Introduce me to the world your story is set in. I need to know where in space-time this story is told. If it’s in present-day modern times, I would expect to see cars, cell phones, computers, electric lights. If it’s set on another world, I need to know the tech level, whether it’s magic, futuristic technology, or both. If it’s our world with added magic, that can be indicated later on – you don’t have to show me all of your world in the first few pages, but I don’t want to be completely lost.
This job can be done without a long descriptive passage. It’s better to sprinkle words here and there that indicate where and when the story is set, but keep the emphasis on the character and what’s happening to them.
It only takes a little bit to firmly ground me in space-time, and if you’ve built a whole world of your own, this is a great opportunity to begin showing it to me, immersing me in it. That way you won’t have to put in a long, unreadable expositional brick later on – my interest in the character and the story will hold me while, in the background, you drip-feed me the world building you worked so hard on.
Here are some examples written by me – assume they are all the first few sentences of a story.
EXAMPLE: Lady Janet turned from the oncoming carriage, knowing who brooded behind its lace curtains. Hurrying across the street, she snatched up her full skirts and dodged around the gaslighter, a boy of twelve with his long candlestick. He gazed open-mouthed at her revealed ankles, but the thunder of hoofprints was far too close behind her.
EXAMPLE: Tazmitt was so far into the engine, his foretentacles curled around the number six wrench, that when the taskadmin beeped his comm he had to pull his entire upper body out of the tube. He took a three-point grip on the engine’s mount and stared out into the endless black, speckled with stars, while he caught his oxygenator up to speaking to the taskadmin without his spiracles wheezing too loudly.
EXAMPLE: Stomping footsteps sounded behind her, and the door clunked open. Daisy slapped the lid of her laptop shut too hard for comfort. She turned her best innocent face toward her mother, knowing there was no hope, knowing she wasn’t going out tonight after all. Her mother folded her arms and tilted her head ever so slightly, and Daisy wilted. Without being asked, she extended her cell phone and car keys, and her mother took both and marched away silently.
In all these examples, I don’t reveal everything about the world, but you can get a strong sense that the first one is set in preindustrial times of horse-drawn carriages and lamplit streets. The second one is some sort of science fiction, with spaceships and aliens. And the third is clearly set in our own world. This task is firmly accomplished within three or four sentences.
I would venture to say that in each case, there’s also some insight into the viewpoint character’s nature, and something to hook the reader and keep them interested in what happens next. In the following articles, I’ll show how to do these tasks as well.