Wednesday, November 2, 2022

2022 November - The Anchoring of Time and Place

Writers are admonished to "anchor the reader in a time and place" when opening a story. The best way, of course, is to weave in clues or provide tidbits that vividly or subtlety describe the setting, era, or time of day or night without stopping the action. For example:

Lady Eleanor Black sidled into the midnight shadows of vines that clung to the stone edifice of Covenant Gardens.

In this example, there is a particular character (Lady Eleanor Black) doing something interesting (sidling into shadows) and who is at a particular place (Covenant Gardens). The clues are there that indicate this is nighttime and it's Regency England. Of course, the reader of such historicals becomes curious as to why Lady Black is hiding behind the vines and so the reader continues to read.

Sometimes— and to be used only when all else fails— a writer might resort to using the point-blank method of a subheader before the story's opening paragraph, like:

Regency London

Lady Eleanor Black sidled into the midnight shadows of vines that clung to the stone edifice of Covenant Gardens.

Another method of opening a story is with intriguing dialogue, like this from one of my medieval WIPs:

"Are you not afraid, Good Woman, being out here by thyself?"  Mallory shifted his cloak and sat upon the stump where she had bade him. Overhead the trees stood silent, for no evening breeze trespassed in the King's wood.

And there is always the tried and true method of starting in action, like:

A shrill whistle blew with sufficient intensity to gain the attention of the small group of colony's miners yelling both profanity and encouragement to the two men tangled in hand to hand combat in the center of their circle. 

Yet, far too often writers open with a description of the setting, like this:

On the horizon, swiftly barreling down the valley between the high peaks, came black thunder clouds. Pitchforks of lightning flashed from sky to ground but were replaced by a deluge of rain. The creeks and gullies soon filled with water, gushing and racing to empty into the nearby creeks, the creeks into the river--a river swollen from a week of rain--and all of that water emptying into the dam basin. The water there was now well over flood stage. 

Why is this a poor opening? The three reasons why are: 

1) nothing is really happening

2) no character or person is involved

3) there is no distinct and opinionated POV-Viewpoint

Read the paragraph again. Notice that a picture is painted of scenery as if it's a report. This is also viewpointless narration, which brings me to reason number two—no specific character or person is involved in action. If a person were involved, this opening might become:

My gaze riveted on the horizon where thunder clouds swiftly barreled down the valley between the high peaks. I scrambled up the rocky path to higher ground, cursing myself for deciding to hike to the caves to find silent sanctuary and sort out my husband's newly confessed infidelity. Now I was going to get soaked for my impulsive impulse to run and hide until the hurt eased. My life couldn't get any worse.
Pitchforks of lightning flashed from sky to ground.
I paused to watch the display, then shifted my gaze to a wall of rain coming down from the blackest of clouds, drenching the rugged slope of The Iron Face.
Flash flood!  Flash flood! echoed in my mind.
Huge raindrops pelted my back, soaking through my denim jacket.
I had to get to safety.

The character POV-Viewpoint version is also an example of showing, not telling, because everything is filtered by a distinct, opinionated POV-Viewpoint of a woman narrator.

Take a look at your most recent WIP (Work In Progress). Which method of anchoring your reader in a time and place did you use for your opening? If not one of the above mentioned types, what did you open your story with?

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