You need to find balance. Too much detail and your reader gets bored. Too little, and they have no idea what’s going on. I am, of course, talking about setting. Introducing it can sometimes seem impossible, but I have a handy trick for you. You just need to think from the reader’s perspective.
Where am I?
It’s one of the first things your reader will ask. The only picture she’ll get of your story is the one you describe. And the way you describe it will make a big difference. At this early stage, it needs to be relevant. Describing the entire town and its inhabitants as they go about their business is rarely relevant to the very beginning of your story (though it might be later). Your main character’s immediate location (their bedroom, their prison cell, in a fishing boat) probably is.
- zoom in on your character (nine times out of ten, it’s him that we care about)
- little details give lots of info (a barred door says ‘prison’ without you having to)
- use all of the senses to engage your reader (or more than just sight, anyway)
When is this happening?
Your reader needs to know if this is a story set in the present day, a historical on the streets of Victorian London or set in the distant future. The good news is, you don’t have to come right out and say it. A hint is all you need — and later on, you can fill her in on all the relevant history.
- sneak in an easy time identifier (an iphone says modern day, a sword says medieval, a hologram says future)
- avoid summarising current events or relevant history (that’ll come later, if you need it)
What kind of story is this?
Your setting is the background music for your story. It sets the tone, creates an atmosphere. If you start your story somewhere dark and threatening, then your reader will think this is a dark and threatening sort of story. If you start it somewhere hectic and energetic, your reader will think this is an energetic story. If you start it somewhere boring and everyday — well, you get the picture.
- use little details to hint at something more (it looks like a normal school library, but there is a corner at the back that is always in shadow)
- don’t go with traditional tone setters (maybe other people like it to be stormy for a scary story, but you can go with dry desert heat or turbulent wind)
What does this tell me about the character?
Setting can be much more than just a backdrop. It can be a reflection of your character, or a contrast to them. It can raise questions that will keep your reader reading. A bedroom full of computer parts, a blood-stained wall and a knife in your character’s hand, if your character is just standing and basking in the rain — setting can be a powerful tool when combined with character, especially in those crucial moments at the start of your story.
- have a setting that either complements or contrasts your character
- have a setting that raises questions (why is there a badger skull on the doorstep, what is a girl in a dress that expensive doing in this part of town)
- make it a hook (raising questions can do this)
If it seems if there’s a lot to think about just to introduce setting right in the very beginning, don’t panic. You don’t necessarily need to fit all of this in. The take-away lesson is: your reader needs to know where your character is, so you might as well use it for other things, too.
And since introducing setting relies on key details rather than heavy description, you’ll find you can do quite a lot with just a few words.
What are your tips for introducing setting? Tell us in the comments!