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Setting the Scene and Tone in a Story – Writing Stream Recap

For the last stream, we did something during the exercise portion that I’d wanted to do for a while: talking about setting the scene/tone at the beginning of a story.

One common mistake that beginning writers do which I’ve seen a lot during freeshare, critiques online, and during workshops in real life is that they tend to front-load their stories with backstory and history. But, unfortunately, we don’t care about history at the beginning of a story, because we don’t know who the people are yet.

So for the exercise, we came up with a prompt and then wrote the very beginning of the story, setting the scene and tone and hooking the reader, all without giving any sort of backstory or history.

Here’s the one the chat voted on: An Elf that’s the last of her kind due to war with Humans, disease, and other elves refusing to reproduce.

Here’s the beginning we came up with:

I poke at my breakfast of cold gruel, the warm smiles from the priests and nuns the only thing keeping me from shivering to death inside the cave. The rock that I’m sitting on is jagged and digs into my legs, and the raging blizzard outside threatens to sink its icy teeth into my skin. But I don’t have it better than any of the others, so I have to deal with it.

The priests and nuns sit next to me on their own cragged rocks, draped in stained robes that were once white, all of us barely fitting inside the cave the size of a pig pen. Except pig pens smell better than this place does, not that any of them can smell it. I’m the only one with heightened senses.

I bring a spoonful of gruel to my mouth, try not to cringe as it soaks my tongue in its gooey, snot-like texture, and swallow. Just like I do every day. I force a smile to the watchful nuns and priests. They look satisfied and start scooping spoonfuls of their own miserable breakfast. Except they don’t look so miserable when they eat it. They look like they enjoy it. Maybe it’s my stupid senses wrecking the taste.

Or maybe it’s because Elves aren’t meant to eat human food.

I really like this beginning. When working with an idea like this, it’s tempting to just give all the backstory/history at the beginning, explaining the elf wars and the death of everyone, but that’s not usually a good decision. You’d have to do that through a flashback, dream, or prologue, any of which will slow down your story. At best, starting with a flashback, dream or prologue will disappoint your readers when you switch characters/setting, and at worst it will stop them from ever getting to your “real story” because it’s too boring.

Here, we skip over the history and get right to the present. We set the scene, set the somber/pessimistic tone, and give the hook of her being an elf. Then, slowly, we can work in the plot points later. Maybe she finds out humans killed all the elves and she runs away from her sympathetic caregivers, or maybe she contracts the same disease the rest of her species did and she has to find a cure. Either way, the history is woven more organically into the plot, not given to us like a shopping list.

After that we moved on to today’s prompt, and chat voted for this one submitted by res30stupid: “An ancient vampire is attempting to seduce the hunter trying to kill him.”

I enjoyed writing this one because it really showed the value of doing several drafts. When we wrote our first draft, it was a little choppy. The romantic motivations of the vampire didn’t quite make sense. So then we went back, changed up a bunch of stuff, and smoothed it out, making the story flow better.

Is our story perfect? No, but I think it’s a pretty good take on the prompt, and it definitely has some unique, funny, and heartbreaking spins of its own.

You can read our story here.

If you want to join us and help write a story by trolling in chat, or share your own writing for feedback, then we’d love to have you. We stream on Twitch every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 7:30pm-10:30pm (U.S. Eastern Standard Time).

And you missed the stream, you can still watch Rubbish to Published, the writing exercises, or the writing prompts on YouTube, or watch the full stream reruns until Twitch deletes them.

Hope to see you next time, friend!

Scott Wilson is the author of the novel Metl: The ANGEL Weapon, forthcoming November 2018.

Featured image: Pakutaso

Published inLivestream