How Taylor Jenkins Reid Crafts an Exceptional Opening Scene


Want to master writing excellent scenes? Study excellent scenes to find out how they work. Here’s what makes the opening scene of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo stand out—and how you can draw inspiration from it to craft an exceptional scene of your own.

Today, we’re going to dig into scene structure. More specifically, I’m going to pull out a scene from one of my favorite novels and show you how and why it works—and how you can use it as a model for a similar scene in your novel.

See, scenes are the building blocks of novels. Every great novel is made of great scenes.

Of course, a novel needs a well-structured plot—something that the reader will want to read from the beginning to the end.

But the way you communicate that plot is via scenes. A novel of 80,000 to 100,000 words will probably have somewhere in the range of 60 to 80 scenes. That’s what that plot is made of, the level on which your reader experiences the story—a series of scenes, one after the other, each one like a miniature story that your reader can’t put down.

Which means that in order to craft a great novel, you need to craft great scenes.

Now, if you’re listening and thinking, “Wait, I thought we’d be talking about time,” you’re not wrong. For the last few weeks, we’ve been in a series about how to convey the passing of time in a story. And I haven’t forgotten that we have a couple more strategies to cover for conveying the passing of time.

But right now, I’m putting together my Scene Mastery Workshop, which starts next week. And like I always say, what you hear on this podcast comes directly from what I’m editing every day. So I’m pausing the series on time for one episode. Don’t worry; we’ll get back to time in the next episode. But today, I’m going to give you a sneak peek at one of the things we’ll be doing in the workshop: analyzing scenes.

See, one of the best ways to master writing and editing scenes is to study really good scenes from published novels.

They work! They’re good! Readers love them the way you want readers to love your writing.

And so a major component of the Scene Mastery Workshop is analyzing published scenes. We’re breaking down scenes from some of my favorite novels to see how and why they work, and how we can draw inspiration from those scenes to craft excellent scenes of our own.

And in this episode, I’m going to share my analysis of the first scene in the workshop, and give you some actionable things to practice in your own writing based on what we learn from this scene.

If you like what you hear in this episode, and you’d like to craft excellent scenes in your novel, check out the Scene Mastery Workshop by going to And of course that link is in the show notes as well.

Now, let’s dig into the scene!

About The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

The scene we’ll be looking at is the opening scene of the novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Evelyn Hugo was published in 2017. It’s a historical fiction novel set in the golden age of Hollywood. As you might guess from the title, one of its major plots is a love story.

And the other major plot is a performance story—that is, it’s about Evelyn Hugo striving to build a career as a successful actress.

When I say it’s a performance story, I’m not talking about the fact that she’s an actress, but about the fact that she’s a person with a skill, and she’s striving to be successful and gain recognition for her skill. And that skill just so happens to be acting.

The novel also has a frame story. That means that while most of the novel is about Evelyn Hugo’s life and is set in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, there’s also a second plot that’s set in the modern day.

That second plot has another protagonist and is told from that protagonist’s point of view. The book begins and ends with this frame story, and we get a small number of scenes about the frame story in the middle.

I’m telling you all this because when I look at a scene, I consider all the context around that scene too. It’s the context that helps me decide what is important within a single scene and what kinds of edits I should make to enhance those important things.

So now you have some context for our scene. Let’s take a look at the scene itself.

I highly recommend that you actually go read this scene yourself. You can do that for free by going to Amazon and reading the sample of the book.

Click here to read the full scene for free on Amazon.

Done reading? Great.

Scene Recap

Now, here’s a quick recap of the scene, just in case you didn’t head over to Amazon to read it in full.

The scene opens with Frankie calling Monique into her office. Monique is confused, because she missed her name at the beginning and wasn’t sure who Frankie was talking to.

Frankie, we learn, is Monique’s boss, and Monique looks up to her and wants to follow in her footsteps.

Frankie tells Monique that Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo has reached out to their magazine for an exclusive interview. Monique is confused again because while this is a huge deal for the magazine, she’s not sure why Frankie is telling her about it.

And then Frankie says that Evelyn specifically requested that Monique do the interview. Monique is astonished—and so, it turns out, was Frankie when she heard. Frankie tried to recommend bigger-name writers to Evelyn’s people, but they responded to say either Monique does the interview or Evelyn doesn’t do it at all.

Frankie starts digging to try to find out why Evelyn is asking for Monique. She asks whether Monique knows Evelyn; she doesn’t. She asks whether she has any personal connection to Evelyn, and Monqiue says that the only way she’d have any connection is if her father, who worked in film decades ago, ever worked on one of Evelyn’s films.

Monique texts her mom to see whether there’s a connection there, and her mom says he never worked on any Evelyn Hugo films.

So Frankie shares the second theory: that Evelyn’s people chose “someone with less clout” so that they could control her and the narrative.

Monique asks why she’s telling her this. And Frankie says it’s because she thinks Evelyn’s people are underestimating Monique, and Frankie really wants this interview for the magazine.

And then she says: “I’m asking you if you have the guts to go toe-to-toe with Evelyn Hugo.”

Monique thinks about it. Then she says, “Yes.”

Frankie asks if that’s all. Monique says yes more firmly. Frankie says she’s not convinced.

Monique thinks about her own dream for her career—to be a great writer, to be the kind of name people scramble to call for these kinds of stories, to rise in the ranks of the magazine world.

And then she tells Frankie, “Evelyn wants me. You want Evelyn. It doesn’t sound like I need to convince you, Frankie. It sounds like you need to convince me.”

It’s quiet for a while, and Monique wonders if she’s gone too far, and nearly backs down.

And then Frankie says okay and gives her the story.

Frankie says there is one more reason why Evelyn might have chosen her—she might have read a really spectacular piece Monique wrote a few months ago, one that showcases her skills as a writer, and Evelyn wants her because she’s good.

They both acknowledge that’s probably not the reason. But if Monique does well with Evelyn’s story, next time, her skill as a writer will be the reason people come calling.

Analysis: How Does This Scene Work?

So that’s the scene: Frankie offers Monique an opportunity to write a story far greater than Monique’s current status in her career should allow, and Monique has to convince Frankie that she’s the right woman for the job.

If you think back to when I was explaining the genres of this novel, you might notice that this scene isn’t about Evelyn Hugo herself—it’s the opening scene of the frame story, where we’re in the present day, meeting the frame story protagonist.

Now, how does this scene work?

I’m going to break down exactly how this scene is constructed and why it’s so effective. I’ll show you the structure of the scene and some of its key features. And I’ll end by distilling it into an archetype that you can use to inspire your own scenes.

I have a number of episodes of Your Next Draft that explain the terms I use when analyzing scenes. Those are the terms I’ll be using here, so if you’ve listened to those episodes, this approach to analysis should be familiar to you. If you haven’t listened to those episodes, I won’t be explaining each term again here, but I will point you back to the episodes that go into more detail.

And happily, these terms are generally at least somewhat self-explanatory, so I think you’ll be able to follow along either way.

So let’s dig into the analysis.

The Goal

The first question I’ll ask of this scene is, what is the protagonist’s goal?

Monique is our protagonist. And her goal in this scene is first, to figure out what Frankie wants from her, and then, to prove that she can handle writing Evelyn Hugo’s story—a story that has the potential to make or break her career.

Frankie isn’t the protagonist, but we can look at her goal too. She wants to publish an extraordinary exclusive story from Evelyn Hugo. The only way Evelyn will agree to it is if Monique writes it, and Frankie isn’t sure Monique has what it takes to write an extraordinary story about Evelyn Hugo. So her goal in this scene is to figure that out—to find the way to land this story and make sure it’s extraordinary.

Monique wants to prove herself to her boss without stepping on her boss’s toes.

Frankie wants to land an exclusive story from Evelyn Hugo without trusting that story to someone who can’t handle it.

So right off the bat, we’ve got strong goals driving each character.

The Value Shift

The second question is, what values shift in this scene? In other words, what changes?

I’m going to focus on the values that change for Monique, because she’s the protagonist.

Externally, what changes for Monique?

  • She goes from being underutilized within her job to having a breakout opportunity far above her current level. Dead end to opportunity.

And what about internally? What changes intangibly, inside Monique?

  • She goes from having the lowest status at her job to being treated as though she has high status. Low status to higher status.
  • And she goes from having low confidence in herself to both projecting and feeling greater confidence. Low confidence to higher confidence.

These are great value shifts:

  • Dead end → opportunity
  • Low status → higher status
  • Low confidence → higher confidence

There’s a really clear change within this scene: things are one way at the beginning, and they’re another way at the end.

That change has an external component—something tangible is different; Monique has been assigned a story.

And that change has an internal component, a way that it impacts Monique—she started off low in status and low in confidence, and she’s now been boosted, both higher in status and higher in her own confidence.

If you’d like to learn more about value shifts, check out Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story for my full explanation of value shifts.

The Context

Do you remember how I said that Evelyn Hugo’s story has a performance plot? Monique’s does too. That’s exactly the plot that this scene is setting up: Monique has a skill, writing for magazines, and she wants to excel at her skill and be recognized for it.

This scene is the inciting incident of Monique’s performance plot: she’s given an opportunity to use her skill that could change everything for her, and she has to decide whether to take it or not.

The Structure of the Scene

Now that we know what happens in the scene, what the characters’ goals are in the scene, and what changes in the scene, let’s look at how this scene is structured. And to do that, I’ll be using the six elements of story:

  • Inciting incident
  • Progressive complications
  • Turning point
  • Crisis
  • Climax
  • Resolution

If those terms are new to you, or you’d like a refresher on them, check out The 6 Essential Elements of Every Novel, Act, and Scene for my full breakdown of the six elements of story.

And now, let’s walk through the structure of this scene.

Inciting Incident

What’s the inciting incident?

Frankie calls Monique into her office.

Progressive Complications

What are the progressive complications?

There are several:

  • First, Frankie tells Monique that Evelyn Hugo’s people have asked for an exclusive interview.
  • Then, we learn that Evelyn specifically requested that Monique write the feature.
  • Frankie makes it clear that Vivant wants to send one of their top writers to write the feature, and Monique is a young new writer with no clout, and wouldn’t be considered for this role at all if Evelyn hadn’t requested her specifically.
  • But they’re in a bind, because Evelyn won’t do the feature unless Monique writes it.
  • Frankie asks Monique to confirm whether she has any personal connection to Evelyn. She doesn’t.
  • Frankie says if there’s no personal connection, they’ve chosen Monique because she’s green and they’ll be able to control her and the narrative.

And this brings us to the turning point.

Turning Point

What’s the turning point?

Frankie asks Monique whether she has the guts to take the assignment.

In fact, I’d say the turning point is this line specifically:

“I’m asking you if you have the guts to go toe-to-toe with Evelyn Hugo.”


What’s the crisis?

At this point, Monique has two choices: convince Frankie she can do it, or pass on the piece?

Each of those options has positive and negative consequences. Those consequences are the stakes of this choice.

What are the consequences if she convinces Frankie she can do it?

The positive outcome is that she’ll get to write the biggest story of her career yet, one that could make her entire career.

But the negative consequences are thatEvelyn might try to manipulate her to take control of the story. Plus, Monique isn’t 100% sure she does have what it takes. And if she doesn’t, she’ll bungle her big break, a highly sought-after exclusive feature that Vivant really wants.

What are the consequences if Monique passes on the piece?

On the bright side, she’ll continue to write pieces that she’s fully confident in writing, and she won’t be at risk of manipulation by a Hollywood star.

But the problem is, she’ll pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a big break. She’ll be stuck writing puff pieces in a job that is underutilizing her. She’ll fall short of Frankie’s belief in and expectations of her. And she’ll hurt the magazine because Vivant won’t get the Evelyn Hugo exclusive.

So that’s Monique’s crisis choice:

  • Convince Frankie she can do this, take her shot at her big break, and risk biting off more than she can chew?
  • Or pass on the piece, stay safe, and miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance at her big break?


What’s the climax?

Monique tells Frankie that she can do it. Frankie pushes back—she won’t take an easy yes; she’s testing Monique and making her work for it.

So Monique demonstrates her ability to go toe-to-toe with people in power by telling Frankie that since Evelyn already wants her, really, Frankie should be trying to win Monique over, not the other way around.


What’s the resolution?

For a long moment, Monique is afraid that she’s blown it. In trying to prove herself to her boss, she did step on her boss’s toes, and now Frankie might pull the whole thing.

But Frankie accepts her argument and tells Monique she’s got the story. She tells Monique to ace it.

Then she observes that Monique is a genuinely good writer and references an article that Monique looks back on with pride. And Frankie assures her that if she does this Evelyn Hugo piece well, it will launch her career.

The Essential Components of the Scene

So there you have it: the structure of this scene. I’ll sum all that up in a quick recap so you can see it all together:

Inciting incident: Frankie calls Monique into her office.

Progressive complications: Frankie tells Monique that Evelyn Hugo has asked her to write an exclusive story on her, and then Frankie challenges Monique on why Evelyn would have sent this request.

Turning point: Frankie asks Monique if she has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with Evelyn Hugo.

Crisis: Will Monique convince Frankie she can do it, or pass on the piece?

Climax: Monique tells Frankie that Frankie should be convincing her to do the piece, not the other way around.

Resolution: Frankie gives Monique the story and tells her that if she does this well, which she has the writing chops to do, it will launch her career.

Do you see how this one scene is a little miniature story all its own? This is what I mean when I say that readers experience your novel on the level of the scene.

Yes, they come to your novel for the entire plot you’re promising them. But page by page, minute by minute, as they read, they’re experiencing your novel as a series of scenes, of little tiny stories that hook their interest and compel them to keep reading.

3 Features That Make This Scene Stand Out

So what makes this scene stand out? What makes it really effective? What can we learn from it?

I have three takeaways to share with you, three things I particularly want to note about this scene.

1. The scene structure is clear

First, the structure in this scene is incredibly clear. I’ve analyzed hundreds of scenes just like I did here, both scenes from published novels and scenes from my clients’ manuscripts. And this scene stands out to me as a scene where the scene structure is very clear and evident.

We’ve got something very obvious that kicks off the action: Frankie calls Monique into her office.

We have a series of complications that challenge Monique as she tries to suss out what her boss really wants from her and how to respond to that.

We have a sharp turning point that demands action: Frankie asks Monique directly whether she’s up for this task.

We have some great interiority from Monique as she wrestles with her own confidence, status, dreams, and goals and stumbles through figuring out how to respond.

We have a stark climax where Monique takes a risky stance, turns the tables and challenges Frankie.

And we have a resolution where Monique reaps the rewards of that risky choice, Frankie gives her the story, and they both acknowledge the impact this will have on Monique’s career.

There are a few factors that make this scene structure so easy to spot.

First, the duration of this scene is short. The whole thing takes place over the span of probably just fifteen minutes.

Second, the focus of the scene is narrow. It’s a conversation between two characters. There’s not a large cast or a lot of action to complicate things. It’s very simply that one character has a question for another character.

Third, both characters have clear goals, with high stakes attached, in opposition to each other. Monique is trying to gain major momentum in her career without attracting her boss’s ire. Frankie is trying to land a massive cover story without giving it to an incompetent newbie.

It’s a fifteen-minute conversation in an office. And yet, because the stakes are so clear and so high, we are hooked to see how this conversation will go, and when we reach the end of the scene, we can feel how much has changed.

So the first thing I want you to notice here is that the structure of this scene is exceptionally clear. If you’ve been struggling to see how the six elements of story work, I recommend printing out this scene and highlighting each element so you can see them on the page.

2. The scene structure emphasizes the value shift

The second thing I want to note about this scene is that the scene structure perfectly emphasizes the value shift.

Let’s look back at the values we noted at the beginning:

  • Dead end → opportunity
  • Low status → higher status
  • Low confidence → higher confidence

Starting Values

At the beginning of the scene, Monique is stuck with dead-end assignments at Vivant. She joined Vivant less than a year ago, so she’s one of the newest and most junior writers, very low in status. And while she’s ambitious and goal-oriented, she’s not very confident.

Every detail that Taylor Jenkins Reid includes in the first half of the scene emphasizes these beginning values.

Here are some examples:

First, I’ll look at Monique’s reactions. When Frankie calls Monique into her office, Monique is surprised. When Frankie tells her that Evelyn Hugo requested an interview, Monique is surprised. When Frankie tells her Evelyn specifically asked for Monique, Monique is surprised.

It’s the surprise of someone working dead-end assignments, someone who doesn’t get noticed, someone who doesn’t get opportunities, someone who doesn’t expect opportunities, someone who doesn’t get asked to write exclusive features of Hollywood stars.

Now, I’ll look at the passages of narrative, the thoughts and context Monique gives us in between lines of dialogue.

Monique tells us that before Vivant, she was working at the Discourse, “a current events and culture site that calls itself a newsmagazine but is, effectively, a blog with punchy headlines.” And before that, she was freelancing. Although she’s pursuing her dream of writing, she’s not impressed with her career trajectory.

See how that emphasizes dead end, low status, low confidence?

Ending Values

And then, after the turning point, every detail emphasizes the opposite values. This is the realm of opportunity, higher status, higher confidence.

Monique’s actions reflect this: after Frankie gives her the story, they shake hands, and Monique makes sure that her handshake is strong.

The dialogue reflects this: Frankie tells Monique that her writing really is strong enough that Evelyn could have asked for her on the basis of her skill alone.

And the details of backstory and context that Monique gives us in her thoughts emphasize this as well. Monique thinks back on the piece Frankie is referencing: on how passionate she was about the topic, how hard she worked to write it, how proud she still is of it, and how it opened the door to her working at Vivant.

See how every part of this emphasizes opportunity, higher status, higher confidence?

So that’s the second thing to notice: that every single detail in this scene emphasizes the value shift. There are no extraneous details here, nothing to bog down the momentum. Every single line is carefully crafted to make the change in this scene as sharp as possible.

Because after all, stories are about change.

3. The exposition is precise

And the final thing I want to draw your attention to is related to that. I want to point out the exposition in this scene—the explanatory information about the current situation and backstory from before this scene.

Remember, this is the opening scene of the novel. So at this point, the only information the reader has is whatever information is on the page in this scene.

This scene is mostly dialogue. In a scene of 2,195 words, 582 of those words are direct speech, the words that Monique and Frankie say to each other.

Amid all that direct speech, there are three sections of narrative, where Monique pauses the dialogue to give the reader more information about what’s going on.

The first happens early in the scene, as Monique is following Frankie into her office. There, we find out what Monique admires about Frankie and how she wants to follow in her footsteps. It’s 145 words.

The second happens midway through, when Frankie expresses her surprise that Evelyn asked for Monique. There, Monique tells us about her career history and why that surprise is a totally reasonable response, even though Monique’s a little offended by it. This is 231 words.

And the third happens at the end of the scene, when Frankie is entrusting Monique with Evelyn’s story and comments that there’s always the possibility Evelyn wants her for her skill as a writer. There, Monique tells us about the story she’s most proud of writing. That’s 315 words.

That’s 691 words of exposition—extremely carefully chosen exposition.

Notice how every bit of that exposition is directly tied to something that’s happening in the scene. It’s hyper-relevant context because it’s what’s on Monique’s mind right now, and it helps the reader understand how every part of this conversation is impacting Monique.

We learn how Frankie’s words make her feel. We learn why the opportunity with Evelyn matters to her.

What do we not learn?

We don’t learn any details that aren’t immediately relevant. There are no long info dumps here. What city does Monique live in now? When did she move here? Where is the Vivant office even located? We have no idea, and we also don’t care.

And we don’t learn any details that will siphon away the tension from the story and answer so many questions that we no longer need to keep reading. Why the heck did Evelyn ask for Monique? Frankie and Monique don’t figure it out in this scene. And we won’t figure it out either until the very end of the book.

It’s a mystery, a gap in information that keeps us hooked so we have to keep reading.

So that’s the third noteworthy feature I want to draw your attention to: every piece of exposition is precisely chosen to help us understand this specific moment as clearly as Monique does, while avoiding the trap of boring info dumps and increasing the tension of unanswered questions.

What We Learn From Evelyn Hugo

And there you have it, the three major takeaways I find so powerful in this scene.

First, its scene structure is exceptionally clear.

Second, every detail emphasizes the value shift so that we can really feel the change that happens from the beginning to the end.

And third, the exposition is precisely chosen to heighten this moment without boring the reader or sapping the tension.

Your Turn: Craft Your Own Standout Scene

There’s just one question left, and that’s this one: what can you do with this?

How can we take this analysis of an excellent scene and turn it into something actionable you can do in your writing?

I’m glad you asked.

I’ve taken this scene and distilled it into an archetype, a fundamental framework for a scene. I invite you to take this framework and use it to write a scene of your own.

Put it in any setting you like. Make the characters any characters you like. Put it in your work in progress, or make up a completely different story with it.

Just use it as a writing prompt to inspire you, and try your hand at crafting a scene using the scene structure I’ve shared in this analysis.

All right, here’s the archetype:

This scene has two characters, one of high status and the other of low status.

The higher status character has received word of an opportunity that must be given to the lower status character. Both are aware that it’s weird for Low Status to be given this opportunity, and High Status interrogates Low Status about why it’s on the table. Low Status must decide whether or not to accept the opportunity and convince High Status that she can do it.

There you go. That’s your challenge.

What will your scene be?

Join Me in the Scene Mastery Workshop

And that’s it for this analysis of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and for this sneak peek at what’s inside the Scene Mastery Workshop.

If you enjoyed this analysis, you’ll really enjoy the workshop. It’s a ten-week course in editing scenes, and in it, I’ll teach you how to use these exact tools to not just analyze published novels, but actually edit your own scenes.

Each week, we’ll study a scene from a published novel just like I’ve done here. Then, I’ll workshop a scene from one of the writers in the workshop and help them figure out how to edit their own scene.

By the end of the workshop, you’ll have edited a scene of your novel based on my feedback, and you’ll be equipped with the tools and process you need to edit every scene in your novel.

The summer 2024 session of the Scene Mastery Workshop begins on June 26, and there are just a couple seats left.

So if this sounds exciting to you, click here to get all the details and apply.

I hope you enjoyed this episode and found this analysis helpful! Learning how to do this was transformative for my own editing, and I love sharing it with you.

Take a stab at writing your own version of this scene archetype. And if you want more like this, be sure to check out the Scene Mastery Workshop.

That’s all for now. Until next time, happy editing!

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