Novel and short story openings: scene-setting

“An establishing shot in filmmaking and television production sets up, or establishes, the context for a scene by showing the relationship between its important figures and objects. It is generally a long or extreme-long shot at the beginning of a scene indicating where, and sometimes when, the remainder of the scene takes place.” – Wikipedia

In a novel or a short story, such a beginning is often called “scene setting.” It’s still a popular way to begin a novel or story even though films and TV shows don’t use establishing shots as much as they once did, opting for a quicker move into the story line rather than focusing on location or tone.

Some of the more widely known establishing shots in feature films occur in “Citizen Kane,” “Manhattan,” “The Exorcist,” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” In novels, Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities are often cited for their opening scenes. Here’s the scene from “The Exorcist”:

(I read the novel and saw the movie and thought this opening as very effective.)

Sometimes an opening scene in a story or novel or the establishing shot in a film also refers (directly or indirectly) to a scene or setting or style in an earlier movie or book when the tone or location of both works is similar. I apologize for the shameless promotion here, but I used this technique with the scene setting opening of my short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” which appears in the collection Widely Scattered Ghosts.

Here’s my “establishing shot” style opening to that story:

“The light of the harvest moon was brilliant all over the Florida Panhandle. It released the shadows from Tallahassee’s hills, found the sandy roads and sawtooth palmetto sheltering blackwater rivers flowing through pine forests and swamps toward the gulf and, farther westward along the barrier islands, that far-reaching light favored the foam on the waves following the incoming tide. Neither lack of diligence nor resolve caused that September 1985 moon to remain blind to the grounds of the old hospital between the rust-stained walls and the barbed wire fence, for the trash trees and wild azalea were unrestrained, swings and slides stood dour and suffocated in the thicket-choked playground, humus and the detritus of long-neglect filled the cracked therapy wading pool, and fallen gutters, and shingles and broken window panes covered the deeply buried dead that had been left behind.” [Copyright © 2019 by Malcolm R. Campbell]

  • The story takes place on a moonlit night in an abandoned mental hospital where there are real and figurative ghosts.
  • Before closing, the level of care at this hospital declined to the extent that patients there could be considered, figuratively speaking, dead.
  • This story also sets the tone for the short story collection in that both the moonlight and the ghosts are widely scattered.

This opening is closely modelled after the tone and syntax of a famous passage in a famous short story. Since I don’t mention that story or its author in the text, the opening has to work for those who don’t know the connection between this opening and the famous passage. The same would be true if I’d quoted a dramatic or a comedic line from a movie or book: those who know where the line came from, get “something extra” while those who don’t know can still enjoy and understand the line.

In the case of my opening here, those who know what it’s based on will find a deeper level of meaning while those who don’t know will still grok the tone of the first paragraph.

Okay, I’m not going to tell you the short story I used as a model except to say it was written by my favorite author and is a bit old, so it’s probably not read very often these days outside of college Lit courses. If you know what story I used, tell me in the comments. If you don’t know, I’ll tell you in tomorrow’s post.

Malcolm

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  1. Pingback: Scene Setting in Novels – Part II – Malcolm's Round Table

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