• Jabe Stafford

Write Good Set-Ups

Write Good: An Absurd Storytelling And Adventure Blog

The Set Up

What does a good set-up need?


I meant that in almost every possible way it could have come out.

Writing a heist where someone’s getting his or her shiz stolen? Faith in the other characters sinks that backstabby knife deeper when it finally strikes. Are beta readers are seeing through your plot twist it like it’s the wrong end of a one-way mirror? Move that faith around so no one is who they seem. Got a character who’s too dadgum good at the job? Make them faith-plant at the one thing they thought they were genius at. If your tongue’s in knots right now, that’s the terrible pun and the alliteration doing that. Time to take a squinty-eyed look at the pieces of a friggin’ fantastic set-up. You know, the pieces you always miss when you watch your favorite movie or read your favorite book because you have so much FAITH in the story and the creators.

Don’t lie to yourself; you enjoy it when storytellers use your love of stories and characters and atmosphere against you. They lie and weave webs and pleasantly stomp on your heart if they haven’t already stolen it and replaced it with HOLY-CRAP-THAT-WAS-AWESOME-DO-IT-AGAIN. You expected one thing, then thought about three other things it could be, and it ended up being the friggin’ thirtieth thing you could have expected. That’s what you gotta do. You’re a writer. You lie and weave webs and you have permission to (metaphorically) stomp on readers’ hearts or steal ‘em and stick some HOLY FRICKNOODLES where the heart should be.

Practice stealing hearts after you read this, you current and future thief of hearts. Not literally stealing them, figuratively. Why don’t they have a playing card called the Thief of Hearts? Wait, that’s not the writing exercise! Getting back on track.

Write a page or a scene where you choreograph the reader’s faith to be in one character.

Then re-write it where the first twist you can think of—the first mis-placement of faith by the protagonist—happens.

Then re-write it again where the second twistplacement of faith you can think of happens.

And then write it a third and final time with a third different misdirection of faith.

One of those three scenes will be the absolute rockstar. The one that makes sense if the reader had just put the pieces you fed them together right. Roll with that one.

Never stop writing!

Too much faith can absolutely friggin’ suck moose balls sometimes. When the protagonist always steamrolls the competition, it’s telling the reader, “Hey, don’t pay attention to this thing I wrote. The good guy’s gonna put it together way before you could anyway.” Do you WANT readers thinking thoughts like that about your gleaming, washed-and-waxed masterpiece of a story?

You answered “yes” just to raise my blood pressure, didn’t you?

No, you don’t want that shiz happening. That reader’s gotta be craving your story like it’s drive-thru tacos after a twelve hour work shift. Introducing an obstacle or removing a skill that the protagonist has to earn back is huge at making the character’s arc more endearing. That’s part of the set-up. Hell, write a scene where the friggin’ antagonist takes that awesomeness away or injures your baby—er, your hero and the arc deepens since earning it back is now part of the story.

Think that doesn’t work?

A famous wizard private detective did it.

An assassin in a game franchise did it.

A woman bounty hunting in space in another game franchise did it.

It’s endearing to the reader to see something the pro-dragonist adores taken away. (Pro-dragonist. Gold.) That ain’t morbid, it’s storytelling. The struggle to overcome the removal of their strength—or to recover who or what they lost—is so relatable because we regular ol’ people go through similar struggles every day. It helps readers see themselves in your characters.

Wait, did I just get sincere on a way-too-squishy level?

Torture that protagonist by giving them reasons to not have faith in the people around them. Whatever they’re good at, make ‘em suck at it and earn the rockstarness back. Or even worse, make their super skill irrelevant so they have to adapt. Those are all pieces of the set-up. The set-up YOU set up to set up the reader with a dadgum good reading experience.

Now get out there and write up some adventures!