Setting the Stage in the First Page

In this article, originally published on Suite101, I'm giving tips on how to plunk your reader into your story world on page one without confusing them or making them feel like they've been drop-kicked into an alien culture. This is important because you want to introduce the setting and make the reader feel at home, and often you only have the first page to do that. It's not impossible!

Immersing the Reader in the Novel Story World

Skillfully drop the reader into the setting of the story by intriguing them without confusing them.

The hardest place to set your reader down into your story world is the first page. But the reality is that readers in a bookstore and editors paging through thousands of manuscripts will usually only give you one page to catch their interest.

One page.

That first page must hook the reader and orient them in the novel story world without confusing them. It’s a tall order, which is why it’s best for novelists to spend the most time revising your first chapter, and your first page.

Highlight Something Significant To the Story World.

Use nuances of language and careful word choices to convey what’s unique and significant about your story world.

In Pride and Prejudice, the setting is about propriety and marriage. Jane Austen sets up those issues of significance within the first page.

In the first page of Twilight, Stephanie Meyer plunges the reader into a story world of a girl’s imminent death and a hunter. It’s suspenseful but it also makes it clear this is not the ordinary world.

In Miss Fortune, the language and description in the first chapter immediately brings to mind Sam Spade, which is what author Sara Mills was aiming for in her novel about a female P.I. set in the forties.

Take Advantage of the Familiar to Orient the Reader.

This is one of the only places a cliché is vital to the story. Use them to immediately orient your reader into the story world.

A “greasy diner” gives an immediate picture in the reader’s mind of a tired cook, a few loungers hanging about, the heavy smell of bacon grease in the air. However, a “diner smelling like homemade apple pie” brings an entirely different setting to mind of grandmotherly waitresses and lots of good comfort food.

Be deliberate about the words you use, and pick strong words that will trigger automatic reactions in the reader’s mind.

Show Current Action, Not Past Action.

Dwight Swain says it best:

One of the hardest things a writer has to learn is that “What’s going on?” means precisely that—“What’s happening right now?”—Not, “What has gone on?” or “What’s the background and/or past history of the present action?”

How do you thus communication present action?

You show what happens.

You show it as it happens, moment by moment, in strict chronological order.

--Techniques of the Selling Writer

Make your reader aware of something happening right now. This present action will pull the reader in automatically. Something that happened in the past and mentioned on the first page is simply not dynamic enough to hook attention.

He hadn’t slept with his wife in over a week, but then she whispered in his ear that night.


Patrick O’Connor stirred from a deep sleep at the feather touch of his wife’s breath, warm against his neck.

“Patrick, I need you …”

Her words tingled through him and he slowly turned, gathering her into his arms with a sleepy smile. He ran his hand up the side of her body, all sense effectively roused.

“No, Patrick,” she whispered, shooing his hand from her waist, “I need you to go downstairs—now! There’s someone in the kitchen.”

--A Passion Redeemed by Julie Lessman

Be Deliberate With Words on That First Page.

Utilize language to both orient the reader and introduce the current action. By taking extra care over the clichés you use or the words you choose, you can both immerse readers into the story world and not confuse them.


  1. I am learning so much already. I have a feeling I'll be spending a lot of time here. Blessings!

  2. Camy,

    Another great article.

    I saw today that we, your loyal blog readers, can recommend your Suite 101 articles at the bottom of each one. They're so good that I'm happy to have the opportunity to give you a thumbs up.

    Below the "recommend" box we can also choose to "add" the article to various sites, such as Facebook. I'm not familiar with that feature or several of the sites mentioned. Would you please explain what adding the article means and how doing so helps promote it for you?


  3. Hi Keli,

    Thanks for the recommend! Although honestly, I'm clueless about what that does for me. LOL

    I think if you "add" the article to Facebook, it posts it on your profile or something like that. I think it will be more useful for your Facebook readers than promotion for me, but it's a nice gesture all the same.



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