Did you know that a lack of context is one of the most common reasons readers disengage from a story?
It makes sense because people read to be totally immersed in another time and place–to be in the skin of another person, experiencing the story as they do. So, when you don’t include the appropriate amount of context in each one of your scenes, readers will feel confused, and their confusion will pull them out of the story.
But what does a lack of context feel like?
Have you ever been reading a book, and then you turn the page to a new scene only to realize you have no idea what’s going on? You’re pulled out of the story, and you're asking yourself questions like, “Wait, did I miss something? What’s happening right now?” You might even turn back a page or two just to double-check that you didn’t skip an important detail, but ultimately, you’re confused.
As writers, it’s really easy to forget to add the appropriate amount of context into each one of your scenes because you are inside your character’s head as you’re writing—the context is obvious to you, so you don’t realize it’s missing from the page.
But it’s not obvious to the reader, so you need to help them get their bearings with the appropriate amount of context. That way, they can easily 'sink into' each new scene and stay engaged with your story as long as possible.
In this post, I'm going to walk you through the three 'must-have' contextual elements that you should establish in the opening of every single scene. As a case study, we’re going to look at the beginning of a scene from the very first chapter of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Here’s a very quick summary of the first 800-words (everything before the central conflict kicks in):
Laia is up late, waiting for her brother, Darin, to come home so that she can confront him about where he’s been sneaking off to and what the drawings in his journal mean. She’s worried that he’s been secretly working for the Empire–the very same Empire that killed their parents and their sister. Darin is about to explain everything when he hears a noise coming from outside the house.
So, that’s the beginning of the very first scene. It’s not the complete scene, but we can learn a lot from how the author set up the context of this scene. Let’s take a look.
The very first thing you’ll want to establish is where and when the scene is taking place. Is it occurring immediately after the previous scene? Is it now five months later? Has the location changed?
Whatever the case, you’ll want to make the time and location clear as soon as possible in every scene–ideally in the first paragraph.
This is important because the goal of fiction is to keep readers immersed in a story. And when readers don’t have the context they need, they disengage from what’s happening in the story and get pulled back into their own reality.
In the very first paragraph of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, she lets us know exactly where and when this scene is taking place:
“My big brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest. He smells of steel and coal and forge. He smells of the enemy.”
So, right away, we know that the protagonist, Laia, is at home (where) and that it’s in the middle of the night (when)–hours before dawn.
We can also infer that she’s up, waiting for her brother to come home–and that, for some reason, she associates the smells of steel and coal and forge with the enemy, who is unknown to us at this point. We’ll get more information on that in a second.
So, that’s the very first contextual element you’ll want to include–the time and location, or where and when the scene is taking place.
The second thing you’ll want to establish is your character’s mental and emotional state. So, what are they thinking and feeling when the scene opens? Have they carried in their mental or emotional state from the last scene? What are they expecting to happen, or what are they hoping for?
This is important to establish at the beginning of each scene because it will contextualize everything that happens in the rest of the scene. It will also help you write realistic behavior because you’ll better understand what’s fueling and motivating your character as they navigate the external events of the scene.
In general, there are two main ways you can show your character’s mental and emotional state. You can:
Coupled with your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, physical gestures can go a long way toward conveying how a character is feeling, but there are a few caveats to this.
First, you can’t just tell readers that your character is upset. You need to show them exactly why they’re upset and what specific thoughts are triggering these feelings.
Second, you’ll want to avoid using generic gestures (like sighing or having a character release a breath they didn’t know they were holding) as well as repetitive gestures. So, don’t use the same gestures over and over if you can help it.
All of this is important in establishing the stakes of the scene. Stakes are what your character stands to lose or gain within a scene or within a story. It’s why what the protagonist wants is important to them. And you can always get to the stakes of a scene or a story by asking two questions:
And you’ll want to make the answers specific, so don’t just say something like “she feels like a failure” or something abstract. Zero in on the specific mental images the protagonist is picturing as their best and worst-case scenarios.
If you articulate a character’s hopes and fears, the reader will understand why what’s happening matters to the protagonist and will feel more invested in the outcome. It’s also what makes things more satisfying if your protagonist ends up succeeding, or more poignant if they fail–because we understand what success or failure means to them.
So let’s look at the next few paragraphs in the first scene in An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (the underlined text is physical movement that represents the character’s mental and emotional state, and the bold text is interiority):
“He folds his scarecrow body through the window, bare feet silent on the rushes. A hot desert wind blows in after him, rustling the limp curtains. His sketchbook falls to the floor, and he nudges it under his bunk with a quick foot, as if it’s a snake.
Where have you been, Darin? In my head, I have the courage to ask the question, and Darin trusts me enough to answer. Why do you keep disappearing? Why, when Pop and Nan need you? When I need you?”
Notice how Darin’s physical movements and gestures show us how he’s feeling here–he’s sneaking into their bedroom, trying to remain undetected. He also doesn’t want Laia to see whatever is in his sketchbook.
But Laia has already seen what’s inside his sketchbook, and now she’s lying awake, waiting for him to come home because she’s worried about him. Notice how we get to see her thoughts and feelings as she tries to muster up the courage to confront–we get all of this on the very first page of the book and of the scene.
So, that’s the second contextual element you’ll want to include at the beginning of each one of your scenes–your POV character’s mental and emotional state. You will also want to continue to show your character’s thoughts and feelings throughout the scene, which we will see more of in a second.
The third thing you’ll want to establish is your POV character’s scene goal. So, what does your character want, and why does this matter to them?
And a lot of writers have trouble with this one because there are really two different goals you need to think about in each individual scene.
So, I won’t go too deep into the second part there because I have a whole episode about scene structure, that’s episode number 40, where I talk about goals and how they sometimes change after the inciting incident, but I will touch on this briefly in a second.
What we’re mainly talking about today is that your character needs to be doing something at the start of each scene–they need to be active and have agency. Agency is important because it prevents your story from being boring. It also helps readers empathize with and relate to your character. We all want something, and we like to see people go after their goals, right? So, what is your character doing when the scene opens? What do they want initially, and why do they want it?
If you’ve structured your scenes correctly, your POV character will have made a choice in the previous scene that resulted in the consequences they now must act on. So, you might already know your character’s initial scene goal based on the work you did in the previous scene. There are caveats to this, like let’s say a lot of time has passed, but for the most part, you should be following the same central thread from scene to scene.
Now, sometimes a character’s goal and motivation are obvious. For example, let’s say in the last scene, a character is trying to escape a crime scene unnoticed, but someone sees them and pursues them on foot. In the next scene, it might be obvious that their goal is to escape whoever is pursuing them.
But other times, it’s not as obvious, and you’ll need to make it clear for the reader.
Either way, you’ll want to make sure their initial scene goal is explicitly put on the page within the first few paragraphs of a new scene so that the reader knows what to care about.
Their goal may change after the inciting incident of the scene, but other times, it will remain the same. We’ll talk about this more in a second, but for now, let’s look at the next few paragraphs in the first scene in An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (the underlined text is physical movement that represents the character’s mental and emotional state, and the bold text is interiority):
“Every night for almost two years, I’ve wanted to ask. Every night, I’ve lacked the courage. I have one sibling left. I don’t want him to shut me out like he has everyone else.
But tonight’s different. I know what’s in his sketchbook. I know what it means.
“You shouldn’t be awake.” Darin’s whisper jolts me from my thoughts. He has a cat’s sense for traps—he got it from our mother. I sit up on the bunk as he lights the lamp. No use pretending to be asleep.
“It’s past curfew, and three patrols have gone by. I was worried.”
“I can avoid the soldiers, Laia. Lots of practice.” He rests his chin on my bunk and smiles Mother’s sweet, crooked smile. A familiar look—the one he gives me if I wake from a nightmare or we run out of grain. Everything will be fine, the look says.
He picks up the book on my bed. “Gather in the Night,” he reads the title. “Spooky. What’s it about?”
“I just started it. It’s about a jinn—” I stop. Clever. Very clever. He likes hearing stories as much as I like telling them. “Forget that. Where were you? Pop had a dozen patients this morning.”
And I filled in for you because he can’t do so much alone. Which left Nan to bottle the trader’s jams by herself. Except she didn’t finish. Now the trader won’t pay us, and we’ll starve this winter, and why in the skies don’t you care?
I say these things in my head. The smile’s already dropped off Darin’s face.
“I’m not cut out for healing,” he says. “Pop knows that.”
I want to back down, but I think of Pop’s slumped shoulders this morning. I think of the sketchbook.
“Pop and Nan depend on you. At least talk to them. It’s been months.”
I wait for him to tell me that I don’t understand. That I should leave him be. But he just shakes his head, drops down into his bunk, and closes his eyes like he can’t be bothered to reply.
“I saw your drawings.” The words tumble out in a rush, and Darin’s up in an instant, his face stony. “I wasn’t spying,” I say. “One of the pages was loose. I found it when I changed the rushes this morning.”
“Did you tell Nan and Pop? Did they see?”
“Laia, listen.” Ten hells, I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear his excuses. “What you saw is dangerous,” he says. “You can’t tell anyone about it. Not ever. It’s not just my life at risk. There are others—”
“Are you working for the Empire, Darin? Are you working for the Martials?”
He is silent. I think I see the answer in his eyes, and I feel ill. My brother is a traitor to his own people? My brother is siding with the Empire?
If he hoarded grain, or sold books, or taught children to read, I’d understand. I’d be proud of him for doing the things I’m not brave enough to do. The Empire raids, jails, and kills for such “crimes,” but teaching a six-year-old her letters isn’t evil—not in the minds of my people, the Scholar people.
But what Darin has done is sick. It’s a betrayal.
“The Empire killed our parents,” I whisper. “Our sister.”
I want to shout at him, but I choke on the words. The Martials conquered Scholar lands five hundred years ago, and since then, they’ve done nothing but oppress and enslave us. Once, the Scholar Empire was home to the finest universities and libraries in the world. Now, most of our people can’t tell a school from an armory.
“How could you side with the Martials? How, Darin?”
“It’s not what you think, Laia. I’ll explain everything, but—”
He pauses suddenly, his hand jerking up to silence me when I ask for the promised explanation. He cocks his head toward the window.
Through the thin walls, I hear Pop’s snores, Nan shifting in her sleep, a mourning dove’s croon. Familiar sounds. Home sounds.
Darin hears something else. The blood drains from his face…”
So, we know Laia stayed up late to ask Darin where he’s been sneaking off to and why he has a certain drawing in his sketchbook. She wants to confront him, and she wants answers. You can see from Laia’s thoughts that she’s not going to let this go–she’s determined to get answers. And from Darin’s actions, you can tell that he’s trying to avoid a confrontation with his sister. He doesn’t want to tell her anything because he doesn’t want her to be in danger either.
So, that’s the third contextual element you’ll want to establish–what your POV character wants at the beginning of each scene before the central conflict kicks in.
I also want to point out that we know what’s at stake if Darin gets caught because it’s laid out nicely in this scene. This is why Laia is so worried about him, running around late at night. If she doesn’t get answers to where Darin’s been and why, she will continue to be tortured by his absence, and she might even lose him like she lost her parents and her sister.
And this is important because at the end of this example (remember, we’re only looking at the first 800 words in this scene) Darin hears a noise coming from outside the house, and we learn it’s the Empire conducting a night raid. So, going into the central conflict of the scene, we already know what’s at stake and what kind of people the Empire are made of.
The Empire showing up for the night raid is also the Inciting Incident of the scene because it kicks off the central conflict and gives rise to a new scene goal for Laia–to escape and survive this raid. Eventually, she will face a tough choice to either stay and help her family (risking her life in the process), or to run and save her own life (leaving her grandparents and brother in the hands of the Empire).
When this scene ends, there will be another scene in which the author establishes all the same contextual elements–the setting, the protagonist’s goal and motivation, their mental and emotional landscape, and what’s at stake.
Imagine if we didn’t have this set up or these 800-words we just went over–and imagine if it just started with a knock at the door. Without all of this context, we wouldn’t be as invested in Darin or Laia’s fate because we wouldn’t really know what to care about. So, I think this is a great example of a story that starts with action but that also gives us the right amount of context to pull readers straight into the story.
Establishing the proper amount of context at the beginning of a new scene might feel tedious, or like you’re laying it on too thick, but trust me–it’s crucial to keeping readers engaged and following the story.
If you don’t ground your reader by establishing the appropriate amount of context, you run the risk of confusing them and pulling them out of your story. If readers don’t know what’s happening, where it’s happening, or why, readers will fill in the blanks themselves, which can lead to misunderstandings and further confusion. And confused and disengaged readers put books down.
With these three contextual elements in place at the start of each scene, the reader will feel well-oriented within the scene, and they’ll care much more about whether the protagonist will succeed or fail. That's a win-win if you ask me!
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