Beginning Your Story with Setting

Guest Post by Ronda Hinrichsen

Ronda

Award-winning author, Ronda Hinrichsen, and her family own a small farm located between the beautiful Rocky Mountains and the Great Salt Lake where she regularly sees eagles, hawks, owls, and ducks. Lots of ducks. She is the author of independently and traditionally published romantic suspense and speculative books as well as numerous magazine articles and stories for children and adults. She enjoys teaching about writing in conference and classroom settings, and readers can find more tips about writing on her blog, thewriteblocks.blogspot.com.

Website: rondahinrichsen.com


If an author cares whether or not his manuscript is read and/or bought, he must instantly catch the reader’s attention. For that reason, until the last year or two, I wrote with the belief that all stories must begin with a scene which shows what happens to the main character on the day everything changes, i.e., the inciting incident. By contrast, I also believed beginning a story with long, detailed descriptions of the setting killed the story, for people, especially me, either immediately closed the book or fell asleep reading about sunsets and mountain peaks.

If you’ve had those same beliefs, listen up. Yes, action – as I earlier described – is an important element of a good beginning, but I now realize setting is too. Only, and here’s the critical part, that setting needs to be included within the action.

Why? Because a well-drawn up setting helps transport readers to your character’s world. Don’t believe me? Consider the following first paragraphs from two of my favorite best-selling novels: In each case, the characters are in the middle of a physical action on the day everything changes.

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Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Miri woke to the insistent bleat of a goat. She squeaked open one eye. Pale yellow sky slipped through the cracks in the shutters. It was day—the very day trade wagons might come to carry her off. She’d been expecting them all week with both a skipping heart and a falling stomach. Strange, lately, how many things made her feel two opposite ways twisted together.

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

In each paragraph, the author slips the setting into the action in such a way that we hardly notice it, and yet we get a clear picture of what is happening in the story at that moment. We are also immediately drawn into the character’s world. The main tool the authors use to accomplish this are specific details. Details, details, details. We hear that phrase all the time, and yet it truly is the key to fleshed-out writing. And those details are not limited to the physical. Both of the above examples also incorporate a detail from at least one other of the five senses. Also, and perhaps most importantly, those details hint at the POV character’s current emotion.

With that understanding, now look at those same two paragraphs. Only this time, I’ve italicized the specific setting details.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Miri woke to the insistent bleat of a goat. She squeaked open one eye. Pale yellow sky slipped through the cracks in the shutters. It was day—the very day trade wagons might come to carry her off. She’d been expecting them all week with both a skipping heart and a falling stomach. Strange, lately, how many things made her feel two opposite ways twisted together.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

In the example from The Hunger Games, I italicized “our mother” and “day of the reaping” because, to me, they add to the setting; but  you may not agree with me. However, whether you agree with me or not does not matter nearly as much as whether or not you understand that Beginnings do begin with Setting. And character. And action. And emotion. With all of them working together to pull readers into the authors’ worlds.

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.

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