>Setting the Scene (Get me in the mood baby, ooh yeah!)

>Sarah’s offered quite a lot about remembering that there’s someone on the other end of the book, and way to keep that person reading. I’m going to look at one specific part of that: the scene-setting and cuing in it offers.

How many times have you read something where the author switched track on you, and the book turned into something you weren’t expecting when you started it? And how often has it irritated rather than delighted you? Yeah. I thought so. See, we’re so attuned to what a story should be, we can pick up – subconsciously at least – what a story is about from very little.

Take for instance the opening to Pratchett’s The Color of MagicIn a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly. That one sentence is enough to cue readers in to several things: we’re not in Kansas anymore, and it’s not going to be reality as normal. Oh, and it’s almost for sure fantasy. Comic fantasy.

It might not register at the conscious level, but we’re primed for laughter.

Of course, this is Pratchett, and even Pratchett of nearly thirty years ago stands head, shoulders and quite a bit more over every other author alive today (although in my not at all humble opinion both Dave and Sarah are climbing that particular mountain at speed).

So how do we lesser lights set the scene? There’s a few things to consider.

First up, and possibly most important, each genre and subgenre has its own distinctive ‘feel’ and tropes. Standard practice in a cozy is utterly verboten in splatterpunk horror, and so forth. The mood we set has much the same effect as a movie soundtrack – more or less invisible (or it should be) but puts the reader’s emotions where we want them. Yes, it’s manipulative. We’re playing with people’s minds because they want us to. If they don’t like us hitting their emotional buttons, they don’t have to buy our books. Next question? Good.

Okay. I got bitten by this not long ago, in a crit group looking at the opening of my current work in progress. The piece is typically Kate-weird, meaning it doesn’t quite fit into any nice, neat slots. It’s more or less space opera, but it’s also got elements of erotica, in that quite a bit of the plot is carried by and depends on sex. Specifically, somewhat kinky sexual practices that aren’t so much as hinted at in the start of the book. The advice I got, not suprisingly, was that I need to have the sex up front so that it’s not picked up by someone who reads the opening and thinks it’s okay for young teens. Or, for that matter, so editor X doesn’t start reading thinking “light-hearted space opera, a bit of a romp”, get to the sex, and have his, her, or its brain explode.

Attractive as the notion of making peoples’ heads explode might be, it’s really not a good idea to do that to people you want to give you money, so… I need to put sex up front, preferably in a way that foreshadows the kind of sex that happens later on (especially since said sex is emphatically not garden variety vanilla). What I start with now says “lightweight space opera, with humor”.

As to how you do it, it’s all in the power of words. English has a phenomenal number of synonyms, most of them with very different emotional/atmospheric connotations. Let’s take, for the sake of example, sex. We all know what’s involved. Call it making love, and it becomes a much more intimate act. Or take desire, longing, yen, urge, obsession, need – they all mean more or less the same thing, but the flavor varies. A lounge, a sofa, a Chesterfield… Curtains, drapes. And I haven’t even gotten out of the common words.

For science fiction, probably the most common trick is faux tech-ese and using technical terms instead of the normal “earthbound” words. Epic fantasy and sword and sorcery often go the other way, using archaic forms of common words – sparingly. Urban fantasy generally maintains a conversational, smartass tone and uses a lot of not-quite-slang, enough to make it sound cool (or whatever the designated word for that is these days) without being so cutting edge it dates the book between the time it’s written and the time it’s published (For an example that dates a book, read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and then tell me you don’t see late 70s written all over it). Horror of course pulls all the stops out: cognitive dissonance, bleak or grim descriptors, and every possible trick in the writer’s vocabulary to make the whole thing bode. An excellent guide to the process is Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, containing the famous quote about terror, horror, and gross-out. A good thumbnail distinction here is that terror is being in an iffy situation and realizing your buddy is missing. Horror is finding your buddy in a closet – and he’s not alive. Gross-out is when the alien or monster comes out of his chest, usually featuring loving description of the effects. The word ‘glistening’ gets used a lot, even when there shouldn’t be enough light for anything to glisten. As a general rule, if you’re wanting to scare your readers, aim for terror. Drop to horror only if you can’t manage terror. And gross-out is the last resort. (Yes, Stephen King said approximately that, and yes, he will go for the gross-out if he can’t make terror or horror happen).

Let’s have a few samples of story openings that do a good job of setting the scene. Short or long, yours or someone else’s (if it’s someone else’s, please acknowledge the author). No more than a couple of lines – most of the good ones don’t need more than that.

Here’s one or two of mine, just to kick things off:

There are times when being a Quality Assurance Mage sucks. The silvery gray spell-ball on my desk told me today was one of them. Fantasy, rather whimsical, may or may not be urban. From my short story A Spell of Quality in Misspelled. This sale was an invitation, so I didn’t need to have the higher standards that anything going through regular slush has to have.

The great looms stood silent, strands of Scylla-silk glimmering in semi-darkness above the completed weaves. Air heavy with the acrid tension of electrical discharge sparked and crackled with each of my cautious steps. Science fiction, fairly dark. The use of words like “heavy” and “silent” suggests that this isn’t going to be a particularly fluffy piece (accurately, as it happens). This is the opening of my short story Choice of the Oracles in Fate Fantastic – another sale by invitation.

Another convention, another con hotel. After a while, they blur together into an indistinguishable mass of faux-elegance and bizarrely costumed fans. This is the opening of ConVent a novel which – alas – remains homeless. The setting is pretty obvious, and the tone suggests urban fantasy. Anyone who’s ever seen photos of a busy science fiction convention can see the scene. So, for that matter can a heck of a lot of people who haven’t been to one – because I’ve played on the stereotypes of science fiction fans with this opening.

What are some of your examples?


  1. >"They're acting weird, Six."That's the opening line for my Urban Fantasy short currently in the works. I find that I really like a single punchy line, usually spoken, to open a story. This line should tend to covey that something not normal is going on, and the use of a call sign should indicate something semi-militaristic. The follow on paragraph more completely sets the scene and then we're off on a romp through a classic UF.

  2. >"I rule the World!" Wolfgang Oldham whipped the interface helmet from his head and fell over onto his back. "I am all powerful! Fear me!" He gathered a glowing ball of fire between his hands. "I'm terrified, dear. Have you done your homework?" Wolfgang grinned up at his mother. She couldn't see the fire at all. Even the twins could just barely see it in the dark. "All done before I even made it home. I hope college is more challenging than high school." He put a hand down casually, off the rug, onto the limestone tiled floor and let the energy seep into the ground.

  3. >I love openings. They're a promise of an experience to come. Even if read them in a bookstore as a prelude to the actual experience, it's not an experience until I get to read more along with it.And openings are my favorite part to writing a story. I would be embarrassed to admit how many unfinished openings I have awaiting their stories.Some of my favorites of my unsold works are:1. The aliens had come and were long gone. We didn’t know how. We didn’t know why. We did know however we were totally screwed. From "Take One With Water" about the alien theft of Earth's water in one fell swoop.2. High Boy eyeballed his visitor through the bullet-proof glass. He couldn’t do much about it now, but he decided to kill Burke as soon as he got out. From "High Boy's Joy" about survival in prison by selling drugs made from prison issued food pills and his success in using those to kill a threat on the outside.3. The color yellow was in a state of revolt. Not everyone saw it, but Gio and I couldn’t ignore it. Dandelion. Lemon. Canary. Every shade in between and not included. They all hated us. People.From "An Unassuming Shade of Yellow" about making assumptions based on appearance. This is one of my more unusually structured openings, but I like it.Linda

  4. >"The idea lept out at me from the dark alley on my left. The surprise allowed it to sucker punch me in the gut. I recovered and tried to fight it off, but it managed to get a hold of me and was gradually throttling my ambition for other ideas. Why am I telling you this? Well, I need to start somewhere if I'm going to explain what I was doing at the top of the Empire State Building in my underwear."Yeah, story openings kind of breed on me. First there's one. Then two. Then they work like rabbits and there's suddenly sixty filling the cramped creative spaces in my mind.

  5. >Chris,Actually, when I saw the dialogue, my first response was "Star Trek fanfic?" (Courtesy Seven of Nine). And I don't READ Star Trek fanfic, or watch any of the assorted ST series. So you may be setting the wrong expectations there.The flaw with a line of dialogue to open a story is that it comes without context. Your sentence could attach to any number of genres, and mean any number of things – "acting weird" could even be something that the speaker perceives, rather than actual abnormality. Compare with something like:Chris had to remind himself this was a surveillance op. He'd seen zombies before, but he'd never seen them pull a dumpster apart even when he'd been on watch near Embalmings R Us.More words, but it covers military, the kind of critter, what the aberrant behavior is (why would emerge in the story, one hopes), and hints at graveyard humor. Just my opinion, of course – I'm not pretending to be any kind of guru here.

  6. >Matapam,I bow to your magnificence. There may have been one or two genres and settings you didn't drop into that opening, but it certainly wasn't for lack of trying.Now, where's the rest of the story 😉

  7. >Linda,A cool opening is always fun – and yeah, sometimes it's much harder to finish the story after you start out with a really kick-ass opening.

  8. >Chris,They always breed. And ambush you in dark alleyways and quiet moments.Now, about this unfortunate fondness for exhibitionism… You really must stop climbing buildings in your underwear. It scares the wildlife 🙂

  9. >The one work I've sold thus far (I'm a neophyte at this) begaun thusly:Loki really should have known better.Granted, “Loki” and “knowing better” aren’t words that are typically found in close proximity.The story I just submitted last week starts out like so:Mary Ellen ran sobbing into the garden, tripping over the pieces of the half-built spaceship and spooking the herd of unicorns in the process. “There’s another woman!” She collapsed in a heap, her long black hair spilling around her in disarray.Maggie sighed heavily and set aside her trowel. This looked to be a bad one. “Mary Ellen’” she said, striving for a reasonable tone as she approached the younger woman, “get ahold of yourself. You’ve battled werewolves and vampires, for goodness sake. You’re tougher than this. Besides, we’ve been through this before.”

  10. >Kate, The first sentence works a whole lot better with the following paragraph to help. I'd have added the paragraph, but I didn't have access to my laptop at the time.

  11. >Stephen,Both of these are definitely catching. I love the mix of unicorns and spaceships and having a woman be the thing that's out of place.

  12. >Kate,There 35K more words, and several tentative attempts to figure out how to make a book of it. It's one of about three I have to force my Muse to concentrate on, instead of this $%^&* mystery in the middle of my fantasy.

  13. >Okay, Kate. Here's what I have for an opening right now, and it turns out I kind of misremembered the opening line anyway:"Six, they're not acting normally." Five said.The earpiece I was wearing carried Angel's voice clearly, no static or other undesirable tones. We were in a cemetery. Angela — Four was her call sign and when we weren't using call signs we called her Angel — was providing overwatch as I and the rest of my Pride — capital "P", kind of like how the word "Home" feels in your head — moved toward the Nosferatu clustered at the heart of the graveyard.I know there are some rough spots with that opening. To many dashes, etc. But it starts to lay things out I think. It definitely will need a re-write when the story is done though.

  14. >Look, I’m as zoomy as the next grov. And I understand, too, that any grov wants, now and then to have something different, special.And hey, I know everything oldearth is now zoomy, right? Like there are grovs out there who give their thrusters for nails and stuff said to be forged of oldearth iron, right?So, it’s not like I didn’t understand why Var wanted the book. I mean, I did. Sort of. In a way. Well, I didn’t undertand what was so slammed zoomy about the book that he kept ooh and ahhing about it. It was this brittly stuff they said was paper and it had these flat images on it. Not like real books at all.

  15. >Chris,Yeah, with cleanup that will work a lot better. I'll wait until you show me the cleaned up version before subjecting you to the horrors of a full Kate-crit 😉

  16. >Sarah,I'm not sure what's more sad – that I can follow this, or that I can imagine quite a few places publishing it. You are a wicked, evil woman. This is why I like you.

  17. >Kate,I'm finishing the story and then cleaning it up before I subject it to a full Chris crit too. This story and the characters are fun to write, but when you have to somehow introduce a military structure, 7-plus characters, a super badie, jargon, and a freakin plot all in under 5000 words… There is no such thing as problems, only challenges, right? :-S Once the story is drafted it will get a rewrite and then a full scrubbing via the checklists in "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers". Then I shall send it out for people to hammer on. 🙂

  18. >Kate,That one turns out to be past characters talking to each other inside an author's head, surrounded by bits and pieces of his past works. The more recent character is bemoaning the fact that the author has created a new heroine instead of giving her a new book …

  19. >Of course, there's also this one, which I haven't finished yet:Crazy Abe wasn’t on his barstool.That frightened Darla. She’d grown immune to the images of the approaching asteroid emanating from the television hanging over her bar. Six weeks of living with the reality of Mankind’s imminent demise had left her numb, resigned to the knowledge that she now had less than thirty-six hours to live. But for some reason, the sight of Abe’s empty stool shook her to the core.

  20. >Kim turned her beat-up old car down the first lane and almost ran over Robin Hood.— Something like that anyway. It's on my laptop. The story is actually a space opera that doesn't get into space until the end of the first book. And Robin Hood is relevant.Scott

  21. >"Devastation had been visited upon his home. From orbit, the colossal crater beside the shattered remains of the fortress called the Spire was a sore on the face of the planet, weeping smoke and fire."The opening from my first book (or at least it will be my first once its done). I have given a lot of thought to the openings of chapters, changes of perspective, hell good ol' sentence structure and the layout of paragraphs have been through the wringer of my brain, as I stumble through every trap and teasing shortcut that tempts the newbie writer.Twas a nice post Chris 🙂

  22. >The slush reader runs in small circles clutching her head.Scott:. Leave out the car data, and see how the sentence then focuses on the important bit.Jonathan: Drop the first sentence, eviscerate the second.You are both reaching for a nice punchy first sentence. Make them short ones, focusing on the shocking part.I know we all talk about interweaving data in tiny bits, but you need to let your punch fly, then worry about working info into the rest of the manuscript.

  23. >Fair point matapam; ta for the feedback 🙂 You are right, that is exactly what I am aiming for. Now I'll just cry myself to sleep – my perfect, perfect words must be slashed to ribbons :pPS: "From orbit, the colossal crater was a sore on the face of the planet, weeping smoke and fire."I think you may be right… damn :p

  24. >The infuriating part is that I make the same sorts of errors myself. It's so easy to see in someone else's work is hard to see in my own. Same as typos.

  25. >Oy… Since I posted the opening for my UF short here I spent all of last night and this morning thinking about it. Restarting the story again, for the third time. I'm suddenly have this fanatsy wherein I print out the finally finished story, and stab it repeatedly with a knife.

  26. >Chris,Always save your story before each major change. Stick a backup CD where you can't get to it too easily.;)And I find that starting editing means I've stopped writing. I'd advise finishing the story _first_ then starting to edit. It's too easy to obsess about just the right opening, for a book that winds up never happening. My current work starts with about two chapters (one for each POV character) of data dumps. they serve as a reminder of what I need to work in early, so a reader grasps the universe. Both Chapters will be cut when I'm done. But if I start doing it now, I won't ever finish the story.

  27. >matapam,I was discussing this with Amanda. I was trying to write a short story that was really a portion of the novel I want to write in this universe. It was getting so bad that I couldn't write anymore. So I just thought about it and went back and looked at how I'd originally started the story. The resulting Epiphany had me starting the story anew with some of the stuff I'd written in my first pass (I am saving everything because even if it doesn't make it into the short story, it is all background for the novel). The result is that I have a much better story, I'm at 1500 words and climbing, and I'm not editing. I also realized that trying to involve all 7 major characters in the story when they didn't need to be was pointlessly stupid. It's a very different story now. 🙂

  28. >matapam, I know exactly what you mean. It took me the best part of three months (working around a lot of life stuff) to finish my first chapter, because I obsessed over every detail of it, to the point that I couldn't move on to the next paragraph/section without knowing that I had done everything I could in the previous part.But I have resolved to better myself, and I think your advice is definitely sound. Get words on paper, and then mess with them. Without the initial output of words, my story is never going to get anywhere. Ever. And that just won't do.PS – Thanks for the advice 🙂

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