It’s no secret: setting and tone go hand-in-hand. You know the cliché opening, “It was a dark and stormy night,” right? Well, sometimes there’s a reason clichés exist. This first line has been overused in part because the mood is established from the very first sentence.
Tone is a powerful manipulator of the human spirit. And when you set a strong mood, it’s got the same effect on your reader as the tone of voice can have on a listener. Let’s look at an example. This is from An Na’s poetic novel A Step From Heaven:
Just to the edge. Young Ju. Only your feet. Stay there.
Cold. Cold water. Oh. My toes are fish. Come here.
What is it, Young Ju?
See my toes. See how they are swimming in the
sea? Like fish.
Yes, they are little fat piggy fish.
Come on. Up. Keep your legs around me. Are you
ready to go swim in the waves?
Hold me. Hold me.
I have you. Look over there, Young Ju. See how
the waves dance. See? Hold on tight. We are going
No. Stop. Deep water. Go back.
Shhh, Young Ju. Do not be afraid. You must learn
How to be brave. See, I have you.
What a fantastic use of setting to create both a wistful tone and foreshadowing. Immediately, as we look out over the ocean, there is a sense of a long journey about to be taken. Young Ju’s uneasiness about the waves, along with the father’s caveat to be courageous, suggest that the journey will be trying. Details like the cold water tickling her feet make the scene vivid and tangible, and we have a sense that perhaps the narrator is looking back thoughtfully to a simpler time when she felt safe and loved.
Authors can use wide-ranging location choices and details to lend themselves to remarkable and unforgettable setups. I chose this example because it hooked me with a mood of anticipation and used tone to suggest the future course of the book.
Can you think of any other beginnings that exemplify a fabulous setup of tone and setting? Share them below!