Happy Friday! Welcome to the second installment in Truthful Storytelling’s story structure series. Last week, we talked about the Hook and its function. Today, we’re discussing the Set Up and how it ties into the story.
Let’s jump right in!
Where Does The Set Up Belong?
The Set Up belongs in the space between the Hook and the Inciting Event. It should cover approximately the first 12% of the narrative.
What Is The Set Up?
The Set Up is your chance to introduce your characters, lay out the story’s stakes, and flesh out the story’s world. The Set Up is what makes the Inciting Event matter.
Sometimes, the Set Up can feel like a vague, scary story beat (for me, anyway), but if you keep in mind the goals laid out above, this beat will become more concrete.
The Set Up Is The Characters
Use the time before the Inciting Event to introduce as many pertinent characters as possible. One of the reasons we read is to connect with the fictional people that populate a story, so it’s important your readers become attached to the characters quickly. Otherwise, you risk losing their interest.
The Set Up gives your reader time to get to know the protagonist(s) in their normal world — before everything changes. Show the reader who your character is, what their interests are, and what/who they care about.
Most importantly, make it clear what they’re missing. What Lie does this character believe about themselves or the world, and what Truth will they come to understand by the end of the story? Why do they need to go on this journey, specifically?
Consider Tangled (again). As soon as we’re introduced to Rapunzel, we get a sense of who she is and what she’s missing. We see that she’s kind, artistic, and vivacious. We also see that she lacks confidence in herself and in her abilities from how she interacts with Mother Gothel and from her general demeanor. Very quickly, the movie sets up Rapunzel’s character, her Lie (that she won’t survive out in the world), and the Truth she needs to learn (that she can do pretty much anything she sets her mind to).
The Set Up has the weighty task of getting readers attached to the characters who are introduced — especially the protagonist. If it fails, the Inciting Event and pretty much every story beat after that are undermined. If the readers don’t have a good reason to care about the protagonist or the other characters, they likely won’t care about the characters’ journey.
Don’t be afraid to take a breath after the Hook and spend some time with the characters. You have to budget time to focus on the plot-centric elements of the story, but you definitely don’t want to take shortcuts when it comes to character introductions.
The Set Up Is The Stakes
While you’re introducing the readers to the characters, you also want to be showing them the story’s stakes. What will happen if the protagonist fails? What or who is he/she going up against?
It is important to give readers a sense of the stakes before the Inciting Event. Otherwise, this crucial beat might seem to come out of left field. While your readers don’t need to understand the full extent of what’s at stake, they should at least have an idea.
(MILD SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE AHEAD)
A story that does this well is Star Wars: A New Hope. Luke may not have a concrete idea of the stakes or main conflict, but the writers make sure we do.
In the time before the Inciting Event, we see the power and ruthlessness of the Empire. We’re also introduced to Tarkin and Darth Vader, our main villains, and get a front row seat to the conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire. Furthermore, even before the Death Star is used, we understand that there will be dire consequences for the whole galaxy if the Death Star is not destroyed.
The Set Up Is The World Building
Once your story’s plot really gets going, you don’t want to waste precious page time on basic world building. You should establish the general ideas of your world swiftly, so you can use the other story beats to build on the foundation you already laid down.
This aspect of the Set Up is most important in fantasy and sci fi setting, but it still applies to stories set in our world. Even if your readers already know how this world works, you can use the Set Up to familiarize them with what the protagonist’s personal world (i.e., their everyday life) looks like.
As discussed in last week’s post, Treasure Planet does world building very well. The writers used this movie’s Set Up to quickly introduce us to the main aspects of the world. They establish in the very first scene that, in this universe, futuristic ships modeled after an 1800s style take to the stars. Through visual exposition, we see that solar power is used for the ships and for smaller vehicles like Jim’s solar surfer. The early scenes at the inn continue to make it clear that this world is a mashup of 1800s styles and futuristic technologies. All this comes together to give us an overview of how this world works.
Since this is all established early on, no time is wasted doing so later in the film. Instead, we get to explore this exciting new world while watching Jim’s journey unfold.
So… What Is The Set Up?
Stay tuned! Next week, we’re going to look at the Inciting Incident!