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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » opening with a static description of setting or situation

   
Author Topic: opening with a static description of setting or situation
arriki
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I posted this opening over in the short stories for review, but Iíd like to talk about a problem I have with this type of opening.

-----------------------------

When he smelled the scent of his own kind on the breeze, Cam didnít turn his head to glance back. He didnít stop to consider whom he smelled or how many they might be. No need. Whoever was out prowling the nearby grain fields for lost tools or adjusting the irrigation gates would kill him on sight.

He gripped the smooth round shaft of his spear tighter and, after a momentís hesitation, plunged both feet through the scummy surface of the bayou he had been following. He grimaced at the slimy feel of last yearís leaves covering the bottom. Rocks poked the soles of feet so callused from going barefoot that he couldnít extrude the claw in the little toe on his left foot. His other toeclaws were sharp only where they had broken. Another sign of how far he had fallen.

-----------------------------------------

Itís basically opening on a static situation. There is the hint of danger in Camís thoughts about how anyone seeing him would automatically kill (or at least attempt to) him.

But...then the text goes on into describing what is basically a static situation. Cam is wandering (in the next few paragraphs he learn heís hungry and hunting for food). But nothing is changing in his situation until he scents prey and starts actively tracking it. Actually, the story doesnít begin until he hears a scream of someone of his own kind (basically humanoid).

I see a lot of openings in both the short stories and novels that open with description of the setting/situation in a static way, which is pretty much what Iíve got here.

Am I the only person who reads that sort of opening and after the first two or three sentences goes ďho humĒ and moves on looking for something more interesting?

What elements in such a static opening make it work?
Intriguing details? What else can be used to make static situational openings draw in the reader?

[This message has been edited by arriki (edited February 25, 2007).]


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howefitz
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I think you should not take so long in getting to the scream. Just start there. One thing I do like is how your descriptions slowly twist the character in my mind. My thought pattern was like, "His kind, there must be more sentient beings in this place...he sounds humanoid... toe claw? What kind of creature is this?" That you had me asking questions is good, but if you want to dodge the ho-hums, start right with the scream.

-Justin


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Lynda
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I agree, start with the scream, then talk about him walking in the bayou and about his toe claws and all that (really interesting!) stuff as he's going to find out what's up. You have a fascinating opening here - if it went into "action" mode in the next paragraph, I'd certainly keep reading. So you could use these few paragraphs as the beginning, have him hear the scream, and then sprinkle the rest of whatever description you're trying to convey through the rest of the story, rather than as an info dump. And if it's a short story - how much description do you really need?

Nice start! Good luck with it!

Lynda


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J
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You don't have to look at beginnings as "static" vs. "action." While that's one way to categorize, it's not neccesarily the most useful. The rule of thumb for beginnings is to start at the event that begins the plot conflict. If your MC sneaking through this field in hostile territory really is the beginning of the story, then the fact that he isn't jumping around doing all sorts of things is no reason to avoid starting there.

Without knowing the rest of the plot, I can't say for sure--but all other things being equal, I think your story starts in a good place. It's not action, but MC is in introduced in an unusual and dangerous situation that tells us a lot about him without the need for an info dump. There is immediate tension (will he be caught? will he have to fight?) and curiosity (why would the locals want to kill him on sight? why has he chosen to go to a place where he could be killed?).


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ChrisOwens
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I liked the opening. I got the sense of danger--of what could happen. And that's action enough for me for several pages. I could see if the story went on for a few paragraphs with an infodump on the setting or history, but the character is acting, so how is it static?

There were only a few sentences that could be sharpened but they have nothing to do with the story being static.


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discipuli
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I'd rather open with some action or dialogue... What some writers do is do a prologue chapter that has alot of heavy description to give the reader a feel of the world, then introduce your character with action right off the bat.
I like your opening though, despite bieng static it did give a sense of urgency and danger .

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arriki
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J said --The rule of thumb for beginnings is to start at the event that begins the plot conflict.

I hear that, too. BUT...I see lots of stories/novels that take a few paragraphs to describe a static situation. Two guys sitting in a car and then something happens. We meet the pov or the two guys or whomever.

To me, a static situation is one that has been going on for some significant amount of time before the story realtime time of the first sentence and which does not change for several paragraphs as something Ė setting, getting to know the character(s), ? Ė before something comes on stage and forces a change in the static situation. Static does not mean no movement. A policeman sitting quietly enjoying a meal can be a static situation. Three friends sitting on the back porch swapping fishing lies can be a static situation. In both of those cases it would seem that the purpose of describing the static situation is to introduce the characters.

This make any sense to you guys out there?

And, what Iím trying to figure out is ways to make such an opening paragraph(s) more interesting.


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arriki
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Hmmm...you know, it does start with the inciting event -- he scents someone else nearby and goes into the bayous to avoid contact which is why he's present to hear the scream. And, I needed to open with that scenting of someone else because the scream is screamed by the same person he scented and went out of his way to avoid. So, it isn't quite the static situation I thought it.

However, I am curious to get other takes on these openings that do start off with a continuing situation that some event interrupts and gets the story started.


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wbriggs
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I wanted to know more of how MC felt and just how much danger he was in, but I didn't have a problem with feeling bored. He can smell his own kind; he has toeclaws; I want to know more about his race. (I'd be disappointed if they were just humans with a few physical quirks.)
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Survivor
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This opening didn't seem particularly static to me.

I did have a couple of plasibility nits on the claws, but that's a completely unrelated issue.


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Kolona
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I have to echo Survivor. Although I was prepared for a static description opening from the title of this thread, I didn't think your beginning was a static one. Static description would have been something like: The breeze carried the scent of Quamtrums who were prowling the nearby grain fields for lost tools or adjusting the irrigation gates. The smooth round shafts of their spears didn't reflect in the scummy surface of the bayou, where the slime of last yearís leaves covered the bottom.

I wasn't bored, and I was curious. I thought the scene-setting while introducing the character was nicely done. Mentioning 'kill' and hinting at Cam's fall from grace introduced some tension.

Whether this is the best place to start the story remains to be seen, since you say "the text goes on into describing what is basically a static situation." If the story goes on in the same vein, maybe it's not as static as you think. But if the tension is truly lost, adding the scream sooner might work, even while retaining this opening.


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ChrisOwens
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The breeze was not the beginning. But it was a beginning...
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arriki
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Yes, but what makes a truly static opening like Kolona's --

The breeze carried the scent of Quamtrums who were prowling the nearby grain fields for lost tools or adjusting the irrigation gates. The smooth round shafts of their spears didn't reflect in the scummy surface of the bayou, where the slime of last yearís leaves covered the bottom.

-- work or not work?


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J
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What you have in your first post is better. What you just wrote is a good second or third paragraph. Set the hook like you did so well in your first post, then you can back it off and talk about the breeze for a moment before you start reeling us in.
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ChrisOwens
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Sorry, I was making a botched joke in reference to the WOT series. Usually Chapter 1 begins with a wind that blows here to there, before settling into a viewpoint character. Jordan might be the king of static openings.
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arriki
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Actually, J, that was Kolona's opening version -- I'm trying to talk about what works and what doesn't work in that type of static opening.

If, for example, for some reason instinct says to describe the setting or situation first...how do you make pure description a hook itself?

I see a lot of these "the wind was blowing" openings over in the 13 lines posts. Most times they turn me off. Do they turn other people off, too? As in, you read them because you feel you should but out in the real world you might just put the book back on the shelf? And, if so, how CAN it be done?


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