Starting a Novel With Setting Description

Today’s post is a video response, and it’s all about starting a novel with setting!

What follows here is a transcription of the video. You can watch for the advice, or read it below. I have a question today from Melissa who wrote in to ask, how do you open a novel? Is it wrong to start a novel by describing setting? What if the setting reveals something about character?

Novel Beginnings Are Incredibly Important

Writing a novel and starting a novel are two of the biggest question categories that I get. And a lot of writers have heard, yeah, maybe it’s not so great to start with setting because it’s static. It’s not active. There is really nothing going on.

There’s a concept called the objective correlative, which is a literary concept where you use something inanimate like the weather or setting to communicate emotion. So a really typical example is, starting a novel with setting like a storm, and that’s a literary device for conveying that there is something going on. There’s a big storm raging in the story.

And so I think Melissa is asking this question because maybe she’s been turned away from starting with setting. Maybe she has been told that starting with setting is not a really great thing. And my response to that would be when you’re starting a novel, you really want to ground the reader. And there are two components to grounding the reader.

One is the reader wants to know where they are, and then the reader wants to know when they are. And this applies to starting a new chapter as well. So when you’re starting a chapter after there has been a break, you really want the reader to catch up with where they are after you spit them out after the break and when they are relative to where they came from. The same concept applies for the very, very beginning of a novel which is excellent real estate.

Grounding the Reader But Giving Them Context, Too

So sure, you really want to ground the reader at the opening, and setting is a wonderful way of doing that because that takes care of the “Where are we?” question, right? But the other concern that you really have to have when you’re beginning a novel is action. There are way too many novels that begin in a completely static way. It’s the character in their room, and the room might tell the reader a lot about the character, you know. We’ll see kind of what kind of posters are on the wall. We’ll see the paint color is very, very dark which is meant to evoke something about character.

So the writer thinks , “I’m really doing my job here. I’m starting with this evocative setting. This setting tells the reader a lot about the character. My work here is done,” right? Well, that’s static. Nothing is actually happening, so I would say that the sweet spot would be, to answer Melissa’s question, a strong sense of setting which is essential for the beginning of a novel or a beginning of a chapter, but you can’t rest on your laurels with a really strong setting. You have to do a little bit more. You need to introduce the character, so the character does need to be on the scene, at least for me. That’s what I would recommend. It gives you a much stronger foot up in the beginning of your novel.

starting a novel with setting, beginning a novel, starting a novel, setting description
Starting a novel with setting or weather or a big event is just one piece of the puzzle.

Adding Character and Plot to Setting

The point is, setting can’t be the end-all and be-all. Character, you need to put the character in the setting, and the character should be interacting with the setting somehow, or something needs to be happening which brings me to the third component which would be action, which would be a sense of plot. Now, you don’t have to kick right into your main plot at the beginning of a novel.

I think doing so is problematic because if you start…you come out swinging with a giant plot, readers are not gonna be invested enough emotionally in what’s going on. So they’re gonna have a hard time caring about it right at the onset. So if you come to us with a huge, huge plot right away, you’re gonna be overcoming some obstacles because the reader will be like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on? Who is this person? I don’t care about them yet, so I’m not really getting invested.”

So you need to have something, and Donald Maass who wrote the wonderful book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, calls it bridging action which is it is action, something is actually happening. It’s not just static at the beginning of your novel, but it can be a smaller conflict. So it’s something to get the reader a little invested, give them the come hither finger, but it doesn’t have to be, you know, high stakes, huge action right away because that could be a little alienating.

The Formula for Starting a Novel

So to recap the beginning formula for starting your novel, setting? Yes, Melissa, setting is very important, and you should be beginning with a strong sense of setting absolutely. But we also need character. We need a strong sense of who the character is. Ideally, they’re interacting with your setting. They’re existing in it but in an active way which brings me to three. Something needs to happen right away.

And when I hear writers asking about setting and why can’t I start with setting? It’s usually because they’ve created a setting, they’ve put the character in the setting, and they really wanna get away with the character sitting there and existing without anything happening on top of that. And that’s what I think a large pitfall could be with this question. If you have a setting, if you have the character and you’re hoping that that is enough magic for the start of a novel, what you really need to do is actually add plot.

Examples of Taking Setting to the Next Level

If we were to take the example that we started this video with a character sitting in their room, we have setting. We have character. We’re hoping that they are evocative and letting the reader into the character’s world. But something needs to start happening. For example, somebody comes home. Mom comes home and slams the door so hard that the whole house rattles, you know, so something literally happens to the setting. Something literally happens where the character’s emotions get involved because “Oh, no! What’s happening now?”

Or something, something…maybe the character is rearranging their room, for example. So they’re in their setting. We have the character, but there’s a lot of action. Maybe it’s like, you know, all of the pictures that the character has of them and their best friend, they’re ripping them down off the walls. And you know, throwing a picture frame and the glass breaks, you know, these examples are off the top of my head, so some of them might feel a little familiar. There could be some clichés, but they’re meant to illustrate a point.

So you don’t just have setting and character, you have plot as well. So something is happening between setting and character. So I would say that Melissa’s onto something, but the advice to not start in setting, there is a strong basis for that advice. So as long as you’re hitting these three points with the beginning of your novel, you can absolutely start in setting. It just has to be a little more dynamic than just straight-up setting description. I hope that helps, and thank you for asking.

Get actionable, personalized, one-on-one novel advice if you hire me as your developmental editor. We can work on your query, your novel beginning, or the entire manuscript.

Starting a Novel With Aftermath

Starting a novel with aftermath (the reaction to a big event) is hugely temping. After all, writers are inundated with the advice to “show, don’t tell,” start with action, raise the stakes, etc. etc. etc. It puts a lot of pressure on starting a novel!

starting a novel with aftermath, starting a novel, starting a chapter, writing a novel, beginning a novel, prologue, tension, stakes
Whoa whoa whoa, what happened here? Let’s take a step back…

Starting a Novel With Aftermath Is Jarring

The other day, I was working on a an editorial project, and found myself not quite invested in the opening. I should’ve been. The novel beginning was a high-stakes trial. But there’s often a problem with stakes that are too high: it’s harder for the reader to get emotionally attached. When we’re screaming about the end of the world from page one, the reader is trying to muster up an insurmountable level of caring.

So when this client project opens with a trial, the real issue is that the conflict is already behind us. There’s no time to fill in context, let the reader discover who the character is, or foster emotional connection.

The interesting deed is done, the problem has happened, and now we’re knee-deep in aftermath.

How to Begin a Novel

Instead of taking this dramatic approach (or writing a prologue that’s high stakes right from the get-go), think about the balance of action and information. You want to present the reader with a compelling character who has a manageable problem. Donald Maass calls this “bridging conflict.” The problem is manageable enough that we’re not completely overwhelmed with high stakes. Nonetheless, the problem matters to the character. As a result, we start learning about the character and what their objectives, motivations, priorities, etc. are.

We see them in the middle of this problem, trying to work through it. This is much more compelling than seeing them after the problem has already happened. We see them getting invested or emotional or upset. Our attachment to them grows. Then the initial problem is either solved, or it grows into the larger problem that’s going to carry the entire plot.

By this point, the reader should have an emotional foothold not only in the problem, but in the character, and as a result, the story.

Start Your Novel With Action…But Not Too Much

Without introducing a smaller problem and the character first, you’re going to have a hard time selling the reader on the major plot points you’ve cooked up. So it’s important to start your novel with action, but maybe not too much action.

And as you layer in that action, make sure to layer in context about character. When we start with a trial, for example, I am much more interested in what happened, who did what, and most importantly, why the crime occurred. The dry legal procedural stuff? It’s near the bottom of my list. My curious reader mind wants all sorts of other fodder.

Go where you think your reader wants to be. Court rooms are inherently full of tension, sure, but when you start in one, you’re trying to harness tension you didn’t earn with plot and character first.

Are you nailing your novel beginning? Wondering how to start a novel? Let me be an expert pair of eyes on your first pages. I’ve read tens of thousands of novel openings, and bring that experience to my editing services.

Great First Line Workshop

This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

And It Was All A Dream…

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So many dreams about starting a novel, so many potential pitfalls…

I walk down the darkened alley underneath the old Smith and 9th Street subway station, on my way home from a publishing mingle in Midtown. The humidity is thick and there’s nobody else out on the street. They’re all huddled ’round their AC, exactly where I should be at the moment. But then I hear footsteps approaching behind me. I glance over my shoulder and see a man with a black velvet cloak hanging from his tall frame. He walks faster, his footsteps echoing. With a jerk of the hand, he draws something from the folds of his garment. It flashes in the streetlight. A dagger! I gasp and will myself to scream. A shriek pierces the night…

and it’s my alarm clock. I jerk awake, cozy in my bed, and listen to the reassuring hum of my air conditioner.

HA HA HA! I fooled you all! This is the best novel beginning ever. Right?

Starting A Novel With “It Was All A Dream”

Wrong. If I read one more “it was all a dream” or “I’m actually in a video game” fake-out beginning, I am going to make like dagger man and stab someone. This is a huge cliché. And perhaps a cliché squared because it’s piled on top of the cliché of having a character waking up at the beginning of your story.

I don’t care if you are writing a book about dream worlds. I don’t care if your character is the Sandman. I don’t care if she absolutely positively has to experience the first morning of school, from alarm clock to breakfast to shower to bus. I don’t care if “That book by that really famous author that was published last week does this so why can’t I?” I simply don’t care.

Stay Away From Cliché

Everyone else has ruined this cliché for you. It’s cheap and it’s fake. It disrespects the reader and sets them up not to trust you from page one. It’s a flimsy Band Aid that’s doing nothing to address the problem of otherwise low tension in the beginning you’ve chosen (which may not be the right beginning). And I am on a personal vendetta against it. Why jerk your audience around with tricks when you can tell a story? Aim higher. Aim fresher.

Looking for help with starting a novel? Hire me as your fiction editor, and I’ll help you dodge cliché writing and nail your beginning.

Weighing in on Prologues

It’s so nice to realize that, after all these years together, I still have new and surprising things to blog about! The issue of prologues isn’t new, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve always avoided weighing in on it. Why? Because people love their prologues and, as you can probably guess, I usually don’t, and so I really don’t want to open a can of worms like I did when discussing sex and swearing in YA

As much as I love conflict in my fiction, I don’t much enjoy it on the blog. But people keep asking me about prologues so, therefore, here we go. Here’s the basic gist of the question. This one came in through my MG and YA webinar that I did for Writer’s Digest last Thursday, but this is pretty much the idea behind every prologue question I get, so the wording isn’t especially important:

What are your thoughts on prefaces/prologues? Do they ever work for you? Many people have told me that everyone HATES prefaces/prologues so I cut it. However, my beta readers LOVED the preface. It made them want to keep reading to see what really happens in that moment. What to do? Do prefaces/prologues ever work? Will you pass on a MS because they include a preface/prologue?

Yep, this is the point of a prologue. It usually teases the reader with a high-tension moment from later in the book and it starts the manuscript off with a bang — because, as a writer, you know to do that. Tensions are high. Things are really exciting. This is great!

Then the real first chapter starts. And the ol’ Prologue Deflation kicks in because the writer is usually dragging the reader into an ordinary beginning which is, let’s face it, kinda boring. Sure, there’s always that tension that you’ll go back to the exciting prologue stuff later. And that’s what the writer is counting on. But most of the time, this kind of prologue tension feels like a lazy cheat to me, to tell you the truth. A lot of writers lean on prologues because they don’t know how to otherwise make their beginnings exciting.

A prologue isn’t an automatic rejection for me but they almost always leave me underwhelmed because the beginning after the prologue is usually a failure of imagination. Most likely the writer didn’t know how to really start, so they throw a fake-out on the fire and hope that it’s enough to carry you through to the good stuff that’s buried later. It’s the equivalent of a writer saying, “Well, I really want to send you the first 50 pages because it doesn’t really get going until Chapter Four.” Why hide the goods? Why resort to tricks and manipulation? Why toy with the reader and cover up your own plot insecurities? I’d rather have a well-crafted, gimmick-free, honest-to-goodness beginning to a novel almost every time.

Sure, prologues start with tension and they’re popular, but they set my expectations low in terms of the writer’s overall craft level, to be perfectly honest. There are definitely exceptions to the rule and some prologues work. Regardless, lots are published. But just know that we’ve seen the prologue bait and switch too many times to really have high hopes in most cases.

Beginning Workshop #5

This submission comes from Mike Hays and is the final beginning workshop for this round. This workshop will be a bit more nitpicky, and so I will make bolded comments within the paragraphs as well. Enjoy!

Ellis opened the front door to the Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community. He could kick himself for not seeing this before. The “it” here is vague, especially for an opening. Doesn’t ground the reader. So, this is how Alicia Swanson beat him again and again in sales contests. Still unclear…does he see her or what? What does he see? It was a good thing he called her house to ask about that algebra assignment. Her mom told him she was out selling tickets in the northwest part of town. Sentence ends with “of town.” After searching the few existing housing additions in that part of town, Town the only place left was an old retirement community which sat isolated near a cornfield on the edge of town. “of town.” The sheer size of the Wonderland Gardens complex led one to believe there were many residents. This is a prime example of dry voice. “Sheer size,” “complex,” “led one” and “residents” aren’t words that a 13-14 year-old kid would use. This reads more like a business memo. Many elderly residents who could fall prey to her It’s been a while since we mentioned Alicia, reintroduce her name. syrupy sweetness sales pitch and buy her tickets to the upcoming Plainfield Youth Summer Theater’s production of Alice in Wonderland, The Musical.

I’m missing some of the motivation. Are both Ellis and Alicia in the production? How are they connected? What do they get if they sell the most tickets? Etc. Build up the stakes. Dry voice here makes for a dense first paragraph.

Of course she would win most ticket sales, Italicize verbatim thoughts… Ellis thought as he stepped across the threshold. She always won, especially against him. Every lead in every show, every spelling bee, math contest, art contest, science fair, etc., etc., etc. (or at least that is how it felt). Even after leading the 8th grade football team to the city championship as quarterback last fall, he was still mercilessly harassed for getting beat out by Alicia for the 7th grade QB position the year before.

There is a lot of telling as he talks about his feelings here. Also, a co-ed football team? My school didn’t have a football program, so maybe I’m missing something. The last sentence is overlong. Try reading it aloud.

He dreamed of being able to seek revenge for the thousand ills of Alicia he had endured “The thousand ills of Alicia he had endured” is clunky…a convoluted way of saying something simple, and this is not the voice of a 13 y.o. boy, even one who is steeped in Poe. like in his favorite Edgar Allen Poe story, THE CASK OF THE AMOTILLADO. The title of the short story, which should be in quotes instead of caps, is “The Cask of Amontillado,” with a missing “n” in there and without the second “the.” Maybe not sealing her in an underground vault to die, but…

“Oh, Mr. McGregor!” An ancient, but bubbly voice came from the shadows inside the lobby. “Another visitor!”

Actually introduce the speaking character, especially for their first dialogue. It’s always a stronger image when characters speak, not their disembodied voices. We do get some of Ellis’ character her, maybe even a spark of a sense of humor, which is good.

The door closed behind Ellis. He took a few measured steps toward the voice as his eyes adjusted from the bright sunshine to the shadowy darkness of the lobby. This is play-by-play narration, we don’t need all of these details, and they’re crammed into a sentence that could otherwise be cleaner. The smell of old flooded Flooded his senses. The flood Flood of memories from his experiences visiting his grandfather reminded him of how he disliked these places, places where they send great old people to get older and wither away, like his grandpa did.

Try to rephrase this last sentence without having to say both “grandfather” and “grandpa.” The implication that his grandpa went to an old age home is clear…if an old age home reminds him of his grandpa, that’s the obvious inference. There’s some over-explaining going on here.

A shiver ran up his spine Physical cliché as he walked into the lobby. He saw the origin of the voice Convoluted way of saying something simple, “origin” is also dry voice, a frail elderly woman. She sat behind an oak table in a red velvet arm chair and next to her, in a matching chair, was an equally old tall man. On the table sat an old fashioned black rotary dial telephone and a gold sign that read, “Welcome to The Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community, Angus and Matilda McGregor, Hosts”

A vivid bit of description here, but the syntax could be smoothed out for all the writing so far. Read the work aloud. I don’t have a finger on Ellis’ voice, and don’t really know much about him as a character, nor why he cares about this ticket sales contest (other than to beat Alice). I’m finding that I’m not connecting as much as I need to be in order to hook into a beginning.

“Young, sir.” Comma before a “said” tag…a period goes after dialogue only if you’re moving on to an action tag. said the old man. They stood up and walked around the table to meet Ellis. They wore matching khaki slacks and red flannel shirts.

Ellis is a bit of an impartial observer. All of this is told in a very measured way. There’s no reaction, no Ellis spin on any of what he’s describing. He’s acting like a camera, just recording the scene. That is one of the reasons why we aren’t bonding with him as a character…there’s no personalized spin on what he’s telling us about. Reactions? Thoughts? Etc.

“Welcome to Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community,” This one would be a period, then. Why do we need dialogue welcoming him if there was already a sign? Redundant. The man swung his long arm in a arc Before vowel-beginning words, h-beginning words, and acronyms, you use “an” instead of “a” motion “Motion” here is redundant… “swung his arm in an arc” implies “motion.” As Strunk and White say: “Omit needless words.”, his fingers at the furthest point in connected space from his lanky body. Don’t know if you need to describe the layout in this much detail, we all know that fingers are at the end of an arm…The entire lobby seemed to fall under the sweep of his arm.

Lots of play-by-play narration still going on, not a lot of emotional involvement. Some dry voice and basic writing issues here. I’d urge the writer here to work on grammar and syntax and giving us more of Ellis as a character. Then he can tackle voice.