In Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott writes that story writing is like a joke: first there’s a set-up, then there’s a build-up and last comes the punch line or payoff. I reread her advice again and again as I seek to improve my craft.
Writing Tip for Today: The set-up of a story gives readers the information and emotions they need to read the rest of the story. Let’s look at how we can make our setups more effective:
What Set-ups Need
Your story’s opening pages constitute the “set-up” Lamott refers to. You, as author, must decide what kinds of information to give, and what information to withhold. You also must set the tone (humorous, dramatic, action-oriented, more interior) and convince readers to follow the Main character’s journey. These three elements must be presented in a way that sets the pace of the story.
Your set-up also needs at least one character, a point of view, a goal of some sort and a hint at obstacles the character will face. In most fiction, the setting is also included in the opening (the where and when) and in the best stories, the opening will give readers the purpose of the story—although often cryptically and not realized until later.
We all want readers turning pages.
Your story set-up may be complex or simple, but it’s imperative that readers are able to follow the breadcrumbs you leave in a way that keeps their curiosity piqued. We all want readers turning pages to see what happens next. Good set-ups build a road that readers can walk without too many rabbit-holes or digressions.
Set-up by the Numbers
Resources abound with all sorts of methods for divvying up the set-up, the build-up and the pay-off. You can follow the Classic Three-Act Structure, the Quest Journey model or even use a human skeleton to visualize and divide your story into these three phase.
Most methods follow a 20-60-20 formula.
Most methods follow a 20-60-20 formula. Set-ups usually change to build-ups about twenty-percent into the story. The Build-up phase (or Act II) takes the largest number of words. The Climax and resolution (Act III) fill the remaining twenty-percent. These are rough estimates, but I’ve found that they’re usually fairly accurate.
If you’d like to test this idea, find the climax scene of any novel of around 300 pages or so that you’ve read and enjoyed. Chances are, this scene and the resolution (aka denouement) will happen in the last thirty or so pages.
We’ll discuss the reasons for this in an upcoming post. Most novels do roughly follow that 20-60-20 model. Try it with your work-in-progress (WIP). Find the first 20% of your word count. If your set-up goes beyond this wordcount by a lot, you may need to adjust the opening.
Your Best Set-up
What should go into the set-up and what should you omit or withhold? We already identified the need for Setting/Time period, Character, POV, Goal, Obstacle. You may have noticed that this list closely resembles the Eleven Elements of a Scene. Setting, Time Barrier, Character, POV, Purpose, Sights, Sounds, Taste, Touch, Smell and the Quality of Light. Include many or all of these in your opening and you have a better chance of creating a set-up that excites readers.
Yet, Beware: If your set-up includes too many of those details, tries to introduce too much too fast or withholds the wrong information, your story’s pace suffers. If your set-up feels sluggish or boring, use the twenty-percent idea to cull unnecessary details.
If your Beta Readers give similar feedback that the set-up is confusing, feels long or is unfocused, use the twenty-percent guide to prioritize. Make sure you keep Need to Know Right Now passages. But jettison some of the extra stuff, characters or subplots.
Make Sure you keep Need to Know Right Now passages.
Use these elements to get your story and character moving. You want her/him moving toward the goal, battling the obstacles and losing hope before (we hope) rising one last time to overcome obstacles and win the goal.
In the Pay-off (resolution), the character will either win, lose or draw (not recommended.) To create characters that readers will anxiously follow, you must write a set-up that arouses curiosity and compels readers toward the Build-up and Pay-off.