It was a dark and stormy night

It was a dark and stormy night

Gwynn Scheltema

Famously, “It was a dark and stormy night” is one of the worst ways to start a scene. Many writers take that to mean that you should never start with the weather, or indeed setting or description in any form. I disagree. I write from setting all the time.

A powerful workhorse

Setting can:

  • anchor the story in time, both historical time and time of day
  • define geographic place – in general (urban/rural) or specific (a particular building or room) 
  • set mood or atmosphere
  • employ seasonal symbolism (spring = rebirth, new things; winter = aging, death, etc.)
  • give a clue to character by what the character notices and reacts to in the surroundings.
  • use all five senses and more (colour, quality of light; temperature; texture) to create verisimilitude and increase reader engagement.
  • affect pacing: visceral senses of smell and touch increase tension; word choice for a description guides emotion (pierces vs chirps)

Walk with me

Come on. Bring along a notebook. We are going to allow setting to guide the start of a scene.

  • First anchor the main characters in place and time with an image. Present at least one reader question.

I turn back down the dirt track once the school bus has passed, jiggling its crumpled group of toque-topped children. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s a country kid. Used to rising before dawn.

  • Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.

The eastern sky struggles to draw back the fog blanket that hovers above the tree line, as reluctant as I am to face the day.  

  • A shot of colour without mentioning the colour. Something that re-enforces the mood.

The last of the autumn leaves nip at my ankles. 

  • Introduce a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.

My cell pierces the quiet morning. It’s Conrad. Shit. I let it ring. Fourteen rings. He doesn’t give up easy.

  • Now a wide angle again, include another sense (touch/ texture) and continue to develop character or advance plot. Consider pacing here. Speed up or slow down with sentence structure and word choice.

The clapboard farmhouse crouches on the hill, as if ready to pounce. “Been in my family for six generations,” Tom always boasts. Like that scraggly-beard had any part in it. Bastard!

  • Step into a direct action that launches the story. Stay away from the sense of sight. Use a more visceral sense to lend weight to this moment (touch).

When I reach the porch, my lungs burn from running, my mouth so dry I can hardly form the words I croak into my phone, “Chrissy? It’s Annie. Please, I need you to pick Jimmy up from school today and keep him overnight. Something’s come up. I’ll call tomorrow to explain.”

Not a formula

That scene is not a formula, just a sample. It’s sinister, moody and hints at danger. But it could have just as easily been more upbeat:

  • First anchor the main characters in place and time with an image. Present at least one reader question.

I watch the school bus lumber down the dirt road, jiggling its crumpled group of kids and backpacks and baseball bats and water bottles. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s cool. A country kid. Used to rising early.

  • Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.

The sun is already high in the eastern sky, warm on my shoulders. Today will be a good day. I know it.

  • A shot of colour without mentioning the colour. Something that re-enforces the mood.

I scoop up a posy of feathery Queen Anne’s lace and field poppies from the roadside bank.

  • Introduce a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.

My cell chirps like a pocketed bird. It’s Conrad. He remembered. I take a deep breath and fumble to answer before he rings off.

Your turn

Go on. Your turn. Take setting on your writing journey today.

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