For awhile now, I've found myself giving the same piece of writing advice over and over. Finally, I've decided to just write up a whole post about it.
When do you start your first scene? How do you start it? How do you know when to end a scene?
For questions like these, go by this rule: Get in as late as you possibly can, and get out as early as you possibly can.
What this means is that you shouldn't start your book (or your first scene, or any scene) any earlier than you need to. When does the action start? When does the essential plot problem come into play? When is your inciting incident? Start here, and not a minute sooner.
For example, say I'm writing a book about Fred, a high school student who wants to be a detective. His goal in the story is to solve the mystery of who stole his friend's iPad (all my plot-building power goes into my actual books, so I have no decent plots to use as examples). One morning, he gets up and takes a shower. He gets dressed and grabs a poptart on his way out the door. He picks up his friend Jason, and they have a lengthy discussion on the merits of Firefox vs. Google Chrome. When he gets to school, he meets up with his other friend, Bob. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a dark shadow appear, snatch the iPad out of Bob's backpack, and disappear again.
This is where you should start your story, right at that moment where he sees that sketchy shadow. That's when the real plot begins. The scene where he drives Jason to school isn't needed. It's part of Fred's life, yes, but it's not part of the plot. It's not needed.
This same principle applies to every scene you write. Start it as late as you possibly can, while still having it make sense. This, then, ties into the next part of this in-late-out-early rule. When you're finishing a scene, get out as early as possible. What is the earliest point you can end this scene without omitting any crucial elements? This is where it should end.
This goes for the end of the entire book, too. You have a little more room to work here, but you should generally follow the same rule. Don't let your ending drag. This is probably another post for another time, so I won't get in too deep on this. But if the main plot of your story has ended, and all loose ends have been wrapped up, don't keep going. Stop before your readers start losing interest.
Get in late, get out early. I don't even remember where I first heard this, but it's proved to be one of the best pieces of advice I've received. Don't start any earlier than you need to, and don't keep going after everything has been wrapped up.
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