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September 18, 2017

Open by setting the scene

A lot of writing advice will pretend to teach you how to grab an audience’s attention. Well, there’s more to writing than getting attention.  There’s the reader to consider.

This is an editorial essay, so we start with an introduction.  In the first paragraph, I let you know the purpose, to determine whether or not this is something that interests you and is useful to you.  Good writing respects the reader, it doesn’t try to waste the reader’s time with sensationalism.

Not all writing is an essay however.  In fiction, and in especially in journalism and in most other storytelling genres, writing usually starts with setting the scene.  If you were to write for the Ptara blog, or an article for our journal, we’d normally expect the writing to start in the appropriate way, depending upon the genre.

Ways of setting the scene:

  1. Traditional newspaper opening LOCATION: DATE.  Then a summary of the key facts surrounding the event, detailing the who, what, when and where, leaving the why and how till later.

Example:

London: July 26th, 1995.  At the London School of Journalism today, one of the lecturers [name withheld] claimed that “news is when someone has something to hide, everything else is advertising.”  The students then took the underground to enter a the […] courtroom where… was charged with …

Okay, so it would be more interesting with the details, right?  Then the facts would be easier to refute or to verify. Well, maybe later.

With fiction, however, the details don’t have to be as specific.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

“A long time ago, in a land far far away…”

“Once upon a time…”

In some ways, the lack of being too specific allow us to identify with the characters.  (See Scott McCloud’s books on understanding comics for a similar take on images.)  Even when things are relatively specific, sometimes only part of a year is included, as in Treasure Island, where in the first few paragraphs the writer states…

“I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept up the Admiral Benbow in and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”

The year is not specific, and other facts are left deliberately vague, which helps us get lost into the story.

The same can be said for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and many other novels in French and English.  The same lack of detail which would make a terrible news story makes an enchanting fantasy.

Unfortunately, a lot of vague journalism is out there.  And people are getting too specific with fiction, while leaving out the details in fact.  As a result, our generation (by which I mean everyone from baby boomers down to millennials) seems to have difficulty separating myth from reality.

To conclude, there are three principal ways to start prose, depending upon which genre.  To start fiction, we’d normally set the scene by entering the ordinary world of the characters through the imagination, then getting into the key actions.  With writing journalism, we normally start by giving as exact a date and time as we can, and summarising the key facts.  Journalists might describe the world as they’ve seen it, but photographs are often used in the place of words, and the facts are allowed to speak for themselves.  With an essay, we normally start by making the purpose of our writing clear.

There are other ways to start prose, of course, but I think beginners can greatly benefit by trying one of these three.  With fiction I’m open to experimentation, but with news writing I really think time and place are important.

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