English focus: Setting the scene

When creating any piece of writing you need to start somewhere. Whether it is the first paragraph of a film review, or the opening chapter of a novel, the introduction is your opportunity to emotionally engage with the reader so that they continue reading. Imagine opening a novel for the first time and reading the first chapter. What are you expecting to feel? You will obviously want to be entertained or intrigued, but you will also be working out whether or not you even want to continue reading. The words you choose are incredibly important in helping to set the scene, as well as the tone you use and the style you adopt, as this gives the reader everything they need to make that all-important decision.

Imagine you are writing a historical play about village life in the medieval period. Everything about the era will be different to modern life, and if this isn’t reflected in the language you use the audience are unlikely to understand what’s going on. If the play was actually performed, the stage would be dressed with props and set elements that clearly place the action in a certain period. You need to do the same when you write, but you will not have the ability to show the reader visually, so you have to use language. This is called setting the scene.

Firstly you will need to consider the genre of your piece as this will influence the way you write. In fiction, the genre is the category that your story fits into, for example, a comedy, romance, thriller, or horror story. The language and style used should reflect the genre and help creating the correct atmosphere. For example, in a horror story you would probably set the scene using dark and moody language, such as ‘the gloomy corners were cloaked in spiders web from years long past’. If you were writing a comedy, you would perhaps expect the description to be more colourful and upbeat.

Having decided your genre, you should also give some thought to the audience, purpose and style you wish to use. This will create a writing frame that will focus your creativity, and this will directly influence the language you use to set the scene. For example, is this a book aimed at very young children? If so, you will need to use very more basic vocabulary, short sentences and clear page layout with lots of white space. This tells the reader whether that story is going to be interesting for them.

Setting the scene is very much like the opening shot of a film. You need to decide what the most important things for the audience to know are. Is it the period the story is set in, the atmosphere that will govern the story, or something important about the people who will feature? For example, is your story about school children? Then you might want to open your story in a playground, and set the scene by describing what you can see and hear, to help the reader imagine the same thing as you. Once you have defined the outline of your story, you will find it easier to imagine the opening scene in your own head, so start with an overall plan first.

Take a look at the image below. In the comments box write a short opening paragraph for a story, using the painting as your opening scene. Just focus on describing what you can see, so that if you were describing it to someone over the phone, they would be able to imagine it too.