Wow! So I've been formulating a new story in my mind and, after sitting down and thinking about it, I have realized a whole lot of stuff has to happen in the first scene--not just of this story but of any tale; this is just the first time I'm really thinking about it.
Let's put it this way: the shorter the story you're writing, the more concentrated all the ideas and working parts have to be.
The story I'm mulling right now will be at a max of 5000 or so words, so a lot of things have to go on in a small space. Let me give you an idea of the cogs that have to mesh just to make the first scene functional:
Main Character(s): In this scene I have to get across that the main character is a woman, her age, her personality, (her name!), her goals or the things that drive her and anything that makes her unique and interesting. Whether she's a huntress or housewife (or both) ought to be mentioned, keeping in mind that this better be relevant later on.
I also have to introduce any possible secondary characters, or mention them so they don't suddenly pop up later on. That said, in 5000 words I can't have a lot of secondary characters--too many working parts!
Place/World: As this story will have an ancient Mayan setting this has to be made clear in the descriptions of the plants, wildlife, terrain. Even things like the way the characters think about the world around them belongs in this category. A couple howler monkeys thrown in to give ambiance will never go wrong in telling readers this isn't just some random jungle, but a Mexican/Guatemalan one.
If this story took place in, say, the 1800s, technology or language should indicate this from scene one; as no one can really tell me how ancient Mayans talked, and their technology doesn't change much with time, no real issue here.
Tone: If this was going to be a funny story there would have to be an indication; writing the material humorously or dropping a couple witticisms. As it's meant to be horror/dark fantasy, I'll have to establish this in the first scene with descriptions, observations, etc.
Theme: This will probably be quite subtle and logically the theme will connect back to other parts of the story; it should be relevant to the main character, her goals and struggles, the tone, and the conflict. If the tone throughout the story is grim and unhappy, the theme probably shouldn't be something optimistic about how the world is a big ball of sunshine. Sunny ideas about the world should be set up ahead of time if this is the theme I'd like to convey, or I can prepare to confuse readers on a subliminal level.
I often find the theme to be something I haven't articulated but that appears while writing; by the end of draft one I can see what it is or where it's going, so an edit helps to clarify theme.
Conflict: The source of friction for this tale should show up in scene one, even obliquely. Is this going to be a huge world-spanning conflict full of massive earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, and twenty-five separate-but-interrelated tales of unrequited love? I'm not bold enough to tackle this in 5000 words and probably no one should be--there's no room in those few words for so much to happen without taking away from the significance of, well, everything.
Whether complex or straightforward (as in, a mystery that has to be unraveled or a direct good-vs-evil fistfight), the conflict had better be present in scene one. When I say obliquely I mean a subtle suggestion of where we're going; if a monster is lurking in the jungle, maybe someone goes missing in scene one? If a tale of demon-summoning, maybe the spell-book is discovered in scene one, along with evidence of a conflict between the main character and her unkind husband?
Internal conflict: If the main character is battling monsters on the outside, what about inside? Any story where strange or fantastic things happen requires some internal struggle because who's going to coolly accept that an evil demon is lurking in their jungle and then just walk out and kill it? If it was that easy I could hardly say there was a conflict--I guess in a way it's fair to say that external and internal conflict are two sides of the same coin; they should be used together to create a better story, a bigger challenge for the main character, and a better payoff at the end.
So, if her unkind husband were to go missing in scene one, the internal conflict could be based on the main character's mixed feelings for her husband, along with the fear that whatever got him might come for her, too.
Important details: If she has an ancestral demon-killing knife tucked away somewhere, it shouldn't be mentioned only when she pulls it out on the last page to slay the monster. This could at the least be mentioned in passing and probably not a lot more than that; spend too long describing the knife and the readers have figured out what she's going to do with it at the end.
If there's anything else that will be really important later on I should mention it now; like the demon-summoning book, or the main character's fear of getting lost in the jungle, or if she will battle the demon atop a mountain maybe she looks at it in the distance, etc.
Sensory details: If the demon smells like rotted pumpkin it's worth mentioning on a few levels; because engaging the senses also engages readers, and because it can be used later.
Voice: The main character's voice should come through in my word choice (or the character's word choice); this will help give an idea of who she is, how she views the world, and should help prove the relevance of the character I'm writing to the theme and conflict she is tackling.
"Wow!" you say, "That's a lot to shove into one scene. And whatever happened to writing being a creative endeavor? Where's the creativity in following lists?"
Ah yes, that's indeed the trick--so many things to juggle into one scene that I have to be creative about how to get it all in there. The observant reader will have already noticed, too, that many of these points overlap; sensory details can be a part of voice, which ultimately is a part of your main character, while observation of something like the smell of pumpkin also relates back to place/time. Creativity comes in (in a big way!) while trying to put all these pieces together as a smooth and operative whole--I don't want anything to seem clunky or out of place so ultimately it's the way I put these things together that will make the story convincing. Because the point is that even though I've got a list of things in front of me, it certainly shouldn't read that way when it becomes prose.
Now to figure out my first sentence ...