On January 14, 2010, Gail Zuniga posted this comment: I’m wondering when you are writing a novel do you have to describe where it takes place in the first chapter or can you drop little hints here and there and later on go into detail of what the town or city looks like?
In general I like the hints approach. I worry that loading down a first chapter with description will prevent a reader from getting engaged in the story. But there are many exceptions. You may want to start with description to create atmosphere or to set a mood. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt starts this way. The entire book turns on a first descriptive chapter, and I love it. The first chapter of Hawaii by James Michener (not for children) is devoted to the geological development of the island. Many readers adore this chapter, but I never managed to drag myself all the way through it, although I enjoyed the rest of the book when I read it decades ago.
A setting may be intrinsically fascinating, and knowing it may be critical to reader understanding. For example, suppose your story starts in a tunnel that’s inhabited by giant spiders whose webs are works of art and a bunch of eco-tourists is entering the tunnel, then you may want to go into some depth (no pun intended) about the tunnel and the webs, and I’d guess the reader will be happy. I certainly wouldn’t toss a book for going on about spider art.
Of course the kind of story you’re writing has some bearing on how much setting you include. If you’re working on a thriller or an adventure story, and you want action-action-action, you may need to keep setting to a minimum. The reader gets only the details he needs. If there’s a bicycle chase, the reader will probably need information about the bikes. The villain on a lightweight racing bike will have an advantage over the hero on a mountain bike, unless a mountain is involved. And you’ll probably want the reader to see the bikes – possibly shiny red for the racing bike and rusty green for the mountain bike. The reader will need to know if the chase is in a city or on a rural dirt road, and maybe or maybe not that it starts in front of the courthouse. Almost certainly the reader will not have to know that there aren’t many free parking spots along the street – unless that’s important.
Everything depends on everything else. In a thriller or an adventure story, the author may decide to skimp on other elements in addition to setting. Thoughts, depth of characterization, dialogue, relationships among characters, all may be streamlined for the sake of a fast pace. I’m not making a judgment. I like a story that gallops. And other kinds of stories, too.
Sometimes setting is a tool for character development. When the reader sees Kevin’s bedroom, for instance, she learns something about Kevin or his parents. The route Kevin takes to school, if he has a choice, will be revealing. Maybe he likes to pass a particular house because his old math teacher used to live there. The author may want to linger at the front gate and show what Kevin cares about.
Setting can be an instrument of plot. In my novel, Dave at Night, Dave is sent to an orphanage so forbidding that he is desperate to get away.
This is the beginning of Fairies and the Quest for Never land, which will be out in June:
“Gwendolyn Jane Mary Darling Carlisle,” Grandma whispered, putting down her teacup with trembling fingers, “you are Wendy Darling returned to life.”
For her seventh birthday, Gwendolyn had come to breakfast wearing a white dress trimmed with eyelet lace.
“Fetch the scrapbook from my dressing table, dear,” Grandma said. “I want to see.”
I never tell the reader whether breakfast is eaten in the dining room or the kitchen or what the room looks like or even what Gwendolyn or her grandmother eat. I do happen to mention orange juice in passing, but that’s it. However, later, I tell the reader about Gwendolyn’s street of row houses because the information is momentarily necessary in the story. I provide much more detail about Fairy Haven on Never Land, both because the place is central to the plot, and also because it’s central to Gwendolyn herself.
Setting isn’t an issue only in the first chapter of a book. Stories move. We have to reveal setting continuously.
So how do you present setting to your reader? As it comes along for the most part. If you’re writing from a single viewpoint, whether in first person or third, you can show the reader the sights, sounds, and smells as your main character encounters them, even in a place he knows well. It’s always handy when a main character is in a new place, though. If Kevin starts a new school, he’ll be paying attention, and the description will come delightfully naturally.
Sometimes it’s hard to work in setting information. Say Kevin visits his friend Julie, which he’s often done in the past. They sit in the living room where there’s a fish tank. The fish are going to be part of the story, so the reader needs to know about them, because you don’t want fish erupting out of nowhere. I don’t like it when writers convey information in an unnatural way. I’m opposed to having Kevin say, “So, Julie, I see your dad is still keeping the fish tank.” Kevin wouldn’t say that, because they both see the fish tank and know it’s Julie’s dad’s hobby. But he might say, “I always think the fish are staring at me.” Or you might describe the room in Kevin’s thoughts. Since he’s been there before you need a hook, not much of a hook, something small, like, The room always looked heavy, as if its gravity could sink the house. Two long sofas, five chairs, the fish tank, the cabinet full of china, the thick drapes. If Kevin has a poetic mind he might think that even the air, with its dots of filtered sunlight, have weight. And there, nestled in with the other details, is the fish tank. This method is particularly effective if you don’t want the reader to linger on the fish. Suppose you want the fish event, whatever it is, to be a surprise. You’ve informed the reader that the tank is there, but you’ve emphasized something else, the somberness of the room.
Setting is a big topic, and this has been a long post. If you have more questions on the subject, please post them.
Here’s a prompt: Your main character has lost something. She (or he) backtracks to search for it. In the time since she was there, even if that was only five minutes before, the place she goes to has become haunted. This place may not be a house or a graveyard. Go!
Save what you write, and have fun!