Have you ever read a story that starts with a character sitting in a still forest, just thinking? They’re almost always dull.
I’ve read, and rejected, thousands of them for publication. Why? Because the whole darned story is just sitting there, doing nothing, too.
So we’re trained as writers to avoid such scenes, to start our tale “in media res,” in the middle of things—specifically, in the middle of action.
But not all tales lend themselves to action and adventure. In fact, when dealing with settings, most of them aren’t very dynamic. Houses, castles, entire cities and mountains all just . . . sit there, despite the fact that you would like them to do otherwise.
We’re biologically geared to take notice of things in motion. Anything that moves of its own volition is either potential food or a potential threat. So we’re wired for action.
Many of the best writers try to bring scenes to life even by putting their world into motion in one of several ways.
The first way to bring your story into motion is to look for details that suggest motion. So instead of having your character sitting in a perfectly still forest, describe the trees swaying in a soft breeze, with trees creaking under its power, as cumulus clouds sail overhead in the advance of a storm. Or describe a single crow as it takes flight from a branch above your character, or show the squirrels racing up the boles of pine trees, or tell of the sound of a branch snapping, which might portend danger.
Some things, of course, can’t be in motion very well. A house just sits there, as does a rock. All of your wishing will not put that object into motion. So you have to stretch your imagination, look for metaphors or similes that create motion where there is none.
When Tolkien described trees, he would say that they “marched down the hillside,” or they “huddled near the book,” and they “leaned above Frodo,” and so on. It’s a technique that can work, but don’t work too hard at it. You’ll know that you’re overdoing it when you try to assign the inanimate objects human emotions or desires. I hate reading about a “lonely little rock, pining for others.” If you go that far, you sound schizophrenic.
One writing exercise that I find that works well for the opening of a tale is to describe the scene using only active verbs (no was, or were, or anything that shows a static setting.) Give it a try—write a two-page scene with a well-developed setting that places everything in physical motion. It’s a challenge, but it tends to be a rewarding one.