Setting the Scene

Posted by June 19th, 2013

Award-winning horror author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro lets us glimpse into her writing process.

The latest title in the Saint-Germain series.

As I discuss in Fine-Tuning Fiction, it is part of a story’s structure to hook the reader early and keep the reader involved in the tale as long as possible. This is what the “Presence” does, the establishment of the what-where-when-ness of it all, so that the whos in it may be reinforced by their environment. Usually this needs to be accomplished in the first paragraph of the story or chapter—which is a discreet unit within a larger story—there by shock, or by seduction. It can also help you avoid the dreaded Expostulatory Lump by giving needed information up front as part of setting the scene.

This is the opening paragraph of Part III, Chapter 1 of my current writing project, the 27th Saint-Germain book, Sustenance. [Story-text in italics, my commentary in bold.]

A light spring mizzle was falling, looking like a dusting of minute diamonds in the shine of the streetlamp.This tells the reader that it’s a misty night in mid-May.Across the Seine and a short way ahead of them, the Louvre appeared to be a painted backdrop, its image flattened by mist and the night. In Paris.There was almost no wind on this cool, late evening, though the damp was adding a chill to the air; sidewalks and streets shone black, and the river glinted silver where the spill of lamplight struck it; a barge headed upriver was leaving a frothy, spangled wake behind.The night is cool. The river is beautiful but also a bit threatening.It was almost midnight and the streets were nearly empty of traffic; only the two-toned whoop of an ambulance a block away gave any reminder that this was a large, active city, not a forgotten, abandoned relic of a metropolis. It is 1950 and there are still reminders of World War II around Paris.

Did I think about any of this before I wrote the paragraph? No, I had a fifteen-word synopsis of what was to happen and I had the thrust of the chapter in mind, so I took advantage of the through line of action in a way that inclined me to come up with all those tantalizing contrasting images. Let me enlarge on that: all these contradictory images—the diamond-like droplets of fog, the silver and froth of the river, juxtaposed to the night chill, the shadowy darkness, the ambulance’s siren, the intimation of ruin—should spike the curiosity and prove a means for building a picture in the mind of the reader which will encourage him/her to read on. In the next paragraph, we see the two characters who dominate this chapter, each of them also trying to work out troubling contradictions in their own lives, among other things, something that helps to reinforce the environment of the chapter.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbo’s Fine Tuning Fiction

There is no one right way to do anything in writing, but there are devices that have stood the test of time, and seduction openings are among the most reliable. If you’re having trouble getting into the meat of the story or chapter, try reinforcing the “Presence,” the environment, as a way to get going.

I would not ordinarily take the time to analyze the opening so closely until the book is finished, but in this case, since I have only three pages to go to the end of the chapter, doing this won’t throw my writing off by making me self-conscious as I write, which is deadly to good story-telling. Still, ordinarily, I don’t try to deconstruct my work until it is at least ten years old. This has been an interesting exercise for me, and I may try it again some time in the future!

Share Button
This entry was posted in Craft of Writing, Developing Your Story and tagged , , , , , , , , , on by .
Chelsea Quinn Yarbo

About Chelsea Quinn Yarbo

A professional writer for more than forty years, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has sold over eighty books, more than seventy works of short fiction, and more than three dozen essays, introductions, and reviews. She also composes serious music. In 1997 the Transylvanian Society of Dracula bestowed a literary knighthood on Yarbro, and in 2003 the World Horror Association presented her with a Grand Master award. In 2006 the International Horror Guild enrolled her among their Living Legends, the first woman to be so honored; the Horror Writers Association gave her a Life Achievement Award in 2009. She has two domestic accomplishments: she is a good cook and an experienced seamstress. The rest is catch-as-catch-can. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area—with two cats: the irrepressible Butterscotch and Crumpet, the Gang of Two. When not busy writing, she enjoys the symphony or opera. Visit her on the web at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 − 6 =