Wednesday, June 19, 2019

What “Setup” in a Novel Actually Means

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Setup is one of the more confusing (and frustrating) terms in writing.

I was working with a writer recently on developing his novel, and were discussing his struggles in setting up the story. Specifically, his frustrations with the word setup and what it actually meant, because he kept reading articles advising him to avoid setup, but then he’d also see advice on the importance of setting up a story.

I don’t blame him for being confused or annoyed by this.

Setup is a misleading word, especially since it has both positive and negative connotations, and it can be hard to know which one people mean. People say “setup,” even though they mean, “establish the premise of the story and tee up where the plot is going to go.” But that’s harder to work into a conversation.

Setup Is Too Vague a Term to Be Truly Useful for Writers

Like so many multiple-meaning terms in writing, setup means different things to different people depending on the context of how it’s used. In countless conversations between writers every day, you’ll hear both these statements:
“You have too much setup in the beginning.”
“You need more setup in the beginning.”
The worst part? They mean two different things—and not for the reasons you’d think. It’s not that one has too much and the other too little, it’s that one is using bad setup to explain, while the other isn’t properly establishing the story, characters, and world so readers can immediately get on board with the premise.

(Here's more on Why Your Setup Isn’t Hooking Your Reader)

Good Setup versus Bad Setup

A novel that dumps information instead of showing a protagonist with a problem likely suffers from bad setup, because too much time is spent explaining (and setting up) the story and little to no time is spent showing the character in the story pursuing a goal and driving the plot. Readers aren’t part of the story yet, because there is no story yet—no protagonist trying to achieve a goal.

A novel that creates a situation in which readers can figure out what the issues and problems the protagonist is dealing with are through observing that character in action, is likely establishing (setting up) the novel to come by showing the story or premise in action. Readers can make logical assumptions about the character and world based on what they see the character doing in that world. Readers are part of the story, experiencing what the protagonist does in pursuit of a goal.

It’s show, don’t tell at a macro level, really. You don’t start the story with an explanation about how the protagonist got attacked by a dog when she was twelve and now she’s terrified of them. You show a dog come into the room and she freaks out. Readers will figure out she’s afraid of dogs by seeing her afraid of a dog.

(Here's more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

Bad setup in the extreme

Think of bad setup like explaining why a joke is funny before you tell the joke. For example:
At the top of the noble gases is little helium, with a shell that is full with only two electrons. The fact that their outer shells are full means they are quite happy and don't need to react with other elements. In fact, they rarely combine with other elements. When Helium walks into a bar and asks for a drink, the bartender says, "Sorry, we don't serve noble gases here." But Helium doesn't react. Because it’s inert.
Kinda takes the humor out of it.

This example is more blatant than novels with a setup problem, but only because it’s so short the setup is obvious. We immediately know the information at the start has nothing to do with the joke, and either we understand enough about helium to get the joke or we don’t. If we have to explain it, it’s no longer funny.

Good setup in the extreme

Let’s look at a similar joke that sets up (the good way) the joke:
A drunk walks into a bar with jumper cables around his neck. The bartender says, "You can stay but don't try to start anything."
The setup here is establishing that the joke is a “walks into a bar” joke (think of this as the genre), and the unusual detail is going to be the focus of the humor (the premise here, is that jumper cables and bars have something in common that allows for humorous wordplay). Then the punchline plays off the detail’s function, combined with something that frequently happens in bars. We see the guy, the cables, we know what jumper cables are for, so the bartender’s comment alludes to function using wordplay to subvert expectations. People start fights in bars. Jumper cables start cars. Humor, har har.

Why one works and one doesn’t

We’re familiar enough with jokes to recognize the setup and anticipate what’s coming. That anticipation creates expectations, which are then met in an unusual way. Stories have similar structures in that we create anticipation and expectations by how we write a scene, and make readers want to hear the punchline—or in a novel’s case—explore the premise.

We know it’s going to be a mystery, because someone just found the latest victim of a serial killer. The premise is a story about catching a serial killer. The specifics of that premise will be established in the opening scene and first several chapters.

We know its going to be a fantasy, because we see a magical sword impaled in a stone no one can retrieve, and a boy no one expects to be king. The premise is whoever pulls the sword from the stone will be king.

We know it’s going to be a personal journey tale, because we see a character burying her husband and wondering how she’s going to cope. The premise is a story about a woman finding her way in her new widowed world.

The beginning of a novel exists to show readers an intriguing premise, introduce them to a character with a problem, and then convince them to stick around and see how it turns out. The better we establish how interesting that premise, character, and problem might be, the bigger the chance we keep that reader.

When we explain our beginning before we show it, it’s no longer interesting. When we establish what’s interesting about it, we get readers interested, too.

(Here’s more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

But What About Readers Who Won’t Get the Joke?

Not everyone will get the joke, but you can’t ruin it for everyone else who do get it. It’s not your responsibility to ensure they’ve taken enough chemistry or physics to know the properties of helium.

However, (and this is where it gets trickier), if your beginning requires a knowledge of chemistry or physics in order to understand the premise, then you need make sure you provide groundwork so readers can be brought up to speed quickly. But you also need to do it without explaining it. You can’t give a lecture about the vital aspects of your novel and then hope readers will slog through it to get to the story.

For example:

In a mystery, you wouldn’t explain how a detective works or how the police process a crime scene, but you would show a detective interacting with the police as they process a crime scene.

In a fantasy, you wouldn’t specify the cause of the magic and explain how it works, you’d show people using magic and the results of that.

In a mainstream novel, you wouldn’t present a summarized history of the protagonist’s past and how it currently affects her, you’d show how someone affected by that past acts.

I’m using individual moments as examples here, but this applies to the entire beginning. If your premise is “a boy at wizard school,” then you’re going to show a boy going to wizard school and learning magic. If it’s a magic mailbox that sends letters through time, we’ll see it working. If it’s first contact with aliens, well see some aliens.

(Here’s more on 5 Common Problems With Beginnings)

If you start thinking of setup as “establishing the premise,” then it doesn’t matter so much how it’s used in conversation.

Bad setup becomes “failure to establish the premise,” and then you can study the work and figure out why. Is that failure due to a show, don’t tell issue, a backstory issue, a not enough details issues, or one of the other typical beginning problems? Good setup becomes the various ways to create a strong opening and lay the groundwork for your story.

And since this post is already long, I think I’ll save ways to establish your novel's beginning for Friday instead of doing a Refresher.

Have you ever struggled with what setup really means? What problems have you faced with your novel’s beginning?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I'm actively struggling with this. Here's the problem: I have a two-part setup. The first few chapters are driven by one goal (finding a magic mentor) but then the rest of the book is driven by another goal (finding her lost brother). They are related--the protagonist needs what she learns from her magic mentor to find her brother, but it leaves me unsure how to do the opening scene. Right now, I have it focus on her internal arc (become more empathetic) because that spans both external goals, but I'm worried that then the stakes start out too slow or too internal for an upper middle grade book.

    1. There's often a problem in the opening scene that's loosely connected (or even unconnected sometimes) to the main conflict. It works as a bridge to get the protagonist from page one to the inciting event. If she needs to find a mentor in order to find her brother (as in, she needs to learn skills to be able to do it or something similar), then that's enough of a connection.

      It sounds as though her internal need is driving her to act externally (find the mentor), which will then lead to her searching for her brother. That seems right to me.

      If her goal matters to her, and not getting it will affect her life for the worse, then the stakes are likely fine. They can be lower at the start, because the book just opened. if the brother is missing from the start, and that's why she's looking for a mentor, that's very high stakes. Hope this helps!

  2. Thanks! That's very reassuring to hear. Honestly, I'm a bit tired of fantasy openings where someone or someones are immediately in serious danger. I like a slower build-up. Glad to know I'm not the only one!

    1. Most welcome! Going too fast too soon is a common problem for beginnings. Until readers care about the characters, they don't care that they're in trouble.