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.
“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.”
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!