How not to write scene-setters in your novel

I started reading a novel the other day and choked on the first three paragraphs, which were a kind of double-flashback sequence filled with ‘had beens’. I paraphrase:

“…it was now…there had been…had been…had abruptly…had been…had they…had… had been…had they…he would…he had not…had grown…had happened…had summoned…”

Silver fern frond.
Silver fern frond. Why here? Because I can.

It didn’t get going with the immediate action for which all this was a loooooong setup until the fourth paragraph, which should have been the first because it was grippier. But by then my interest as a reader was already gone. I persisted through more ‘had beens’ and other flashbacks but finally gave up.

The problem was that the author hadn’t mastered the technique of scene-setting, in which it’s better to let the action unfold by ‘showing’ it. The background can be intruded into that if needed, but the secret is to find a way of grabbing the reader and setting the scene without ‘telling’ them all the background in one vast vomit of information that is likely to be as confusing as it is informative.

Even info-dumps have to ‘breathe’.

The other problem with them is the persistent ‘had’ aspect – the relentless past tense (mixed, in the example I read, with mangled past-future tense of the ‘was to be’ variety) – which is an absolute killer for tension.

We live in the present tense. Your stories need to as well. That doesn’t mean writing in the present tense, though that can be a very powerful technique. But the sense of being ‘in the moment’ has to be there, otherwise reader attention is going to disappear.

That’s true of non-fiction as well as of fiction, actually. Thoughts?

Wright_Italian Odyssey 200 pxAnd, if you do want to check out a way of writing immediacy into non-fiction, have a look at my book Italian Odyssey, jump across to Amazon – it’s available on Kindle. Free to Amazon Prime users in 2016.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


10 thoughts on “How not to write scene-setters in your novel

  1. I read over the last few months a collection of Damon Runyon’s “Broadway” short stories, which are written in a ruthless, slangy present tense. Even things that logically should be past tense, such as characters talking about things that happened to them years before, is done in the present tense.

    I would not want to try explaining to an English-as-a-Second-Language student what’s going on with the tenses there. And Runyon was an incredibly skilled crafter of this sort of story. But it’s amazing how much it makes sense, and how it makes the stories punch out of the page, written this way.

    1. It’s amazing how powerful present tense can be when properly used. It can work for non fiction too. One of the best books I have seen on NZ’s Second World War ground experience was written that way.

      1. Come to think of it, I remember Barbara Tuchmann writing that she understood finally how to compose The Guns Of August when she stopped trying to include information about how decisions made would affect the war to come. Just tell it in not-quite-present-tense, but still in a close chronological order, and it was suspenseful and compelling enough in that form.

  2. Two of the books in rhe series I am writing needed either backstory, or what had happened before. I wrote prologues in the present tense to suppliy the information.
    I was pleasantly surprised the way they fitted, so lelft them as prologues.

  3. After writing ten novels and 4 novellas, I’m halfway decent at openings. I don’t think I’ll ever be good at them. They’re probably the hardest half-dozen paragraphs in the whole book!

  4. Hi Matthew! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post. As usual, it contains your credit/bio/link. Feel free to participate in the comments. Thanks!

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