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.



Poetry – a few favorite first lines

Some poems reach us. We’re not always sure why. In fact, I’m more content when the reasons I like a poem never quite add up because my appreciation of it is beyond logic.

I know that I like the opening quatrain of Poe’s “To Helen” partly because of the rhymes and alliteration. Perhaps I’ve seen such beauty in another from time to time and this reminds me of it:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. – Wikipedia

“Fern Hill,” by Dylan Thomas is probably my favorite poem. We are lucky if we feel the magic of youth this way because it is very nearly a spiritual relationship with the world and the cosmos:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Few people these days remember the poet Saint-John Perse, but his Éloges and other poems published the year I was born is a wonderful collection. The first edition I have, once owned by my mother, displays the poems on side-by-side pages in English and the original French. For today’s reader, these poems are probably overly rich. The opening of “To Celebrate Childhood” is another way at the truth of “Fern Hill”:

…Then those flies, that sort of fly, and the last tier of
the garden…Someone is calling. I’ll go..I speak in esteem
–Other than childhood, what was there in those days
that is not here today?
Plains! Slopes! There
was greater order! And everything was but shimmering
reigns and frontiers of light. And shadow and light in those
days were more nearly the same thing…I speak of an esteem
…Along the borders the fruit
might fall
without joy rotting along our lips.

Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, writes strong poems with (quite often) a bite. I’m very fond of them and her way of thinking.  “Domestic Work” is a good example:

All week she’s cleaned
someone else’s house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper–
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she’d pull
the lid to–that look saying

Let’s make a change, girl.

“She Had Some Horses” by Joy Harjo builds and builds on itself until its power is strong enough to make one weep:

She had some horses.
She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
She had horses who were skins of ocean water.
She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
She had horses who were fur and teeth.
She had horses who were clay and would break.
She had horses who were splintered red cliff.

She had some horses.

Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Prize winner who lived in India and wrote in Bengali has a rich body of work that I first came across when I was in high school in a book my father had on our living room shelf. I like “The Source”:

The sleep that flits on baby’s eyes-does anybody know from where
it comes? Yes, there is a rumour that it has its dwelling where,
in the fairy village among shadows of the forest dimly lit with
glow-worms, there hang two shy buds of enchantment. From there it
comes to kiss baby’s eyes.
The smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps-does
anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young
pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn
cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew
washed morning-the smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he

I can’t shoe-horn the beginnings of all the poems that have caught my attention again and again since childhood into one blog post. But, it was fun to share a few, and perhaps start others thinking about the poetry they return to when they’re in need of hope, empathy, and inspiration.