Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Setting the Scene

I've heard it said that it's always a good idea to start a new story or segment with a one- or two-line intro to who is where. As a thriller writer, I have to disagree.

Consider these two approaches to the same passage:

Approach 1:
By the time they caught up with him, he had forgotten to keep running. Lawrence Naden was incoherent and scarcely recognizable—the sloughed, discarded skin of a human being. 
It had been a rainy week in Tijuana. A small river of brown water carried trash along the gutters of the squalid street. Piles of refuse collected in rough areas, generating dams that would eventually break with the weight of the water and garbage behind them.
A burst of static preceded the heavily accented warning from the megaphone. “You’ve got nowhere to go, Naden!” 
Approach 2:
It had been a rainy week in Tijuana. A small river of brown water carried trash along the gutters of the squalid street. 
Except for a handful of onlookers, most of them ragged children, the street was abandoned. The regular residents had fled at the first rumor of approaching law enforcement. This time, however, drugs were only a secondary concern; the federales were looking for a single individual. 
A burst of static preceded the heavily accented warning from the megaphone. “You’ve got nowhere to go, Naden!”
The first starts with action and a character. The second begins by setting the scene. Which is better? I favor the first, but then again, I wrote it. So I already know where the scene is set. As a reader, do you find the first approach jarring? Is it easier to follow the second? Which approach does a better job of pulling you in?

Authors: how do you tackle setting the scene? Do you tend to start with action, or with a short description? Readers: which do you prefer to read?

5 comments:

  1. I have to say, I would never do (A). It seems amateur to me. I want to hook the reader immediately with action, drop him right into the cauldron. He'll figure out the who and the where very quickly.

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  2. Kris,

    This is a great topic. Setting the scene is so important, both to me as the author and to the reader. As the author I tend to drift unless I know exactly where I am and where I am going in the scene. I use a strict limited 3rd person POV with short chapters of approximately 1500 words.

    I use a time/date/location tag at the beginning of each chapter to orient the reader to the scene and then within the scene I will write it from the perspective of the character that is the center of the action. When I introduce a new character, there may be some backstory to bring the reader up to speed but mainly I am pressing forward with story and action. This also allows me to jump ahead to the next action sequence easily. I don't have to spend a couple of sentences describing the non action.

    But when I start a new chapter, sometimes I will go with example #1 and sometimes #2 depending on what fits the scene best. It is nice to have freedom.

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  3. It depends. If the featured character is someone we've met and (presumably) care about, then you've got the leeway to drop them onto a blank stage and hope the readers will follow along.

    If the featured character is a stranger, then we have neither a personal interest nor a setting to hold onto.

    I tend to approach this with the movie playing in my head. If it feels right to start the scene with an establishing shot, that's what I do.

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  4. I like setting the scene - so we see where the character is going. Good post.

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  5. To a certain extent, I think it depends on the type of book you are writing. I was more drawn to the first example you shared, but I would enjoy a book with the second opening as well. They just seem to promise very different things.

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