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Monday, July 27

The Difference Between Good Setup and Bad Setup

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing can be a confusing endeavor. The same words can mean very different things depending on the context, which can make it hard to fully understand certain 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 one of those situational words.

“You want to set up your novel’s plot, but avoid setup” is a legitimate piece of advice that can also make a writer crazy.

Setup: The Bad

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 how a character got to a certain point, or why that character is the way they are. 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.

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

Setup: The Good

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 all while moving the plot and story forward at the same time.

If the information moves the story forward, odds are it’s good setup.

(Here’s more on painting your story world)

Basically, bad setup stops the story, good setup makes readers want to keep reading.

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).

Common Bad Setup Pitfalls

1. The Infodump

Infodumps are probably the most common example of bad setup. We’re afraid readers won’t be able to understand an upcoming scene, so we stop the story to dump information we think is necessary. Often, this hurts the story because it doesn’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 what otherwise is a good story hook.

Genre stories with a lot of world building are the exception here (science fiction, fantasy, historical), as sometimes a little more information is indeed necessary to understand a scene. Readers 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 setup 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 or the like. Avoid a paragraph-long infodump about the reason it’s dangerous to be out after dark and why that reason exists.

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.

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.

In both examples, we see being outside after dark might get you killed. We can guess Mardel is going to run into trouble, but in example one, it’s 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 to intrigue us to read on. It sets up something for readers to anticipate without explaining the mystery away.

In example two, 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 and there’s nothing to anticipate. Even when he runs into a demon, we saw it coming a mile away and know nothing bad will come of it. The setup of “Mardel will face a demon” ruins the fun of seeing it happen.

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

2. The Flashback

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 novel on hold to get it. Bad setup flashbacks stop 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.”

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.

Good setup: Mardel approached the house he hadn’t seen in ten years. The scar along his thigh burned and he scowled. He must be more desperate than he’d thought.

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 Jull’s blade, barely missing his gut. He must be more desperate than he’d thought to come back here.

While this is a mini-flashback, it’s easy to see how a longer scene could play out were 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 be drawn into the story by. Example two gives it all away and leaves very little for readers to discover.

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

3. The Day in the Life

This is most commonly seen in beginnings, and it’s a tricky one, because common writing advice says to start with the protagonist’s world before you change that world. The problem comes when there’s no conflict or problem for the protagonist to encounter, so the “day in the life” is just watching the protagonist go about her (often boring) day until something (usually) “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.

Often, we’ll find backstory and infodump mixed in with the “typical day” as well, trying to add some excitement or interest to what our instincts are telling us is a boring setup scene.

Good setup: Something wasn’t right about those three. Mardel slid a pint of ale down the bar toward Grog, his gaze on a trio of men near the door. 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. Three bowls. Only one table had three patrons. “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 until the men draw weapons and things go down and Mardel shows off his fighting skills).

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, and 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).

Same basic scene, but the first 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)

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.

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

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 :)