Tag Archives: beginnings

Using Setting to Establish Character in the First Page

I’ve been working on a multi-POV novel lately, and I’ve had to introduce several new viewpoint characters. I’m discovering that one of my favorite ways to quickly immerse readers in each new character is through the setting.

The great thing about this trick is that your words can do double duty. When you introduce a new viewpoint character (right on the first page of the book, if your book only has one POV), you’re often also introducing a new setting. By showing the setting through the character’s eyes—showing their reactions to it, opinions of it, how it makes them feel—you can create a strong mood through setting while simultaneously revealing things about your character. You can ground your readers quickly and efficiently, right at the start of the book, giving them what they need to orient and immerse themselves.

For instance, let’s say your first scene is on a busy city street. Rather than describing your setting through tired, generic “city bustle” description, or by Googling the particular intersection in the exact city and faithfully noting real world details you could observe there, show us how your character feels about being there. What do they notice? What do they focus on?

A jaded city native heading to work might complain about annoying tourists jamming up sidewalk traffic, avoid a panhandler she sees on the same corner every morning, or weigh the benefits of grabbing a coffee and bagel against the risk of missing her train. She isn’t going to gawk at city landmarks or be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds—but this is a great chance to let us glimpse her routine (before you disrupt it forever, naturally). Is that routine sacred to her, and does she cherish the little fussy details of it, chafing at any disruption? Or is it frustrating, and is she glancing longingly at the planes overhead, wishing she were on her way to Hawaii?

A kid coming to the city for the first time with his parents might see totally different things. He could be focused on not letting his ice cream cone drip as he walks, or stare at bird poop on the arch of a street light, or be riveted by street performers or purse dogs. He might be excited to be in the city, trying to tug ahead of his parents and check everything out; or he might be nervous and overwhelmed, clinging close.

If you’re writing in 1st person or even a close 3rd person POV, you can give us snatches of their internal monologue, too—a character who’s critiquing the fashion choices of passerby is very different than one dreaming of how she’d sketch them, or thinking how easy they would be to kill. A character faced with a closed subway entrance might dither primly, cuss angrily, or accept it as yet another thing gone wrong in their pathetic life with a morose sigh.

Taking a moment to focus on setting can be a great way to establish character, voice, and setting all in a mere paragraph or so. It can vividly ground your reader and pull them into the story, rather than leaving them flailing around looking for handholds (a danger of starting with action or dialogue). You can even weave character goals through the setting, letting it be an obstacle or an aid to what the viewpoint character is trying to accomplish.

It’s worth focusing your character’s lenses on what’s around them on that first page, even if just for a moment. Give your reader a place to stand and let them see who’s standing there with them. Then take off running.


Where to Begin

In the draft I’m currently revising, I have a hook at the beginning, then I kind of establish some stuff, and then something Really Exciting happens at the end of Chapter Three. I used to cross my fingers and hope readers would just hang on until the end of Chapter Three, because then I gave myself decent odds of hooking them for the rest of the story.

Yesterday, with the help of a critique partner, I had a rather embarrassingly belated epiphany: move the end of Chapter Three to the end of Chapter One. Duh.

The thing is, I knew starting in the wrong place was a common problem. In the book I wrote after this one I’m revising, I sat down with the specific intent of starting in the right place, with the inciting incident happening in Chapter One, and the results were fantastic. I should have known ages ago that this was what I needed to do.

But I had it in my head for this ms that the hook at the beginning was the inciting incident, and then I knew a couple of months had to elapse before the Really Exciting Thing. So I had two chapters of montage, basically, before I got to the really good part.

This was a terrible idea. I can admit it now.

I had to challenge my fixed ideas about what order events happened in, and ask myself whether there was any real reason the Really Exciting Thing couldn’t happen right away, and then we could allow time to pass. And there were reasons, but none of them were things I couldn’t get around with a little revision work.

I’m doing that revision work right now. It’ll be a few days before I’m ready to field test the results with beta readers, and I’m sure it’ll need further tweaking, but I can already tell I made the right decision. I no longer have this big chunk of timelapse montage weighing down the opening chapters of my book, which are so critical.

It’s good to remind myself that just because the story is “the way it happened” in my head doesn’t mean I can’t rip it up and move things around if it’s better for dramatic tension.