Implied Setting

The reader sooner or later needs to know setting, but setting can be given by action. So it's possible to start with action and just keep going, never stopping the scene clock for description.

Implying Action

Her father suddenly threw aside his newspaper and jumped to his feet.

This tells us, indirectly, that she has a father and her father has a newspaper.

The reader will assume that he was reading his newspaper. If that's not what the author wanted, the author needs to fix something. If that's what the author wanted, everything is fine. (In fact, you probably will have to reread it just to verify that it does not say he was reading his newspaper – the implication is that strong.)

So the action always provides information about setting. The author needs to keep track of what is being implied and make sure everything eventually is implied, which is why starting with action is difficult.

The reader will assume assume her father was sitting in a chair. The reader will assume her father was calmly reading the newspaper, because that's the default and the sentence says "suddenly." It is as if the start was:

Her father was sitting in his chair, calmly reading the newspaper. He suddenly threw aside his newspaper and...

It's the kind of chair he could leap out of, so not a chair at a kitchen table.

Leaking Information

The reader will assume they are at home. In a sense, the narration of action is leaking uncertain information. But enough sentences like this will cause the reader to assume they are at home.

There is a weak suggestion that she is living at home. That's just a "probably" thing – the people in a house usually live there.

But that gives us a very rough estimate of her age. That in turn gives us a rough estimate of his age. Similarly, she trusts her father to be in charge, weakly suggesting again a younger age.

There are also implications about the plot -- probably something has happened, something dramatic enough to cause his to throw aside his newspaper instead of folding it neatly, something that would cause him to jump out of his chair. And the scene is being told from "her" perspective, implying that she's the main character, at least for this scene. (The book could have begun "He threw...")

That's all from one sentence. Any sentence will leak a lot of information. But that wasn't a random sentence; I thought carefully about how to imply information and what information was being implied.

He grabbed the crutch for his broken foot, hobbled quickly to the window, and looked out over their farm and the flat plains of Kansas for only a second.

This isn't meant to be subtle. We are getting setting – Kansas – but the flatness of Kansas is needed to explain why he can see a tornado from far away. So there is a careful choice about what information to present. The information about the broken foot seems random here, but it's needed 114 words later.

Which is to say, an author can deliberately include facts in a description of action just for the sake of giving information about setting.


An author artfully leaking information about setting:

I wake up to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. (A Million Little Pieces, Frey)

Setting? He's in an airplane. He must have been sleeping or unconscious. Something's wrong – people don't normally have something warm dripping down their chin. The author wanted a hint of that.

Less certainly, the droning probably wouldn't wake him up, and if it did the author probably would have called it "noise" or "roar". So he's becoming conscious naturally. People don't usually report boring things they already know, suggesting that he didn't know he was in an airplane, implying that he was unconscious when he was put in the plane.

The Art and Skill of Starting With Action

Using action to imply setting takes skill and care. The author has to keep careful track of what information the reader needs and whether or not that has been implied. That's why I say that starting with action is not natural and not easy. But if action is more interesting than setting, it might be the best way.

The following was not skillful. After starting with several action sentences:

He'd been splitting logs outside his cabin when he'd first become aware that she was there; he continued to chop firewood.

The first half of the sentence is setting; the second half could be called action. But, in this case, the setting was partially implied by the action, creating redundancy. One sentence of action would have worked:

He continued splitting logs outside his cabin.

So, even if you decide to start with setting, you should consider how much is implied by the action to come or could be implied with the action (or some rewriting of the action).