Thursday, January 6, 2011

Setting up setting

One of the purposes of the opening few paragraphs is to establish the setting. If the reader is going to embark on this fictive journey, he needs to know where we are, and when we are, right? We can establish the larger setting with a tagline after the Chapter One heading:


Topeka, June

or

June 1815, Waterloo

... if we want to-- that quickly establishes the overall limits of this world. But for the opening SCENE, how do we efficiently and evocatively establish where and when we are?

How about some sample lines that might appear in your own story's first couple paragraphs and tell the reader where this first scene is taking place, where and when the characters are?

Like:

The late afternoon light filtered in through the dirty store window.
or

New snow was piled another inch deep on the windowsill outside.

(Windows are useful because they show both inside and outside.)

or

Across the ballroom was a set of French doors, an escape out to the torchlit gardens.

To connect this to the character and event, maybe make the POV character do the perceiving, and react to it in some way:

Jamie squinted at the statue in the middle of the square, distinguishing through the glare of the noon sun the outline of General Lee on a horse. Gotta love the south and its fixation on the heroes of a losing side.

or

New snow piled up three inches deep on the windowsill outside, and Sarah pulled her shawl tighter.

Or
Miss Carter stood in the doorway, surveyed her new kingdom, and started coughing. The early morning classroom smelled like chalk, pencil shavings, and teenaged hormones.

or

Across the ballroom was a set of French doors, Harry's escape out to the torchlit gardens.

This doesn't have to be done in all one sentence, of course, but I like to get clear early a few of these:
  • Where we are
  • Are we inside or outside
  • What time of day it is
  • Is it dark or light
  • What time of year it is or at least whether it's cold or hot
  • The POV character
  • That character's relation to the setting (Harry wanting to escape the ballroom)
  • Are there other people around
  • What it feels like there (stuffy or cold or crowded)
  • What's going on (a ball, a substitute teacher arriving, a chess game)
  • What the sound is like-- noisy, quiet

I find the last harder to get in (sound), I guess because the opening is so often primarily visual. Hmm. Maybe sound is a good "entree"-- after all, often we hear before we see. Sound is very intrusive. So is smell.

Anyway, look at the first paragraphs of your own story, and maybe you can post something, a line or two, that can establish "where and when" without getting out of the story?

Alicia

16 comments:

Christopher S. Ledbetter said...

Good Stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Stevie Carroll said...

Okay, I'll bite. From the opening paragraph:

Behind her Paul was being declared dead at the scene of the incident, covered up, and then lifted into the waiting ambulance. There would be an inquest, a funeral, a memorial service, and alongside those an investigation, an arrest, a trial and a sentence.

Mystery Robin said...

I love headings like those - I'm immediately grounded in the story. I'm going to have to think now, about whether they'd serve my story - they might help.

Here's the 2nd half of my first paragraph. I tried to use action (making tea) to talk about the temperature (part of setting) and then as an excuse to describe the room.

The house was cold for March, but coal was expensive. Coal was the reason her living room lit up with the explosions going on in the streets. Her velvet draperies couldn't hide them. The stone walls couldn't keep out the sound. The explosions just kept coming -- all because of coal -- and she wasn't going to waste one piece of it on a fire she didn't absolutely need. Not when she had a perfectly good shawl.

Jessica Lei said...

These were my opening lines before I read this:

Ayla knew the island as well as she knew the cabin she lived in. The red alder trees near the western coast always shed the best firewood.

AND I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT I WAS DOING! I do realize that there's no mention of season... Oooopsss...

Edittorrent said...

Stevie, that's good. I was going to say, inside or outside? But then, duh, I thought-- ambulance. Outside. I would suggest indicating day or night, because the reader needs that to visualize the scene-- maybe the ambulance's red beacon can cut through the darkness or something. Or the siren could wake up the sleeping city.

Jessica-- firewood-- that could lead into "for the coming winter" or "as the weather grew colder" or....?
\Mys, I like that reference to the cold. I'm not sure why coal is connected to explosions? I think I missed something there.
Alicia

Jessica Lei said...

Alicia -
Wood-burning stove. It's set at the end of summer, so fire could probably be super uncomfortable. I didn't even think what 'firewood' would connote. Thank you :)

Stevie Carroll said...

Alicia,

Good point. The scene's set around lunchtime, so I'll see how I can work that in.

Thanks!

Edittorrent said...

Stevie, to get to the ambulance, she has to push past the officeworkers going to lunch? Or the sun is high and the glare glances off the top of the ambulance? Light is always a great way to show time of day.
Alicia

Stevie Carroll said...

Alicia,

Further on in the paragraph I have a mention of how my protagonist's husband is going to get home and find the note she left for him before her plans were turned upside down by the accident. If I mention that he'll be coming home from the morning shift, might that give an idea of both the time of day and what sort of man he is?

Stevie

Denny S. Bryce said...

A perfect post for what I'm going through now. thank you.

Edittorrent said...

Stevie, well, depends on whether you want the reader to be able to visualize the scene as it's happening-- need some actual visual of the light or the sky or crowds on the sidewalk or something for that.

Alicia

Stevie Carroll said...

Alicia,

Thanks. You've given me some great feedback and plenty to think about.

Stevie

Wes said...

Kincaid hid from the scorching sun, but he couldn’t escape the heat or his maddening thirst. Worse was the wind blowing across the prairie. It was like the hot breath of the devil himself parching the life from a man.

Wes said...

Oops! Forgot the explanation. Kincaid is a seventeen year-old boy on the verge of manhood who is among the first Americans to enter New Mexico after Spain lost control of Mexico in 1821. He is dying of thirst on the eastern plains of NM.

Alicia said...

Wes, that makes it clear that it's around noon, and out in the open, and outside. And you mention the prairie, which is good because it immediately stopped me from visualizing a desert. what would the wind be carrying in a prairie (not that you need it here), like bits of dirt and wheat getting into his eyes and mouth?
Alicia

Wes said...

Yep, a dust-devil whirls into him and scractches his eyes with dirt and debris.