The “setup” is such an important story element, you’d think it would be impossible to carry on without it. But even after writing many years, there are times when I don’t catch the weakness in my setup until later in the revision process.
So, what’s the setup? In fiction, it’s that essential first paragraph that establishes the identity of the main character and the premise or problem of the story that the rest of the story depends on like the legs of a chair, or the poles of a tent. I recently finished a manuscript where my main character wanted to do a certain thing—good! But when my critique buddies reviewed it, they said, but why does she want to do that? I hadn’t included the reasoning behind her actions, so my setup was incomplete which made the rest of the story feel empty. What was the point of her doing all the stuff she did anyway without knowing the desire that triggered the whole thing in the first place? It was a big oversight, but easy to correct when I stopped and thought about it.
Successful stories have successful setups. Here are just a few examples:
In This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers, he opened with:
Wilfred owned a moose.
He hadn’t always owned a moose.
The moose came to him a while
ago and he knew, just KNEW
that it was meant to be his.
What a wonderful setup. The main character is Wilfred. He owns a moose. And the reader knows from the beginning that the rest of the story hinges on this premise. Did he really own him? The reader will have to keep reading to find out.
In Silly Sally by Audrey Wood, the set up looked like this:
Silly Sally went to town,
walking backwards, upside down.
Although the setup is short and silly,the reader instantly knows the identity of the main character and what she’s doing, and the reader can’t help wondering what will happen next.
In Heather Fell in the Water, by Doug MacLeod, he created this intriguing setup that instantly introduced to the main character and her problem to the reader:
Heather was a little girl who always fell in the water.
She didn’t mean to do it. She didn’t enjoy it. But she fell in the water nearly every day, especially when she was wearing her good clothes.
Right away, the reader knows the story is about Heather and her problem is falling into the water. The reader has to keep reading to find out what she’s going to do about it.
In my book Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, I setup the story by saying how Cowpoke Clyde had cleaned up his house, but spied one thing he’d plumb forgot—his dirty dawg. When the dog took off, the reader knew it was the beginning of a rambunctious chase.
Cowpoke Clyde propped up his feet.
His house was clean, his chores complete.
He'd even washed the kitchen floor
and shooed the horseflies out the door.
But right behind his cookin' pot,
he spied one thing he'd plumb forgot:
ol' Dawg, his faithful, snorin' friend,
all caked with mud from end to end.
So, if you’ve been scratching your head over one of your manuscripts, maybe the heart of the promblem lies with your setup, Did you establish the main character? Did you setup the story problem, the promise of where the story is going?
If you did—great! If you didn’t, go back and revise it because successful manuscripts always start with a successful setup.
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