Friday, January 22, 2021

Why Your Novel Isn’t Hooking Your Reader

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

How to tell the difference between good setup, and bad setup, in your novel.

I’ve always written fantasy and science fiction, so I learned right away how perilous setup is to a novel. I wrote dozens of terrible beginnings and first acts that were barely more than a dramatized version of my notes. Characters gave lectures, they didn’t have conversations. And I’d stick my authorial nose into the story to explain the things my characters didn’t know.

I even wrote the dreaded, history-ladened “fantasy world building prologue” a time or two. [shudders]

On the bright side, facing this extra challenge early on helped me figure out how show, don’t tell and point of view worked, which made writing in general a lot easier. It also taught me a very good lesson I still use today.

Good setup creates anticipation for the novel; it doesn’t explain how the novel started.

Bad setup is frequently a mix of backstory and infodumps, telling way too much because the writer is worried readers won’t understand the story. It’s giving history lessons of the character, the world, or both, and leaves nothing for readers to wonder about.

Instead of dropping hints that, for example, show your protagonist is recovering from PTSD, you state it, and then go on to explain what happened to cause it. Or you have your protagonist relay the whole story about her messy breakup and how she’s still not technically divorced—and now readers know why she’s balking from getting involved with the love interest.

Good setup piques interest and gives readers just enough information to ground them and make them want to know more.

(Here’s more on What “Setup” in a Novel Actually Means)

The Difference Between Good Setup and Bad Setup in a Novel

Writing can be a confusing endeavor. Some terms mean different things depending on the context, which can make it hard to fully understand those concepts.

For example, “writing” can mean the act of crafting a novel, the technical aspects of it, or the prose or story itself. When someone says, “the writing is what matters most,” what are they talking about? Technical skill? Story? Getting words down on a regular basis?

Setup is the same way.

In writing terms, setup is both the unnecessary information we dump to get readers up to speed on the story, and the necessary information readers need to understand (and become intrigued by) that story.

Which is why “You want to set up your novel’s plot, but avoid setup” is a legitimate piece of advice that writers hear all the time.

Infuriating, right?

When people talk about bad setup, they’re referring to elements that explain the story, such as infodumps and backstory. For example, a flashback that exists solely to explain why a character is scared of commitment, or why that character is skittish around animals. It stops the story because there’s no goal or reason for it to be there aside from dumping information.

If the information is there only to explain, odds are it’s bad setup. 

Good setup refers to the elements that flesh out the story and lay the groundwork for the plot. They’re conveyed in a way that establishes a character, world, or situation, moves the plot and story forward, and at the same time, generates anticipation for what will come next.

If the information moves the story forward and creates anticipation for that story, odds are it’s good setup.

One easy test to see if you have good or bad setup is to take out the setup. If the story reads fine without it, odds are it’s bad setup (baring any tweaks to smooth the text of course). If the story feels like something is missing, the setup was probably necessary.

Objectivity is key here. “But readers need to know this” is often a red flag for bad setup, especially if that’s the only reason it’s there.

(Here’s more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

Here are three ways bad setup creeps into a novel:

1. It sneaks in through details that are told instead of shown.

Infodumps are the most common example of bad setup. They hurt the story because they don’t allow readers the enjoyment of figuring out the plot, character, or world on their own. It takes all the mystery out, and that can ruin an otherwise good story hook.

Genre stories with a lot of world building are the exception here (science fiction, fantasy, historical), as more information is often necessary to understand a scene. Readers do need to know how the world works, and we can’t always show that in action. The trick here is to limit how much we dump and how we dump it.

For example, if you’re trying to set up that being out on the street after dark is dangerous, show the character being nervous about going out after dark, or have them think about it being a bad idea. Avoid a paragraph-long infodump about the reason it’s dangerous to be out after dark and why that reason exists.

Let’s look at an example:

Bad setup: Mardel frowned. Leaving Lord Jull’s house was a bad idea, even if getting caught meant his death. Ever since the dark wizard’s guild opened that portal to who-knew-where, the streets of Klanduk were crawling with demons who devoured the souls of all they encountered. Those with any sense at all stayed in when the sun went down, but he didn’t have a choice. He slipped out the door and into the night, and hoped he’d stay clear of demons.

Good setup: Mardel frowned. Face certain capture and death if he stayed, or risk the dark streets alone, without decent weapons. As if he had a choice. Possible death—even soul death—was better than Lord Jull finding him here. He slipped out the door and into the night.

In both examples, we see being outside after dark might get you killed, and we can guess Mardel is going to run into trouble if he goes outside.

In example one, it’s all bad setup that explains why being outside is bad, and does nothing to pique curiosity about what’s to come. Since the story stopped so clearly to dump this information on us, we know Mardel will indeed run into a demon. That takes most of the fun out of it, because we’ll be waiting for it to happen instead of wondering what problem he’ll face.

And because we know demons eat souls, we know this won’t actually happen to our hero. So the tension vanishes. It turns anticipation into expectation, and thus predictability. Even when he runs into a demon later, we saw it coming a mile away and know nothing bad will come of it. The telegraphed setup of “Mardel will soon face a demon” ruins the surprise of seeing it happen and the reveal behind his “soul death” comment.

In example two, the dangers of being out after dark are a tease. Why is being out after dark dangerous? What exactly is a soul death? What’s bad about Lord Jull? We don’t know the details, we just know it’s risky, and we have plenty of intriguing hints to encourage us to read on. It sets up something for readers to anticipate without explaining the mystery away.

(Here’s more on The Power of Explanation Compels You: Avoiding the Dreaded Infodump) 

2. It sneaks in through details that flash back to move forward.

Flashbacks stop the story even when done well, so it’s important to make sure readers want to know this information and are willing to put the main story on hold to get it.

Bad setup often uses flashbacks to explain whatever is coming up and why it’s important. Think of it as saying, “oh, this really cool scene is coming up, let me tell you why it’s awesome,” which kills all the awesomeness when we get there.

If you find yourself adding a flashback so readers will “get” an upcoming scene, reconsider. Look instead for details that will suggest how the flashback affected the character.

For example:

Bad setup: Mardel approached the house he hadn’t seen in ten years, not since the night Jull tried to kill him and almost succeeded. They’d argued over what to do with the talisman, destroy it or use it. The scar along his thigh burned from when Jull’s blade barely missed his gut in a close fight. He sighed. He must be more desperate than he’d thought to come back here.

Good setup: Mardel approached the house he hadn’t seen in ten years. The scar along his thigh burned and he scowled. Was he really this desperate? You’re going to Jull for help—what do you think?

While this is a mini-flashback, it’s easy to see how a longer scene could play out where Mardel remembers the night Jull tried to kill him. But even in this small sample, we can see how the bad setup explains all the information readers will wonder about, and leaves nothing a mystery to further draw them into the story.

(Here’s more on Cover Me, I'm Going Back: Tips on Writing Flashbacks)

3. It sneaks in through surprises that come out of nowhere.

Out-of-the-blue surprises are most commonly seen in openings. While surprises can and do work, the problem comes when there’s no conflict or problem in the opening scene for the protagonist to encounter, so the reader is just watching the protagonist go about their (often boring) day until something “suddenly” happens and the plot begins.

If you use the words suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere, or something similar just before a big action scene, that could indicate there’s some bad setup to deal with. The scene leading up to that “surprise” doesn’t matter to the story or plot. It just needs to be there so the protagonist can be surprised.

Often, we’ll find backstory and infodump mixed in with the “typical day surprises” as well, because now we need to explain why this surprised happened. There’s no groundwork for it, so we have to backfill why it matters.

For example:

Bad setup: Mardel slid a pint of ale down the bar toward Grog, then filled three bowls from the bubbling pot over the hearth. Danya, the barmaid, had her hands full with the usual evening crowd, so it was the least he could do. Maybe she’d thank him later with a warm bed and warmer smile (pretend this continues this way for three more pages as we describe the bar, the patrons, the city, and how Mardel found himself to be here).

Suddenly, three men at the table near the door threw off their cloaks and drew weapons. They attacked, stabbing old Grog in the throat. Danya screamed and the bar erupted into chaos (pretend this goes on like this for another page or two, describing the fight while Mardel jumps in and exhibits fighting his skills).

Good setup: Something wasn’t right about those three. Mardel kept his gaze on a trio of men near the door as he slid pint of ale down the bar toward Grog. They seemed no different from the rest of the patrons—same dusty cloaks, same smell—but they didn’t belong. It was their shoulders. Tense, braced, not sagging and exhausted from a hard day’s farming.

“Fill these for me?” Danya asked, handing him a stack of stew bowls.

“My pleasure.” He smiled, but it faded quick. Three bowls. Only one table had three patrons at the moment. “I’ll take these over if you grab me a fresh cask of white from the cellar.”

Danya glanced at the trio and nodded (pretend this continues as he serves them and checks them out, then the men draw weapons and things go down and Mardel shows off his fighting skills).

Same basic scene, but in the second example it’s clear from the first line that something is wrong. We see Mardel’s regular day, we know he works in the bar, but the focus is on what’s not normal about his day. Three men who set off warning signs for him.

We also see some interesting details in what’s not being said. Mardel might look like a barkeep or tavern owner, but he can tell there’s something off about those men by the way they hold their shoulders. He also sends Danya down into the wine cellar to keep her out of danger while he checks it out. These clues set up that Mardel has skills, so when he exhibits his swordplay in fighting off the three suspicious characters, readers won’t feel like it came out of the blue.

(Here’s more on Three Ways to Ground Readers in Your World)

The goal of good setup is to hook your readers and tease them with what’s to come.

So much of strong storytelling is making readers anticipate what’s to come and making them eager to read on. Good setup accomplishes this task, while bad setup steals all the tension and mystery from the story.

Instead of explaining, drop hints, make readers wonder, and create story questions they’re going to want answers to at some point. That way, you’ll create anticipation and promise them an entertaining read.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the setup on your opening chapters (or anywhere else you have it). Are you establishing the clues and hints to draw readers in, or are you dumping information they just “need to know?”

Do you have any bad setup that could use a little tweaking in your manuscript?

*Originally published July 2015. Last updated January 2021.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great examples, as usual, Janice! I learn so much from your posts.

  2. Terrific points as always Janice. But I have to say I found myself chuckling, because even your Bad Setup examples are actually pretty good and wouldn't stop this reader. LOL. You're too good a writer to do bad really must try harder on the BAD writing examples. ;-)


    1. LOL I try! I should see if I have any of my really old writing laying around. I know I have some terrible examples there.

      Oh! I should do a "send me a page of your worst old drafts" day. Anyone who wants, can send stuff I can use as examples when I need them.

  3. Yes to both! :) I'd definitely submit something for you. I have some killer infodumps and purple prose in my earliest work :)

  4. Janice, this post has taught me so things I've been going round and round about for some time now. This is especially true in your last example, the typical day. Thanks.

  5. Love this post, Janice! Especially handy as I'm doing more freelance editing work :-)

    1. Thanks! And very cool about the editing work :)

  6. This is all so helpful. Thank you. I'd add one comment, if I may. We are in the character's head, in the examples, and in our own heads we don't think of ourselves as frowning or scowling. Those are things others see. We are preoccupied with the thoughts that create facial expressions.

    1. So true. That's one of those gray areas with POV. Technically, you're right, we don't think about what we do, and sometimes saying it does feel weird (like describing the color of your own hair as you brush it). But if we never wrote external actions a character does but can't see (like smiling), readers would have no idea what was going on. And characters do know they're smiling, because they physically do it. I smiled is no different from I walked. It's something they do, unlike seeing the color of a blush.

      Tricky stuff to walk that line sometimes. :)