Making the Stage: Setting and Tone

4 The following is an excerpt from my critical paper I submitted to Antioch University of Los Angeles as part of the requirements for attaining my MFA in Fiction Writing. It focuses on the fourthof seven different techniques for creating compelling first lines.

The advice we often hear is that we should begin with setting. But, as we’ve seen, if not done well, it can be counter productive. Perhaps that’s why fewer of the top 100 lines spend time establishing setting (24 of 100). But setting is unarguably key in fiction. Pick up any craft book and you’ll likely find a chapter or more on the importance of this subject. One could argue that if setting doesn’t play a significant role in a narrative, then it has not been written properly. A story becomes a story, in large part, not because of what happens, but because of where it happens. Of equal importance, we should be abundantly clear that setting does not simply refer to the location of the characters and action, but to the time, and the circumstances as well. And when done properly, it will establish a strong mood for the story.

The amateur writer might be tempted to begin with a setting because s/he is stumped, and is clueless as to how else to begin a story. They’ll write, in sublime Snoopy fashion, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and, because they are beginning with a cliché, will wrest the page from the typewriter, ball it up, and toss it in the overflowing wastebasket beside their oak desk, only to realize that the entire scene is a played-out platitude. It should be noted, then, that, unless the setting of the story is of vital importance (as it should be), this may not be the best beginning point. Consider the portable story—that is the story whose actions and events can occur in any setting—that begins with a sentence like this one: “The sun hung high in the clear, blue sky, which made for a very hot day.” This line fails on many levels, but most notably, because it does not create a specific setting. It may describe what a character sees, or set a scene, but does not establish a vital setting. Are we in Chicago? New York? LA? Readers need to know.

But then, Stephen Crane begins “The Open Boatwith, “None of them knew the color of the sky” (113). The line is very similar, doubtless, but there are some subtle differences. Most importantly, it’s important to know that “The Open Boatis not a novel, but a short story. Additionally, the line seems to follow the model of the unexpected. Who doesn’t know the color of the sky? The former example does not tell us anything we don’t know, it doesn’t surprise or engage. This should not imply that first lines shouldn’t focus on setting—rather it is ideal if we can focus on a unique aspect of the setting, something specific or unexpected.

When beginning with setting, it is best to remember to include something unique to a location or time period. For example, something along the lines of, “Because the horses were tired, Jacob unhitched them from the wagon and led them to the shore of the Rio Grande for a drink,” establishes a clear location and time setting. Immediately, we understand that the story will occur, likely, before the advent of automobiles. Likely, because of the location of the Rio Grande, Jacob may be on a western journey. Perhaps he’s a prospector in search of gold. Because the reader can make assumptions, they are encouraged to continue reading to test their theories.

The tone, it would seem, is distant and removed. We are left with a feeling of fatigue, if not on the part of Jacob, at least on the part of the horses. And if the horses are weary, how much more so would Jacob be?

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton did such a masterful job of establishing a strong setting and tone in Paul Clifford that his opening line has been mimicked ad nauseam. Unlike those who have copied him, however, Bulwer-Lytton continued the setting in a way that was memorable and successful. “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness” (100BestLines.asp 22). The continual imagery of the wind up the streets, the mini-conflict of the fight of the flame lamps against the darkness, creates more than a simple setting—it creates atmosphere, a mood to the novel that pulls us in as much for the detail of the scene as for the ominous sense that something horrible is lurking just beyond the period.

Atmosphere can be accomplished in a less cumbersome sentence. If a writer can boil a description down to a single image, one that sinks like David’s stone, inches deep in the forehead of the reader, a mood can be clear and concise. William Gibson captured this when he wrote the opening to Neuromancer; “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (100BestLines.asp 30).

This is especially important in science fiction or fantasy stories that take place in alternate worlds, planets, and lands. Their differences should be clear, but still compelling. In Ray Bradbury’s critically acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451, he opens with a line about a fireman that is intriguing and unexpected, and sets a perhaps futuristic, perhaps alternate reality, with the simple sentence, “It was a pleasure to burn” (100BestLines.asp 53). Likewise, George Orwell in 1984 began, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (100BestLines.asp 8). Though there’s nothing terribly interesting or memorable about a bright cold day in April, there are clocks striking thirteen, which immediately alert the reader that something is off kilter, something is not right.

Many beginning writers do this poorly. Readers are seldom willing to leave their reality for the promise of a poorly rendered setting. And if we’re not willing to leave our reality, we won’t buy into the writer’s fictive dream, and won’t read much more of the story.

Literary agent Chip MacGregor speculates that, “85% of the novel proposals [he] receive[s] start with description [of setting], and the majority of those are flowery descriptions (unless it’s a crime novel, in which case the guy wakes up in a room with a hangover before looking at himself in the mirror). Consider moving away from description—what about starting something with dialogue or action?” (MacGregor 1).

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