Just in time for our Scenes Course, here’s a short discussion of setting up your setting (time/place) in the first paragraph of your story!

Setting Up The Setting: ONE SENTENCE c. by 2021 by Alicia Rasley

One of the purposes of the opening few paragraphs is to establish the setting. If the reader is going to embark on this fictive journey, he needs to know where we are, and when we are, right? We can establish the larger setting with a tagline after the chapter heading:
Topeka, August, Sunset
June 1815, Waterloo

… if we want to– that quickly establishes the overall limits of this world. But for the opening SCENE, how do we efficiently and evocatively establish where and when we are?

How about some sample lines that might appear in your own story’s first couple paragraphs and tell the reader where this first scene is taking place, where and when the characters are?

The late afternoon light filtered in through the dirty store window. 
New snow was piled another inch deep on the windowsill outside.
(Windows are useful because they show both inside and outside.)
  Across the ballroom was a set of French doors, an escape out to the torchlit gardens.

To connect this to the character and event, maybe make the POV character do the perceiving, and react to it in some way:
Jamie squinted at the statue in the middle of the square, distinguishing through the glare of the noon sun the outline of a general on a horse. Gotta love England and its fixation on long-ago wars.
New snow piled up three inches deep on the windowsill outside, and Sarah pulled her shawl tighter.
      Miss Carter stood in the doorway, surveyed her new kingdom, and started coughing. The early morning classroom smelled like chalk, pencil shavings, and teenaged hormones. 
  Across the ballroom was a set of French doors, Harry’s escape out to the torchlit gardens.
This doesn’t have to be done in all one sentence, of course, but I like to get clear early a few of these:

  • Where we are
  • Are we inside or outside
  • What time of day it is
  • Is it dark or light
  • What time of year it is or at least whether it’s cold or hot
  • The POV character
  • That character’s relation to the setting (Harry wanting to escape the ballroom)
  • Are there other people around
  • What it feels like there (stuffy or cold or crowded)
  • What’s going on (a dance, a substitute teacher arriving, a chess game)
  • What the sound is like– noisy, quiet

I find the last element harder to get in (sound), I guess because the opening is so often primarily visual. Hmm. Maybe sound is a good “entree”– after all, often we hear before we see. Smell is very intrusive. So is sound:

Margaret closed her eyes to ward off the glare of the sun. She wished she could close her ears to keep out the sound of the chain saw butchering her old beloved oak tree.

Anyway, look at the first paragraphs of your own story, and maybe you can sneak in something, a line or two, that can establish “where and when” without getting out of the story?
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If you’re interested in the Building Bolder Scenes course, let me know! You can sign up here to get an announcement when it’s next ready for enrollment.

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