At the beginning of your story, where is your character? What is she doing? What is going to happen to her? Questions one and two pertain to setting, question three pertains to tone, and presentation of both can go hand in hand. But presentation of setting depends on your genre, and to a certain extent, your subgenre. Readers of certain subgenres are already familiar with the settings, Amish fiction, for instance. Westerns. Regency Romance. Settings for these genres are usually depicted with props instead of paragraphs.
In Throw the Devil Off the Train, the late Stephen Bly, one of the quintessential Western writers of the late 20th to 21st Centuries, presented his western setting simply during a conversation between two thugs:
“Is he dead?” the high pitched voice whined.
“If he isn’t,” came a low rumble, “I could fix that.”
“I ain’t killin’ no man over a saddle.”
“And a gun. He’s got one of them new Colt revolvers.”
“I ain’t killing no man over a saddle and a gun.” . . . “He could be asleep.”
“In the middle of the day? Who sleeps in the train yard in the middle of the day?”
If you didn’t know this was a Western before you picked up the book (unlikely, but if), you’d certainly know it from this dialogue as it continues along this vein. Of course, this scene opener is totally opposite what I talked about in the last post, particularly the idea of naming your characters, but the punch line of the dialogue is, the object of their debate is the main character, lying against his saddle with his hat over his eyes. Bly presented only what his character could hear–perfect deep third person POV.
Among other genres, though, actual setting description is allowed, although not to the extent of the early American classics like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. That story began with a panoramic view of the mountain range, then narrowed the focus to the smoke curling up from a pipe. Scene setting occurred through pages of written material, not paragraphs. The modern author, regardless of preferred genre, is allowed paragraphs at most. For instance, A Voice in the Wind, by Francine Rivers:
The city was silently bloating in the hot sun, rotting like the thousands of bodies that lay where they had fallen in street battles. An oppressive, hot wind blew from the southeast, carrying with it the putrefying stench of decay. And outside the city walls, Death itself waited in the persons of Titus, son of Vespasian, and sixty thousand legionnaires who were anxious to gut the city of God.
This beauty of an opening paragraph performs the double-duty of describing the setting and establishing the tone. Bloating, rotting, oppressive, hot, Death, gut. This ain’t no comedy, folks.
As is allowed in historicals, Francine continues on for several paragraphs, explaining what had happened to the city–roughly a page and a half before she introduces her main character. But Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy presented setting and tone in three lines:
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he would reach out and touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.
These lines from The Road set the tone for the post-apocalyptic novel perfectly. McCarthy, like Bly, doesn’t name his characters up front, but then, he didn’t name them anywhere in the novel. They’re known simply as “the man” and “the boy.” (Reading McCarthy is an eye-opener in technique, but I watched the movie All the Pretty Horses based on his novel, and wasn’t impressed. Perhaps his books don’t translate to movies very well.)
Contemporary Romance is one of the genres where description had better be short and sweet. Janice Thompson provides a great example in her Stars Collide:
“You want me to kiss him . . . where?” I stared at my director, hoping I’d misunderstood his last-minute change to the script.
A look of exasperation crossed his face. “On the lips, of course. This is a family show, Kat. Remember?”
Simple cues put us in the scene: director, script, family show. The tone is set using the simple trick of an embarrassing misunderstanding–this is a light-hearted romance.
Lessons from the Examples:
What do you write? What are the description rules for your genre? How much can you get away with?–how much do you need to get away with? Do you–can you–combine tone and setting?
In most contemporary or familiar settings (like for historical westerns or Amish fiction), description can be as simple as tossing in a few cues, some props, to give your reader a picture of where she is and what’s going on. I’ve seen manuscripts that open with dialogue between two nameless characters that focus on the topic of their discussion, which is fine, but it doesn’t give the reader anything to grasp–no name, no setting, nothing to keep her from feeling disoriented, from feeling like she should flip back a few pages to see what she missed. It doesn’t take much–a vinyl seat, a seam in a stocking, a tie-dye t-shirt–to bring the reader into the scene.
Unfamiliar locations, like those found in books set in different countries, or certain genres, like Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Literary, certain Historicals, allow for more in-depth description. Some genres require it, particularly when we’re being whisked off to a place found solely in the writer’s imagination. These days, the reader won’t put up with too much descriptive prose, so find the balance–provide enough to ground reader in the scene but not so much to bore him.
Do more than just describe the scene: set the tone. Use strong verbs, strong visuals, even light-hearted dialogue to make your scene-setting pull double duty. Whatever writer’s trick you have at your disposal, pull it out and use it.
Don’t leave your opening pages flat, give them life with the scene, give them meaning with tone. And, present the pertinent action and introduce your characters. These are the keys to terrific opening scenes. Note the word scene. Not everything will occur in the opening paragraph–although it could. Play with your opener and see how much you can do with it. If you can get it all in, like Cormac McCarthy, do it. If it’ll take you a bit longer, like Francine Rivers, do that, but keep the components: Pertinent action, character introduction, and scene and tone setting.