Where are you? You know that, right? And everything you do is connected with that. If you’re on the highway battling the horrible weather, or in the coziness of your den watching TV with your family, or sitting in your office focused on your computer writing your book. That’s ground zero. And where you are dictates what you do.
So why why why, in so many manuscripts I read, do I have, on Page 1, no idea where the action takes place?
I’m not talking about long descriptions of purple bruised clouds or the glistening light of dawn on the twisting emerald kudzu.
I’m just saying: tell me where you are.
Think of your book as an audiobook. If a person pushes play, and begins to hear Chapter 1, how long will it take for them to envision where they are? Have you given your reader setting?
Several weeks ago, I read a pile of manuscripts from new authors, and lack of setting was the number one problem with all of them.
What if you read a manuscript written like this?
“Where have you been?” Fred looked worried.
“I’m sorry to be late,” Jimmy said, coming in to the room. “There was traffic.”
“You know how much I worry about you,” Fred said. “But you better get to work now. Or else.”
“I know,” Jimmy said. “I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it. And I know it means so much to you. But I just can’t–“
There was a knock at the door. Fred opened it.
“Oh,” he said, “what are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to take Jimmy.”
Fred froze to the ends of his fingers, not knowing what to do. It was the moment he had always feared. “No,” he said. “No. I cannot let that happen.”
Okay, that’s extreme. But what are you asking yourself?
Where is this, right?
That was obviously a badly written but high-stakes moment in someone’s life. But where did it take place? At a school, at home, an office, an asylum, on Mars? No idea. Absolutely no idea.
It’s dialogue in a black box. It’s people in limbo.
Let’s try it this way.
“Where have you been, young man?” Professor Fred, hands smudged yellow with eraser dust, looked worried as Jimmy entered the tiny classroom.
“I’m sorry to be late,” Jimmy said. He plopped his backpack onto the desk nearest the physics professor. The milky sunlight filtered through the tall windows, still smudged with the last of Boston’s winter storms. “There was traffic on the Mass Pike.”
“You know how much I worry about you.” Fred had no patience with excuses, not now, not even from a football star. “But now, on the last day of April at The Lee Child School of Economics, final exams must begin here in Proctor Hall. But sit. These desks are all empty for another hour. You better get to work.”
Jimmy selected a desk, pencil-pocked and almost too small for his fullback frame. “I spent all night in my dorm, thinking about it. I know it means so much to you, now that it’s your last semester on campus. But I just can’t–”
There was a knock at the tall wooden door. Fred strode across the hardwood floor, seeing the scuffs of a hundred years of boots and shoes and now, cleats and trainers. He pulled it open, the heavy mahogany solid under his arthritic fingers.
“Oh,” he said, “what are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to take Jimmy.” The stranger took up all the room in the fluorescent-lighted doorway, the buzzing lights spackling his tweed jacket with shadows.
Fred froze to the ends of his fingers, not knowing what to do. It was the moment he had always feared.
Or another way:
“Where have you been, sir?” Lieutenant Fred looked worried as Cadet Jimmy entered the classroom.
“I’m sorry to be late,” the cadet said. He plugged his spent jetpack into the last empty port of the chrome re-charging station. The milky light of Neptune filtered through the tall glassine windows, still smudged with the last of Arcterix City’s storied spring monsoons. “There was traffic on the Moonway.”
Terrible again, but clearly a different story. You get the…picture.
The setting makes the story. Without it, you have a screenplay. But in a screenplay, the pictures will be provided later. In a book, it’s up to the writer to provide it. Instantly.
Here are the first lines of Mary Higgins Clark’s Kiss the Girls and Make them Cry:
Gina Kane stretched in her window seat. Her latest prayer had been answered. The door of the jumbo jet…
Blake Crouch’s Recursion:
Barry Sutton pulls over into the fire lane at the main entrance of the Poe Building, the Art Deco tower glowing white in the illumination of its exterior sconces.
Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know:
Her stomach clutched at the sight of the water tower hovering above the still bare trees, a spaceship come to earth.
Lee Child’s Past Tense:
Jack Reacher caught the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine.
Lou Berney’s November Road
Behold! The Big Easy in all its wicked splendor.
Now look at your own first paragraph.
Read it as if it were new to you. As the author, you can envision it easily—it’s all in your head, like your own personal movie. But the reader is starting with a blank slate. Make sure you let them know where they are.
We’re interested in your first page! How long does it take to get to setting? Tell us…and let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.