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.
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.
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