Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Plotting Part 1 - The Set Up

I was going to break up my discussion of plot into four parts, but I realized I wanted to drill down deeper.  Then I thought I would do seven parts -- to coincide with the 7-Act MOW structure I told you about last summer.

But as I get into it, I realize that even that doesn't quite go deep enough... at least for the opening sections of a story.  Maybe the other acts will turn out to be simpler, but there really is a lot to do in the opening of a story.

So I'm going to give you an overview of everything I can recall about various theories of each act of a story.  I'll introduce one section, and then drill down with additional posts about aspects I think are important or complicated.  I'd especially like to talk about elements that I don't hear others talk about as much.

If you wanted to get yourself a text book for this series of posts, you could get yourself a copy of Blake Snyder's book Save The Cat.  I will refer a lot to his beat sheet.  Most of the other things I'll talk about come from so many diverse sources -- many of which are lectures or advice from mentors.  I don't know if they are written down anywhere.

So (to paraphrase Cole Porter) let's Begin the Beginning....

The Set Up

The first section of a story sets up what will come later, so it's not surprising that most plot theory refers to this section as the set up. With some screenwriting theories, this section is very strictly defined as the first 15 minutes of a movie.  In most novels I'd say it's the first three chapters, regardless of the length of the book.

Why wouldn't the length of the book matter?

Because three chapters (unless they are unusually short or long) is about as much as it takes to get the audience into the story.  That's what the set up section is for: To ease the audience into the world of the story.  Also, traditionally, three chapters is what you submit to a publisher as a sample of the book -- so it has to be a unit that sets up the story... and ends with something that gets the plot fully rolling.

And that's the real secret here: that's the real definition of the set up section: it's everything that happens up to the point of the "Inciting Incident."  That moment is also called the Catalyst, or the Thing That Throws The Protagonist's Life Out of Balance.  More on that later.

Character in a Setting with a Problem

The first theory of story plotting I ever learned was at Clarion. Algis Budrys gave us a lecture about it the first day: a story always begins with a character in a setting with a problem.

That's a good summary of what the set up section of the story is supposed to provide: information about character, setting and the conflict that drives the plot.

The great thing about this advice is that it is not only clear what it means, but it isn't really a formula.  You can play with the timing of how you introduce the setting and the character and when you get to the problem.   But there are some more advanced elements that this doesn't get to, so we're going to break this up into several elements:

The Opening Image or Paragraph

Writers aren't the only ones who start a story with a blank page.  The audience too starts a story knowing nothing, or nearly nothing.  You could say they have a blank stage in their heads.  Often they will have read the blurb and seen the cover illustration and maybe a review or something.  But just as often, especially in these days of ebooks, the audience has forgotten those by the time they get around to reading a book.  The book has been sitting on their e-reader for a while, and all the readers sees now is the title.

Furthermore, even if the audience just read the blurb and cover and a review, that usually tells them something about where the story is going... but it doesn't tell them where the story is starting out.  It doesn't put them inside the world. It doesn't set that stage.

And you can't give the audience the full picture of everything they need to know all at once. You have to fill that stage a piece at a time -- and how they relate to everything in the story will be affected by what you show them first.

We'll be talking about this in depth on Friday.

Entrances of Characters

There's an old rule of thumb in screenwriting that you should introduce all of the characters in the first ten pages. I've seen similar rules for fiction.  It's not a bad rule of thumb but it's a silly rule to stick too closely to.

What's important is to think about who you introduce in this section and how.  Who should make a grand entrance. Who might be more subtle.  We're going to talk about this one in depth next week.  But in short: you do need to introduce your protagonist, and any other character you will be setting up for a pay off at the end.  However, some characters can be set up by reputation. (More about that next Friday, with a discussion of Harry Lime and "Mr. Woo.")


Setting is sometimes one of those invisible things that we don't think about and the audience doesn't either.  And yet it's important to every element of the story.  Without setting, your characters are disembodied ghosts.

Setting is more than physical location. It's also time and social setting.  Setting is a part of your characters' limits and strengths.  It gives us the mood, and sometimes even indicates the whole meaning of the story.

Setting delineates the problem.  And very often it is the thing you need to estabish in that first image or paragraph.  (However, you don't necessarily need to establish it in depth.  Sometimes a quick word gives the audience all it needs to know.)


Blake Snyder prescribes one very specific bit of foreshadowing: he insists on a "statement of theme" on page five of a screenplay. (That's when a charcter says something that foreshadows what the story will turn out to be about.)  It's an effective technique of setting the audience up for the story, but I like to take a more flexible view on this.

The thing I am not flexible about is that the opening set up section should be making promises and giving hints as to what is to come.  Some of this will be subtle, some will be blatant. Some will be blatant but impossible to understand until you see what happens in the rest of the story.

Foreshadowing is also something that can and should happen throughout the story, but it's especially important to the beginning.

And yes, some of the foreshadowing probably should tell the audience what the character will come to learn -- which leads to the next item:

What's Wrong?

Before we even get to the Inciting Incident, we will see problems with your main character's life.  Blake Snyder calls this "Six Things That Have To Be Fixed" (six being an arbitrary number you can change).

I mentioned a month or so ago that a story reflects the five stages of grief?  This opening section coincides with "denial."  The character may or may not be in denial -- but to the audience it should be clear that things are already wrong.  Usually it's that the character is flawed in some way.  He might be too timid, or too careless. He might be ignoring his family, or be too arrogant with his friends.

Or your character might have real problems: be broke, and the car breaks down and there's no money for the groceries and she's peddaling as fast as she can to keep ahead.  But these may be ordinary problems that seem to have no real solution: bad luck.

These problems are a kind of foreshadowing too.  They create tension or conflict.  They hint at where the story is going. They promise the audience satisfaction of some sort.

The Inciting Incident

Finally, this section of the story will end with something that shakes up the situation you just set up.

The inciting incident is sometimes called a catalyst.  But whatever you call it, it's something that the protagonist can't ignore.

Sometimes the inciting incident doesn't actually happen at this point -- it happens earlier, but nobody knows about it until this point.  Sometimes it affects a character other than the protagonist, but it's something that the audience knows for sure will affect the main character.

I'll be talking about this one later too.

As for how all this will fit into the story game, I'm not sure yet.  But when we get into specific examples, I suspect we'll get some ideas.

On Friday, we'll get to Plot Part 2: Opening Images, and talk about the movie Fargo, among others.  However, I have written before about different kinds of opening pages for fiction, First Page Series.  You can read that if you want to get some ideas about how and where to start a story.

See you in the funny papers.

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jnfr said...

I always learn useful stuff from your craft posts, Camille. Thanks for taking the time to write it all out.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Jenn. Writing it out is a great way to sort it out as well.