Structure Part 1: Setup

I’m knee deep in a discussion of the book Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. He offers six core competencies of a great story. I’m still working on the fourth one, Structure. In my last post, I defined structure and offered the four parts. Today I want to look at the first part, Setup.

Part one makes up the first 20% of your story and has the crucial mission of setting everything up. There are several things it needs to accomplish. First, it needs to foreshadow the antagonist (or antagonist force, if it’s not a single person). You don’t SHOW your antagonist in this part, you just give a glimpse of him without explaining what he’s up to. 

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(This antagonistic force is brought to you courtesy of freedigitalphoto.net. Feel free to use her in your novel.)

Second, it needs to establish the stakes. You’ve got a sympathetic hero going about his (or her) daily life. Make the reader care about this hero, and they’ll care what happens next. In the setup, the reader learns “what the hero has to lose, such as a family, a fortune, or some specific purpose in life.” 

“Part 1 shouldn’t fully explain the conflict in terms of how it affects the protagonist until near the end of the first part.” You don’t want to skimp on this set-up and jump too early into the main conflict. That’s not to say there won’t be conflict in the beginning. That’d be boring. “The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake–what he needs and wants in his life, and what trials and tribulations and opportunities he is facing before the arrival of the primary conflict–the more we care about him when all of that changes. The more the reader cares, the more effective the story will be.”

The plot really gets moving at the end of Part 1. That’s when the hero figures out what he’s supposed to do to combat this foreshadowed protagonist. It’s where meaning becomes clear to both the hero and the reader. That moment, at the end of Part 1, is called the First Plot Point (FPP). This is not the inciting incident, which hopefully occurred sometime before the FPP. The inciting incident is when something dramatic happens to the hero and incites what happens next.

Brooks offers an example from Thelma and Louise. Two women meet a guy in a bar. In the parking lot, he becomes aggressive. They shoot and kill him. It’s not an accident, it’s more anger-fueled self-defense. It incites a decision. They go back into the bar and argue about what they’re going to do. Call the cops and give themselves in? Make a run for it? They need to make a decision.

The FPP in this movie is when they decide to run. The inciting incident led them to make a decision that would change their lives forever. They now have a new goal in life (outrun the police), it introduces the new obstacles in their way, and it defines the stakes of their journey.

“The purpose of Part 1 is to bring the character to that transition point through a series of scenes. Part 1 ends when the hero is made aware of the arrival of something new in his life, through decision, action, or off-stage news. It launches a new quest, a sudden need, a calling, a journey, which is soften something very scary or challenging. It is at this moment that something comes forward to create an obstacle. There is now something the hero needs to accomplish or achieve.”

At the end of Part 1, the reader gets his first full view of the antagonist. That doesn’t necessarily mean the hero or the reader fully understands the antagonist completely, but they definitely get a notion of what he or it is about. We understand what he wants and how he stands in direct opposition to the hero. That’d be conflict. 

Brooks likens the hero in Part 1 as an orphan, unsure of what will happen to him next. The reader will feel sympathy for him. “The quest you give the hero is what adopts him going forward. It gives him purpose and meaning, a life within the context of the story. An orphan has no mission, no need other than to survive the moment. His future is unknown, left to fate.”

In a full-length 300-page novel, Part 1 should take up 50-100 pages. In The Da Vinci Code (which Brooks uses as an example through the entire book), Part 1 is a tense chase scene in the Louvre. The hero has no idea what’s going on, who’s chasing him or why, but he’s running, right up the FPP. There’s no meaning, just tension. It’s all setup, dramatic tension, and uncertainty. 

Questions? Comments? Emotional responses from the pantsers who don’t want anything to do with this?

The next post will be on Part 2: The Response. Same bat time, same bat channel. 

-Sonja
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