It was a dark and stormy – night? day? cocktail?

picture of the sun shining through a break in the clouds with a mountain in the backgroundThe first drafts of my books are all about the story and the characters. When I revise, I put in all the description and I worry about how much to layer on. There are ‘rules’ yes, but no one likes to have  story start out with pages of description or a story that feels like it’s set in a vacuum.

 The way it all starts

The first draft for me starts with conversation or action.

Reaching for a second ribbon, Madeline tried to focus her magic.

“Why don’t we just do it the easy way?” Lionel asked.

Charity put the file away and glanced to see if the light was on in Jake’s house.

It works for me because I’ve put a lot of effort into getting to know my characters and finding the right setting. I know exactly why Madeline needs to focus her magic. As the reader, you only get the text of the story – we haven’t yet learned how to send you the author’s thoughts. To make the story interesting I have to give the reader context.

What I am afraid I will do

I write with a sense of anxiety that I will overdo the description and drop into some kind of purple prose wormhole.

With the sound of thunder shredding her concentration, Madeline pushed her auburn curls back and firmed her ruby lips. The color of her lips in stark contrast to the pallor of her normally healthy complexion. A trickle of sweat rode the contour of her high cheekbones, she blinked her green eyes to clear them of the glare from the sudden flash of lightning. Feeling the chill of the stone floor through the heavy wool rug and the layers of her cloak and trousers she sighed. Across from her Blu sat waiting patiently, oblivious to the storm and the scent of dust in the air, the tiny monk held a green silken ribbon in hands that rested on his knees. The ribbon contrasting with the deep saffron color of his robe. 

A third clash of thunder vibrated in her bones as she reached for the red ribbon that lay in the black wooden chest on the floor between them. The ribbon that would help her focus her magic and join Blu in the spell that protected the house against magical attack.

For me this is too much for an opening. I like things to get started. By things I mean the action.

What the opening passage of a book needs to communicate

I think it needs to put the reader into the action. The setting and mood need to be there so the reader has some grounding, but setting and mood is there to support some kind of action not just because they explain a world. Here’s where I am with the opening passage of the third Madeline book.

Madeline held the yellow ribbon and stared at Blu. The little monk was sitting across from her, a matching ribbon laid across his upturned palms. He was muttering low enough that Madeline had to strain to hear the words so that she could give the right response.

It’s not right yet, but it is closer to what I think an opening needs to be. I think I still have to add some of Madeline’s mood. She’s tired, frustrated and aching to do more than just protect the house. She wants to go after the attacker and make them stop.

What the setting doesn’t need to do

Authors all receive the advice to start a story in the middle of the action. I think that means starting it with action and context. If there is a storm going on but it has nothing to do with the actions that your characters need to take, then your readers don’t care. A storm as a backdrop to scientists explaining why the world will end because the sun will be hidden behind a thick cover of cloud mixed with smoke from fires set by lightning – now that’s important setting.

What do you like?

As a writer I struggle with two things. First I have reading preferences and I have to make sure I don’t just write for me. The harder aspect is that I know everything about the characters and the setting. I need to make sure I put only the essentials on the page.

When you read, what frustrates you about setting? Do you like all the details? Do you like to fill in the details yourself?