Okay, I feel like pulling my hair out of my head. I’ve spent the last few days poring over books and online posts about story structure setup. For the love of whatever deity you want, I know that they’re writers, but is it necessary to be so wordy? Why don’t they just get to the point?
For my own sake and the sake of other irritated novice writers, I’m just going to cut through the flowery crap and get to the point. The Setup of a story is the first 25% of a story. It does exactly what it sounds like it does – “sets up” the hero to make a pivotal decision at a major plot milestone called the First Plot Point. In this post, I’ll start the discussion of Setup by presenting a quick overview of my interpretation of the Setup.
Every story runs on a timeline. The clock is always running in a book. Every action, event, and word that the author uses must keep the story moving forward along this timeline. If not, the story loses its momentum and possibly, its reader. That’s where the story structure milestones come into play.
A story’s timeline can be broken down into four parts or quadrants:
1. First 25%: Setup
2. Second 25%: Response
3. Third 25%: Attack
4. Final 25%: Resolution
In case you’re wondering, the classic three-act structure is just another way of breaking down a story. I’ll just mention it here to avoid confusion:
1. First 25%: Act 1 (Set up)
2. Second 25%: Act 2A (Response)
3. Third 25%: Act 2B. (Attack)
4. Final 25%: Act 3 (Resolution)
I’m just going to use the quadrant terms because I’m used to it. Within each quadrant, there are pivotal milestones that keep the story moving along the timeline. The milestones in the Setup are as follows:
- Inciting Incident
- First Plot Point (20-25%)
I like learning things “top down,” so I’ll start at a higher level and discuss the Setup as a whole before deep diving into purpose of the Setup’s milestones in a different post.
For me, a story’s Setup is the most difficult portion of the book to write. I’m an impatient reader. I guess that’s why I’m an impatient writer. I just want to get to the heart of the conflict and move on with life. But, wait a second. According to the “writing experts,” that’s not what I’m supposed to do. And to be fair, after reading more about the setup’s purpose, I agree with them.
Basically, the Setup shows what the hero’s life is like before he or she is dragged into conflict. The author must accomplish two primary objectives in this section of the book:
OBJECTIVE #1: MAKE THE READER CARE
I struggled with this. Diving straight into the main conflict on page one just seemed like a cool thing to do. But why should the reader care if Anita Bath is about to jump off the cliff on page one? Who cares if Jacque Strap just caught a disease? What difference does it make if Holden Magroin holds up a liquor store? I could keep going, but I’ll stop here. You get my point.
The best writers make their readers weep or cheer or both for their heroes within the first quadrant. Think Harry Potter and his dysfunctional Muggle family. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon kept him in a cupboard under the stairs. His cousin Dudley was a bully who subjected him to daily torment. Harry didn’t even get to celebrate his eleventh birthday or any other birthday. Is there anything more pathetic? I wanted Harry to turn his relatives into slugs and crush them under his heel. Go get ‘em, Harry Potter! Turn them into slugs! But that’s what I mean. We all cared about Harry from the very beginning of the story.
And what about poor Katniss Everdeen? She and her family were starving in poverty-stricken District 13 before she was dragged into the Hunger Games. When her father died, she stepped up to take care of her mother and sister. She was honorable and a fighter. Who wouldn’t root for this girl?
Luke Skywalker was bored out of his mind living with his aunt and uncle on a farm in Tattoine before flying away to fight the Evil Empire. We could sense his yearning for excitement and adventure, but admired his willingness to stay home another year to help his uncle with the farm.
OBJECTIVE #2: FORESHADOW THE ANTAGONIST
For me, the best stories also show the antagonistic force at work in the “Life Before” world. The first chapter of Harry Potter talks about “The Boy Who Lived” without an explanation of how. In “Star Wars,” we see Princess Leia being taken prisoner by Darth Vader but we really don’t know why. Both of these books use prologues to show the antagonist at work WITHOUT fully explaining their evil plans.
The Hunger Games uses a slightly different technique. It doesn’t have a prologue, but we still immediately understand that something is wrong within the first few pages. We meet Katniss for the first time on an unusual day. The streets of her town are empty. There are no coal miners trudging along to work. There’s a mysterious event called a “reaping” that’s going to take place. Obviously, “Life Before” isn’t very good for Ms. Everdeen.
All three stories do a fantastic job of pacing the information exposition in the first quarter of the book. None of the authors just dumped the entire world on the reader like a cold bucket of water. They slowly immersed the readers into their worlds. Everything in these setups leads to a critical decision that each hero makes at the first Plot point, which I will discuss in more detail in my next post on story structure.