How to begin a novel – part 2 – setting the scene

In the first part of this series we looked at why a book’s opening is so important to sales. Now we’re going to continue by looking at the different types of openings and how they should be handled.

Opening a novel with a description of a location is one of the most popular options. In fact it even has its own expression – setting the scene.

Long before books were available to the masses, stories were conveyed verbally by actors. However, before they appeared, the ‘stage would be set’ with painted backdrops and a variety of inanimate objects. For convenience, this stage would be prepared in advance of the play’s beginning (as far as was possible) because this would probably be done by the actors themselves before they went into character.

But there was much more to the psychology of scene setting than just plain convenience. The backdrops gave the audience an opportunity to absorb the location (quite possibly way outside of their normal experiences) and to suspend disbelief.

And that’s what you should be doing if you are proposing to begin your novel with the description of a location.

Now back to my earlier blog comment about the need for an ‘explosion’. Clearly with such a narrative there is little scope for anything particularly exciting to happen (I’m leaving aside battle scenes and such because they’ll be covered in a different part of this series), but that doesn’t mean it can be glossed over.

Here’s an example of opening scene-setting from Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native:

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.”

A more modern scenic description which I feel is particularly successful in its aim can be found in Wilbur Smith’s A Falcon Flies:

“Antoinette 1860

Africa crouched low on the horizon, like a lion in ambush, tawny and gold in the early sunlight, scared by the cold of the Benguela Current.”

Both these beginnings make you want to read more – the whole idea of the opening paragraphs – because it’s precious little good being erudite if no-one’s buying your books.

Returning to Hardy’s description – look at his second paragraph. It is full of dark forebodings and turns the heath into a menacing character which would have sent shivers down the spines of readers.

If you’re going to start with a description of a place, it needs to be inspired, fascinating and concise. Just as a watercolour artist will pick out the key details in a picture, you must focus on the principal aspects of your backdrop and combine their description with a carefully balanced and captivating application of language. Look again at the use of similes in the two examples – Hardy’s ‘tent’ and Smith’s ‘lion’.

Keeping it to the point is key, though, and Smith’s shorter description with its unexpected verbs (crouched, scared) is a much better solution for a modern readership which might be less inclined to plough through a Hardy-like description. Think how you would describe your scene and then seek to strip it down to its bare essentials. Having done that, decide how you can vitalise these with a few well-placed interesting adjectives and verbs.

Be careful not to over-egg the pudding, though. Just as a cluttered set would have prevented the actors from putting on their show, an overlong or over-fussy scenic opening can come across as self-indulgent and, well, just plain boring. The explosion comes from being lean and mean and making the reader wonder what’s going to happen.

Continued >>