ve favored Narrative too much?
If you start one scene after another with Narrative launches, it’s almost certainly shoe-leather. That is, unnecessary transitioning of a character from place to place–getting into or out of cars, for instance–or across a space of time. Does your scene absolutely depend on the reader having that kind of information? Or can you just cut it?
What if you rely too heavily on Setting?
If you have more than a few Setting launches in your novel, chances are you’re mistaking setting for story, a common error among new writers.
How soon after the descriptive moment does the inciting incident happen? Is there an inciting incident? (If not, you don’t have a scene.) Are you describing the same setting more than once? That’s virtually never necessary.
Too many Setting launches might also be a sign that you’re unsure of how to transition from the previous scene. Was there a resolution? Was it negative or positive? What’s the next thing that needs to happen? Does it need to be on the page, or can it be implied? How much information can you skip to get to the next story event?
This is not to say that you should never describe places. But here we’re talking about opening lines, and those sentences have to do double and triple duty. For instance, showing a whole new place or season through the eyes of a point-of-view character is an excellent way to create empathy while orienting the reader to the change.
Examples from Literature
To give you some practice, I’ve compiled 33 scene launch lines from 11 novels that were at hand on my bookshelves, along with what I think the launch type is. See if you agree.
George Orwell, Animal Farm (Society political, fantasy, satire)
Mr. Jones of the Manor Farm had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes.
Narrative. Note that the action is in the past: “had locked” with the implication that he “was now” too drunk.
Three nights later, old Major died peacefully in his sleep.
Narrative. Though dying is an action, the “three nights later” time marker gives this scene launch, too, a narrative feel.
How they toiled and sweated to get the hay in!
Action or narrative? I say Narrative. There’s toiling and sweating and getting the hay in, all active, but I don’t feel like I’m there toiling and sweating with them. It would be an Action launch if it had the immediacy and specificity of “Boxer strained at the yoke, sweating as he pulled the heavy bales forward.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Lost Prince (Action + status admiration, realistic, drama)
There are many dreary and dingy rows of houses in certain parts of London, but there certainly could not be any row more ugly or dingier than Philibert Place.
Setting or Narrative? It has a hybrid feeling, but note that it’s 80% description (setting) and 20% commentary (narrative), so I vote Setting.
He had been in London more than once before, but not to the lodgings in Philibert Place.
Narrative. Note the “had been” with the implied “never” in “but not to the lodgings…” We’re being introduced to a character and told something of his history.
Nick Harkaway, Gnomon (Crime, literary, science fiction, drama)
“The death of a suspect in custody,” says Inspector Neith of the Witness, “is a very serious matter. There is no one at the Witness Programme who does not feel a sense of personal failure this morning.”
Action. Dialogue in a scene launch is a form of action, however mild.
The Inspector puts the terminals on their stand and, after a moment of silent hiatus, works through a ritual resembling a compulsive disorder of the mind.
Action. “puts,” “works through”: we are right in the midst of the Inspector doing something.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (six-genre literary science-fiction mini-plot drama)
How she got that oberv’tree door open, I ain’t knowin’ so don’t mozzie me.
Narrative. Commentary by the narrator is almost always narrative. You could substitute “I never did know” for “I ain’t knowin'” and instantly spot the adverb of time that marks a Narrative launch.
Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities, etc. that moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash to bits.
Narrative. This one’s a little trickier. It’s the opening line of a letter in an entirely epistolary story, so by definition the letter-writer is narrating experiences he’s already had. Notice, though, that a phrase like “fall and smash to bits” lends an active quality to the Narrative scene launch.
Charles Portis, True Grit (Western, realistic comedy-drama)
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem to strange then, though I will say it did not happen every day.
Narrative. Yes, we have “leave home” and “avenge” but those things aren’t happening in the now of the story, they’re being narrated as part of a story that happened in the past.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Society, literary drama with absurdist elements)
I am an invisible man.
The to-be verb, “I am,” marks this as a solidly Narrative opening.
I saw them as we approached the short stretch that lay between the railroad tracks and the Golden Day.
Action. Although “I saw them” isn’t physically active, it brings us right into the action of the moment, the movement of “we approached.” Note that there’s some setting detail included, too. A nice combination.
Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Action, magical realism, comedy-drama)
They came out of the Tunnel of I, and Mr. Butt stopped the Mail Coach so that everyone could enjoy the sight of the sun setting over the Valley of K, with its fields of gold (which really grew saffron) and its silver mountains (which were really covered in glistening, pure, white snow) and its Dull Lake (which didn’t look dull at all).
Action. Another combo. It starts with action: “They came out of the tunnel.” “Mr Butt stopped the Mail Coach.” But as with Ellison above, this sentence is a bit of a hat-trick, containing a lot of setting and a lot of narrative.
Haroun had not forgotten what his father had said about Khattam Shud.
Narrative. Substitute “never” for “not” and you’ll see the time-adverb quality.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Society + morality, historical literary fantasy)
“Well, sir! You have your revenge!” cried Mr. Drawlight, appearing quite suddenly in the library at Hanover-square.
Action. Dialogue + sudden appearance.
Those people who had expected the war to be over now that the magician had appeared on the scene were soon disappointed.
Narrative. “Soon” and “now that” are the time indicators that almost always signal a Narrative opening.
Fortune, it seemed, could not be persuaded to smile upon Mr. Segundus.
Narrative. The narrator is simply explaining the situation preceding the action about to take place.
Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (Love + war, historical/fantasy, drama)
The ship we sailed on was yare, tightly made and well manned.
Setting or Narrative? I’m going with Setting in this case, because the unusual adjective “yare” for the ship–which is effectively a new location for the characters–emphasizes a descriptive feel.
I woke that night gasping.
Action. What’s the difference between this one and “Dreamt I stood in a china shop” above? Primarily the fact that this story isn’t epistolary: the narrator is telling the story directly to the reader (not writing a letter). When he wakes gasping, we’re more or less present with him.
As triumphant as the raids were, they were only raids.
Narrative. Though “triumphant” is a strong adjective, the narrator is lumping a series of past raids together and explaining it.
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (Action chase + worldview revelation, dystopian drama)
This is stil that same day Im writing down here.
Narrative. The first-person narrator is explaining how much time has passed since the previous scene.
After the show they snuft the torches then every body got in littl clumps in the divvy roof hummering and mummering and getting pist.
Action, Setting, or Narrative? Notice the adverb of time: “After.” This evocative scene launch is Narrative, but “Snuft the torches,” and “hummering and mummering and getting pist” do a lot of action and setting work.
Joy Fielding, Someone Is Watching (Thriller, realistic drama)
The nightmare begins almost as soon as I close my eyes.
Action or narrative? “Almost as soon as” hints at narrative, but “The nightmare begins” is pretty strong. I say Action.
Approximately 40 minutes later Claire pulls my car into the parking lot of the police station at 400 Northwest 2nd Avenue in the part of downtown Miami known as Little Havana.
Action. Again, though the timing device suggests narrative and the location information is pure setting, “pulls my car into the parking lot” is action. This opening line does a lot of work.
And there you have it. The three scene launch types and why you need to know them.
Take the time to study scene openings. Look through novels you own for further examples. Develop an eye for the three launch types, then use your new knowledge to analyze and make changes to your own scene launches.
When you do, you’ll be rewarded with surprising story improvements at the line, scene, act and global levels. And you’ll be a better writer.
Thanks to my fellow Certified Story Grid Editor Rachelle Ramirez for editing this post.