January 9th, 2017

Crafting a Powerful Set-Up

Becca Puglisi

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As authors, we all know the importance of engaging our audience within a book’s first few pages. It’s called grabbing the reader: captivating them in a way that makes them want to stick with the story to its end.

Michael Hauge prefers the term seducing:

“Everybody likes to be seduced; it’s a gradual, enjoyable, and emotionally involving experience that thoroughly captures our attention.” (Writing Screenplays That Sell)

Whatever your terminology, drawing in readers is a vitally important process that needs to happen at the beginning of your story. Also called the set-up, it’s everything that occurs before the all-important catalyst that propels your character out of his regular world into a new one. According to Blake Snyder (Save the Cat), the set-up should consist of roughly the first 12% of your story. This is a guideline that you can set in stone or take with a grain of salt, depending on your plotting/pantsing style. But 12% is a good rule of thumb because it’s enough real estate to set the stage and draw readers in without it dragging on and putting them to sleep.

Unfortunately, we can get the length of the set-up right and still not achieve the goal of pulling readers in. To do this, we have to tap into their emotions. If we don’t make them feel, they won’t be invested in the character; if they’re not invested in the character, they won’t care what happens to him and won’t keep reading to see if he succeeds. So it’s incredibly important that the set-up elicit emotion from the reader. There are a few things you can include in your opening pages that will help accomplish this.

Character Empathy

Readers start reading a book for a variety of reasons: they liked the premise, it was a recommended by a friend, they’re a fan of the author. Readers keep reading because they connect with the characters. We have a very small window—that first 12%—to achieve the reader-character connection, and eliciting empathy is a great way to make it happen. Here are a few ways to encourage that special something between the reader and your protagonist.

  • Universal Needs. Readers like characters they can relate to in some way. One way to bond your audience of unique individuals to the protagonist is to remove one of her basic human needs, such as belonging or surviving. Because everyone understands these needs, taking one of them away from your hero can endear readers to her. This is one reason Katniss Everdeen was such a successful protagonist. Most readers couldn’t relate to her circumstances of having to kill others to survive, but they could understand needing to protect a vulnerable loved one or providing for one’s family. If you want to increase your reader’s empathy for the hero, try taking away a universal need, and the reader will stay tuned to see if she can get it back.
  • Admirability. People are drawn to those they admire, so it’s a good idea to give your hero some qualities that readers will appreciate or aspire to themselves. Intelligence, a sense of humor, kindness, generosity, honor—these are attributes people long for. Seeing them personified in the hero opens us up to them, making us want them to do well. Notice that I didn’t say a protagonist must be likable (though that works, too). As a selfish and manipulative character, Scarlett O’Hara isn’t exactly a glowing role model, but people relate to her because of her shrewdness, tenacity, and confidence. It’s her admirable qualities that win readers over.
  • Uniqueness. Readers, along with editors, agents, and publishers, are tired of seeing new versions of the same old characters. We want someone who surprises us with something new. A janitor who anonymously and effortlessly solves impossible math theorems at M.I.T. (Good Will Hunting). An art student in Prague who collects teeth for the demons who raised her (Daughter of Smoke and Bone). When you’re creating your protagonist, see what you can do to make him or her stand out from the crowd and be remembered.
  • Remarkability. Few people truly excel in any area, but most would like to. Characters who are remarkable in some way speak to our need for esteem and recognition, whether it’s because they’re intelligent, incredibly talented, or have an unusual ability. Make your character extraordinary and readers will often respond.

Conflict

Well-written conflict inherently elicits emotion—anticipation, yes, as the reader worries about the protagonist’s well being, but it also can generate feelings like nervousness, frustration, or fear. Create a situation many readers have experienced or can imagine going through, and you’ve added relateabilty, too.

This conflict can be overt and obvious, such as a fistfight, terrorist attack, or someone fleeing for his life. But this doesn’t always work in the set-up because the reader hasn’t had enough time to get to know the protagonist and care about what happens to him. Conflict at this stage is often more effective when it’s hinted at or implied. In Stephen King’s Under the Dome, we first see Dale Barbara as he’s leaving town after “taking a pretty good beating at The Mill.” That’s the only reference to his altercation, but it’s enough to tweak the reader’s empathy meter and pique interest. Why’d he get beaten up? Who did it? If he’s innocent, why is he leaving town?

Conflict can also be internal rather than external. A character struggling with an important decision, questioning himself, or denying a wounding event from the past can be just as compelling as a five-care pileup. However it manifests, be sure to include some conflict in your set-up; done well, not only will it tug the reader’s heartstrings but it will keep up the pace, too.

The Need For Change

Most people—readers included—want to improve and grow, to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. They understand that change, though difficult and sometimes painful, is needed in order to achieve growth. This is why, at their most basic level, stories are about necessary change. Sometimes this change is internal, played out through the character’s arc as he works to overcome fears or wounding events and embrace the fullest version of himself. Sometimes it’s external—something within the world itself that needs fixing, such as the existence of the one ring in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The most compelling stories often contain elements of change that are both internal and external.

The set-up is the perfect place to show what needs to be changed for your character; it allows you to hint at what has to happen for the character to be fulfilled by the story’s end. Sometimes this means showing the character’s biggest flaw, the one she thinks is a strength but is really crippling her. In other cases, it might require showing an inequality or injustice in the character’s world that the character must alter in order to pursue her dreams. What has to change before your character can achieve his or her overall goal? Reference this in your opening pages and you’ll clue readers in to what has to happen for your hero to emerge victorious.

Story set-ups are tricky; we always want to include more information than they need. To stay on the straight and narrow, remember the two-fold purpose of the set-up: introduce the character in his world so it makes sense for readers, and draw readers in by activating their emotions. (The Story Maps tool at One Stop For Writers can help you organize your set-up and other important turning points while keeping them in proper proportion.) Remain focused on these outcomes, and you’re on your way toward drafting a story start that will keep readers engaged well beyond the opening pages.

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Do you struggle with the set-up? Do you love the set-up? What tips do you have for creating a reader-grabber set-up? 

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becca1About Becca

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequelsHer books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writersa powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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