Do you want to write an epic first scene for your story? In this post, we tell you how to do it – with examples.
Read all the posts in this series here:
- How To Write An Epic First Page
- How To Write An Epic First Line
- How To Write An Epic First Scene
- How To Make The First Time We Meet A Character Epic
How To Write An Epic First Scene
The opening scene of your novel continues to build on the hard work you put into your first line and your first page. In order for us to discuss the first scene we need to be familiar with scene structure and manuscript layout. Remember to look at the opening scene. Not the prologue.
What Is A Scene?
A scene has a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. An action scene, which is usually what we use to start a novel, has around 1200-1500 words, but a quick look at a few of the books on your shelf will show you how much variety there is when it comes to scene length. A simpler way to see where a scene ends is to find the break in the page.
When we use manuscript layout we do not put spaces between paragraphs. We put spaces (two line breaks) between scenes and chapters. To find the end of the first scene find the first break.
When we discussed the first page we tried to answer the following five questions:
- Who is speaking?
- What is happening?
- Where is it happening?
- When is it happening?
- Why is this significant/all happening?
The rest of the scene builds on this information.
The Formula For How To Write The Epic First Scene
The writer should include the following six elements in the opening scene.
- Establish the status quo: a line or two to establish the protagonist’s world so that we understand the significance of the change.
- A moment of change: this is the purpose of the opening scene. A moment that changes the protagonist’s life.
- The story goal: this may not be laid out in detail, but the character should be forced onto a path to start their journey. The goal is usually the result of the change.
- The antagonist: this person’s presence will create most of the conflict. They oppose the goal.
- Backstory: we want to know a bit more about the situation. Note: only a bit.
- Setting: all of this must take place somewhere.
Depending on the story these elements will vary, but most first scenes contain these elements.
Let’s look at the examples:
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS – remember you can read these first scenes by going to Amazon. (Click the links below) then select the format and click ‘look inside’.
1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This is the only book that uses more than one scene in the opening chapter. The rest of the examples all have only one scene as the chapter.
Goal: put out the fire.
Conflict: Izzy set the house on fire with her mother inside.
Disaster: Izzy and the house are gone.
- Mirabelle McCullough
- May Lin Chow
- The Richardson family: Mr & Mrs, Izzy, Trip, Lexie, Moody
- Mia and Pearl
- Establish the status quo: Houses aren’t usually on fire. Explanation of why she slept in.
- A moment of change: house is on fire, Mia and Pearl have left, Izzy is gone.
- The story goal: Did Izzy really set the fire and why? Where is she? We’re not sure of the goal yet, but a burning house cannot be ignored. Who are Mia and Pearl?
- The antagonist: Could be Izzy who is missing and has been accused of setting the fire, but we don’t know enough yet.
- Backstory: We are not given much detail, but Ng is laying the groundwork.
- Setting: The perfect town of Shaker Heights.
Significant line: She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow road, even though she knew already that they would be gone.
2. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This story has two timelines. The prologue starts the present day story, but Chapter One jumps to the past.
Goal: Kya is scrubbing grits.
Conflict: Ma is leaving. She is wearing her ‘gator shoes’, carrying a case, doesn’t wave.
Disaster: Ma isn’t coming back.
- Siblings – Jodie is present
- Establish the status quo: Kya lists the things Ma always does or does not do.
- A moment of change: Ma isn’t doing the usual things.
- The story goal: to find out who murdered Chase Andrews(present), to eat/survive and go to school(past).
- The antagonist: Pa(past) and we have to assume whoever murdered Chase(present).
- Backstory: We learn that pa can’t be disturbed.
- Setting: The shack in the marsh.
Significant line: She’s wearin’ her gator shoes.
3. Children Of Blood And Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
This is a YA fantasy novel. The setting plays a huge role and we are privy to more backstory than in the other scenes. Note the use of vocabulary to convey setting: ahéré, divîners, cheetanaire, magicite. This is a long first scene with lots of information.
Goal: to fight and graduate.
Conflict: the soldiers arrive and demand more taxes.
Disaster: she graduates, but something has happened to her father.
- Mama Agba
- The king
- The king’s guards
- Her mother
- Her father
- Establish the status quo: Zélie wants to be chosen to fight. She has not had a chance before.
- A moment of change: Mama Agba chooses her/she graduates. The major inciting moment happens a little later.
- The story goal: not immediately apparent, but we know she wants to fight.
- The antagonist: the king/guards.
- Backstory: we learn why they must learn to fight in secret. Long ago, magic disappeared and the magi(her mother) were slaughtered. We learn about the Raid, the ‘lower class’ called the divîners. We hear this as a story.
- Setting: She refers to Yoruba. This tells us it is in Western Africa.
Significant line: They hate what you were meant to become.
4. Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
I mentioned in the previous post that it feels like Chapter 1 should be a prologue, but it still does the job of setting up the goal.
Goal: to play, but Dad shows her a picture of a beetle.
Conflict: her bothers have died.
Disaster: she is in love with this beetle, but her father takes his own life.
- Her father
- Her aunts
- Her brothers
(Most of this is backstory. In the next chapter she makes the decision to go find the beetle and places an ad to find an assistant.)
- Establish the status quo: she is playing when dad calls. He does that a lot since her brothers left.
- A moment of change: she sees the beetle, the bell rings.
- The story goal: to find the beetle.
- The antagonist: not yet apparent, but an ad is placed in Chapter 2.
- Backstory: how her father died.
- Setting: in the rectory in England.
Significant line: Yet as her finger met the golden beetle, something happened; a spark seemed to fly out and her future opened […]She would go to wherever New Caledonia was, and bring it home.
5. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
The prologue is a diary entry, which contradicts the actions of the opening scene. It feels like there is more than one opening scene.
Goal: to find out if and why she murdered her husband
Conflict: she won’t speak.
Disaster: her only communication is through a painting. She painted the word ALCETIS – what does it mean?
- Alicia Berenson
- Gabriel Berenson
- Barbie Hellmann
- Police, nurses
- Establish the status quo: there has been a murder.
- A moment of change: she finally communicated.
- The story goal: to find out what happened.
- The antagonist: not yet apparent.
- Backstory: their art careers.
- Setting: England, a hospital.
Significant line: Alicia never spoke again.
Exercise: Analyse your first scene using the structure in this post.
The Last Word
Conclusion: as you can see there is a lot of variation with these scenes. Not everything is immediately clear or stated, but the important groundwork has been done. I hope this post on how to write an epic first scene helps you when you’re writing your story.
by Mia Botha
Want to put all of this into action?
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- How To Write An Epic First Page
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- Traditional Publishing – Part Three
- Traditional Publishing – Part Two
- Traditional Publishing – Part One