Thursday, December 18, 2008

Setting the stage

Camy here, talking about opening scenes and settings.

This is especially important for historical and fantasy/speculative fiction writers who need to introduce an entirely new world for the reader within the first few pages without sounding like a travel guide and without confusing the reader.

(I think the only exception are Regency and possibly medieval writers whose genres are so rampantly published these days and whose time periods are limited to a few years in history. They can introduce the setting with a date and place or a few words and the loyal reader will know exactly when and where they are. For example: “Lord Montgomery entered Almack’s” or “France, 1337” clues the reader in to the setting immediately. Even American historical—prairie—writers have to spend significant words to introduce the places and time periods because American history changed so quickly and each state/territory was unique in its own way.)

So, here are a few quick tips to introduce your setting:

1. A date and place at the opening of the chapter is a good thing, but don’t rely on it.

Planet Argaon, stardate 30584 is not very helpful to your reader.

Neither is 1847, Boston to a reader who is not an American history major.

While a date and place tag does set a general stage, don’t depend on that to immediately tell your reader where and when they are to any great degree. You still need to flesh out the time period/futuristic era in the chapter enough to allow the reader to grasp any social and political implications.

Again, the only exceptions are the very popularly selling historical periods like Regency.

2. Give a general air and atmosphere with a cliché.

GASP! Yes, I’m telling you to use a cliché.

A SHORT cliché.

The reason is that you can introduce a setting with very few words when you use a cliché, because the reader will immediately identify. It will paint the setting with a broad stroke just to orient the reader.

For example, if I say a heroine walks into a greasy diner, you have an immediate picture in your mind and can even smell or feel clichéd sensory details in the scene.

Later you can flesh the setting out more and make the setting more unique, but that first glimpse—cliched though it is—orients the reader so they aren’t confused.

Confusion is BAD. Therefore, a cliché phrase to place the reader in the setting is good.

3. Be judicious and deliberate in your word choices.

After that first cliché, be very concise and powerful with every word you choose to describe the setting.

For example:

“Lady Roberts sidestepped the filth in the streets as she hurried along.”


“Lady Roberts filled her hands with the silk and gauze of her ball gown, trying to raise them above the horse dung and rat carcasses in the gutters without revealing her ankles, as she squinted through the glare of the gaslights in the fog.”

Key words:
Watered silk ball gown, revealing her ankles
Horse dung and rat carcasses

This example is a bit heavy handed, but hopefully you get my point. The key words all give clues as to the social atmosphere as well as the setting. They are very specific and deliberate without telling the reader: The story is set in London in Victorian England.

4. Don’t use sentences of description to set the stage.

That is TELLING and TELLING IS BAD. (yes, I’m yelling)

If you have to stop the story (why would you want to STOP the story???) in order to describe a setting, instead describe the character’s emotional reaction to the setting. Does your heroine breathe in the fresh air out in the prairie or does she scurry back into the house, afraid of the open spaces? Does she revel in the bustle, busyness, and cosmopolitan nature of New York City, or does she only notice the filth, crowd, and noise?

And keep it short. No long paragraphs. If your paragraph is longer than a third of the page, it’s too long.

4. Experiment and get feedback

You never know how well (or badly) you’re doing unless you get feedback from someone who doesn’t already know your setting and time period.

Give a test reader your first few pages and see if they feel oriented in the setting without being confused. They don’t need to be immediately completely immersed in the setting, but they shouldn’t be confused or disoriented.

If they feel a bit out of place, tweak and polish the pages. Get advice from your critique partners. Then give the pages to a brand new person.

It’ll take some revisions, but you’ll be glad you spent time to effectively and vibrantly introduce your setting.

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novel Single Sashimi is out now, and she runs the Story Sensei critique service. In her spare time, she is a staff worker for her church youth group, and she leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels every Monday and Thursday, and she ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for monthly giveways!


  1. Great tips Camy! You've put my mind at ease about the cliche setting, since I just used one recently.
    I have to work on not telling, though. I think. LOL
    Thanks for sharing all this!

  2. Camy, I love talking about historicals, my favorite genre naturally. :-) You've given writers some excellent suggestions for setting the stage.

    I always date and place my historicals and I'm disappointed when authors don't.

    I hadn't thought of the words or phrases I use in the opening as cliches, but they are. Words like spectacles, reticule and corset ground the reader in the general time period.

    Describing the setting through the POV character's eyes has the dual benefit of setting the stage and giving characterization. And is the sign of a mature writer. That's you, Camy. Thanks for a great post!


  3. Thanks, Camy. I love the "describe the character’s emotional reaction to the setting". Great advice there, and throughout.

    But I had to read the "use a cliche" line a few times. My uncaffeinated brain refused to wrap itself around that one, lol.

  4. Great post, Camy. Very helpful. Thanks!

  5. Hi Camy:

    Wonderful post. I am implementing your key word suggestions on a writing project this morning. One thing, please don’t underestimate the power and beauty of pure poetic description. Some wonders of nature need to be experienced directly and not through the eyes of a character. Story is important but sometimes a reader just wants to stop and smell the roses. This is especially true of Southwest genre writing. Again, great post.


  6. Morning, Camy!

    Great ideas for polishing the manuscript. It's so easy to just plop the reader into whatever setting you have with sentences of description. I love your permission to use cliches : ) You're right, I had to read it twice, but something as simple as *a greasy diner* immediately brings the setting to mind.

    I think it gets so easy for writers to become lazy, to not see the world through the eyes of their characters. Many times I have to stop writing and anaylize if I'm seeing this scene through my eyes or my characters. When I look at my word choices and realize my hands are all over the story, it's time to delete and refocus.

    Thanks for the polishing tips!

  7. The cliche idea is excellent. Another reason that first sentence is so, so, so key.
    Anchor it in time and place. Catch the readers attention, set the stakes sky high and set a mood.

    Oh, and do it short, fast and brilliantly.

    Opening line to a Julie Garwood novel.
    Katy McKenna's Wonderbra saved her life.

    We've got modern era. We've got comedy. We've got danger. We've got the heroine's name. We've got the reader hooked. I mean who isn't going to read on?

    Done in six words.

  8. The Five Horseman of the Apocalypse rode in.
    Late as usual.

    First line is 8 words.
    I put in two sentences so eleven words in all.
    I like short punchy first lines.

    But in that first line is a Biblical mistake that I hope catches a reader's attention. It was the Four Horsemen after all, not five. And it puts an image of terror and danger in the reader's head.
    Then the second sentence adds comedy because who would be UPSET that the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse were late.
    I don't set it in time and place.
    I do that pretty quickly but not as fast as I probably should.
    I do have Mosqueros, Texas - 1867
    under the Chapter One label but I've been know personally, to not notice that when I'm reading.
    I'm thinking particularly in judging contests I can remember not knowing the setting then finally catching that place, date label. But it needs to be IN THE BOOK.

    And yes, I am yelling. :)

  9. Mary, I've read that Garwood book! Actually, I think hers were the first romances I ever read as a teen (uh, not the best sex ed, lol) and I've always loved the repartee between her heroes and heroines. I hope she'll go back to historicals someday.
    Oh wait, maybe one of her newer ones is...
    Anyways, the point is, nice example. :-)

  10. Yay, this was a very fun post. Informative and helpful. I tend to throw a ton of description into my historicals, then have to go back and either weed it out or show the character interacting with the setting. These are great tips to help with that.

    Thanks, Camy!

  11. Thanks, guys!

    Haha, did the cliche injunction catch you all aback? But it's been a really good technique I learned from TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight Swain. Swain's writing style can get a bit tedious, but he's been spot on with so many really good writing tips.

    Mary, fabulous examples! Those are terrific!

    Erica, that's a really good point--write the story first, then go back and revise your setting descriptions. That's always easier than trying to make it good the first go round.


  12. Fun, post Camy! And now, I need to go read my first lines--the ones I just wrote this week!



  13. Camy,

    Thank you for sharing your industry wisdom!

    Great post,