It was a dark and…no no no no

Setting the scene, (sort of). (Things to think about).

I want to touch upon an element that I read over on a fellow blogger’s article — specifically, the first scene and setting.

Even more specifically, the tone, the mood and the characters.

Much like a game, a movie or any artistic creation, a certain mood needs to be struck at the beginning of the book, (ideally within the first two sentences). The audience needs to know which is the appropriate response to the text  if what they’re seeing or reading is comical or romantic, scary and frightening or dark and (ugh) “gritty.” In short, how to feel about the piece.  Of course, both the mood and the tone can change from scene to scene so usually there are multiple moods, but doing so abruptly at the beginning of the book can be awfully jarring and confuse the reader.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

opening sentence to Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

This is perhaps the most famously cliched example of purple prose and yet (that aside) a strong mood has been struck within the first sentence. It’s cold, it’s dark, there’s a sense of foreboding and if we examine a few (and there are a lot) of the adjectives — violent, swept, rattling, fiercely, scanty — even without the context of the rest of the sentence, we are already beginning to understand the nature of this event.

The tone.

This is SO, SOOOO important, I’m even willing to add extra O’s. So what is the tone? Well, it’s how the speaker, the main character feels. Sometimes, this doesn’t always match up to the mood of the book — for example, in the Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe the mood is insidious and disturbing, yet the narrator is proud of having committed the perfect crime and communicates thus by his manner.  The tone narrates how the character feels, but not necessarily how the reader should feel.

And that leads me nicely onto point number three.

Characters.

The characters are as much a part of the setting as the backdrop into which they are dumped. Every line of dialogue uttered from their mouth should reflect the environment in which they exist, whether (for example) they are a peasant farmer in early China or a young teenager in modern New York. More than this, the character can be used to solidify  the tone, their voice, through their own personal actions, their manner of speech and their intent.

Introducing the main character is critical. Much like in real life, the reader will create an opinion based on the first thing the character will say or do and often they will be made by using preconceptions — tropes that are already familiar. This isn’t necessarily bad, for predictably (at least in the beginning) is rarely a death sentence, if it helps the reader bond with a new character. What is important is that the character grows into their own personality and isn’t defined by already well-established formalities.

What does all this mean?

It’s worth noting in each and every scene the type of mood you wish to convey to the reader. What words will effectively bring across the opening? Is it a dark and stormy night, like the one in Paul Clifford? Is it fraught with political intrigue? And most importantly, how does the character feel? Their own insight is critical from the very first line they utter, don’t be afraid of juxtaposing the tone and the mood — after all, the prideful inflections of the narrator in the Tell Tale heart only served to hang a more unsettling air.

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