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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

The Set-Up

Some people say there are no new ideas in writing. I disagree--this is the kind of lazy statement made when someone sees/reads The Hunger Games and thinks back on, say, The Running Man or, better (and more obscure) yet, Series 7 (a pre-Survivor movie about a reality show where people randomly selected by social security number battle to the death in an uncontrolled environment--it makes The Hunger Games seem leisurely and non-violent). Yes, there are new ideas and they can help make a book or movie a success. Heck, we've all bought something because the idea sounded so cool and original. The thing is that sometimes these new things disappoint. That's because ideas are easy. Old ideas are incredibly easy and new ideas aren't all that tough either. The thing is, it is the expression of the idea that makes it work. There's an old joke about a guy who goes to prison and the first night after lights out, he hears someone call out "Thirty-two!" and everyone laughs. A bit later someone else calls out "Forty-five" and there is more laughter. After midnight rounds, someone whispers "Sixteen" and the prisoners within earshot all chuckle. So the next day he asks about it and his cellmate explains that they've all been incarcerated for so long, they have heard everyone's jokes a million times and, since you get in trouble for talking after lights out, they've just numbered all the jokes, so someone can just make a quick shout-out and everyone remembers the joke and laughs. So the guy, he gets his cellmate to tell him all of the jokes and the numbers assigned cause he wants to fit in and eventually one night after lights out, he picks his favorite and shouts out: "Twenty-one." Silence. He waits awhile and tries again. "Seventy-three." No response at all. So the next morning he asks his cellmate why no one laughed and his cellmate just tilts his head to the side, shrugs his shoulders and says: "You know how it is with joke. Some people know how to tell 'em, and some people don't." The same is true for stories of all types. It's not just the idea, it's not just the plot, it's not just the foreshadowing or the characters or body count. It's the telling that matters. And one of the keys to delivering impact with your stories is set-up. I'm not talking premise here (the base idea) or setting (the location and atmosphere of where things happen). I'm talking about setting up a scene in such a way that it has maximum impact on the reader. Let's take an example from real life, with a story from high school (my teacher friends just smile tightly when I tell this story): My senior year I had a math class with a teacher named Mr. Roll. Mr. Roll was a very large man with a very deep voice and he did his best--which was pretty darn good--to maintain discipline in the class. Still, there was a group of miscreants in the class who would do things like yell "Mr. Roll's a jerk!" in a falsetto voice when his back was turned at the blackboard. When Mr. Roll spun quickly around to catch the offender, the group would all by pre-arrangement be staring at some innocent third party, so it looked like he or she was the offender. Clever. Well, we had a student teacher one semester who was young and lacking in confidence and easily flustered. One warm spring day, Mr. Roll decided it would be good for her to be in charge of the class, so he left and headed off to the teacher's lounge in the new wing--about as far away as possible from where the class was on the third floor of the old wing. Maybe he was trying to boost her confidence, but maybe he just wanted to go to the lounge, which was air-conditioned, cause barely a breeze stirred from the open windows in our room. So Mr. Roll leaves and almost immediately people start talking in class and not paying attention and generally goofing off. The student teacher is not attempting to control the class, but is instead just doggedly going forward with her lesson plan, chalk in hand at the board, back to the class. Not only was it noisy, but one guy just got up and wandered out the open classroom door without her noticing. This goes on for a few more minutes, when there is a sudden commotion at the windows. Two guys are standing at the windows, each holding the leg of a third guy, whose torso is all the way out the window, pulling him back into the room. The guy they are pulling back is screaming "I told him not to do it! I told him, I told him!" and when they pull him in, you can see that his eyes are wide and in his right hand is a shoe--not his shoe. So, everyone rushes to the third floor windows, including the student teacher, and there, splayed on the concrete below is a body, wearing just one shoe--the guy who snuck out earlier. Well, the student teacher screams and tears out of the room. The miscreants give their friend below a signal and he beats it up the back stairs to the classroom. A few moments later, the walls rattle as Mr. Roll comes thundering down the hallway, into the classroom and yells "What the hell is going on in here?" The miscreants are all sitting calmly, their hands folded atop their desk-chairs. "We don't know, Mr. Roll," says the ringleader. "Suddenly she just screamed and ran out of the room." (fade to black) Okay, a cute, fun story. Let's talk about it for a moment in terms of set-up. There are two types of set-up in a story like this. The first is the writerly set-up--the telling of the tale. The questions here are: Was the story well-paced? Did it get bogged down in too much detail? Did it leave out any important details? Did it have sufficient pace and interest to compell the reader to finish the story? Did it go off on a tangent? Did it have sufficient sensory information to enable the reader to visualize the scene? Were pieces of information key to understanding the scene (third-floor location, open windows) conveyed subtly enough they didn't give away the climax, but clearly enough they weren't ignored? If, instead, I had said that some kids fooled a teacher by making her think a student had jumped out of the window, the story would have been flat. No suspense, no context. By describing Mr. Roll and the student teacher, you can better visualize the story in your mind's eye. By telling of the prior miscreant misbehaviour, the story gains color and credibility and the reader can run along with the story, guessing what may come next, and be more satisfied with the ending. By referencing the air conditioning in the teacher's lounge, I can relate that the windows are open without giving too much away too soon. There is a gestalt to scenes that is critical to effective writing. One of the reasons I write sequentially (i.e., I write chapters, scenes, and sentences in the order the reader would encounter them, rather than, say, write all the protagonist's scenes first, then all the bad guy's scenes, then all the subplot stuff and weave them together later) is because it helps me understand the reader's mindset at each moment--what information they do and don't have, how the pace is tracking, whether they have just finished dialogue versus narrative description versus internalizations, etc. This allows me to better feel what is needed next. By the way, it also helps keep my timelines in sync without a lot of extra effort. Especially in mysteries and reveals, there need to be enough clues and suspense to keep the readers intrigued, yet not so many as to make the reveal anti-climactic or so few as to leave readers frustrated or even angry. Books and panels on writing often discuss this type of set-up. (Screenwriting commentaries on movie DVDs can also have insights on this issue.) The thing that I believe sometimes gets less attention is the set-up of the scene/action/plot, itself. It's not just the telling that makes this an amusing story, it is the foresight and set-up of the protagonists, themselves. Someone going to the window and yelling "Look, Steve jumped." would have been less effective and less credible as an action, than the other guy hanging half-way out the window, screaming, as others pulled him in. But what sold the prank? The single shoe. Suddenly, this isn't some half-assed joke--this is an elaborately planned scheme with some sophistication in execution and some creativity in concept. Look, readers will accept a certain amount of coincidence is stories (more so if the coincidences create problems for the protagonist than if they magically solve problems for the protagonist), but they stretch credulity and take the reader out of the story. But if the action/scene/plot of the story is set up by the world-building and the characters and the backstory and the prior chapters, so that everything that happens appears to be logical and have a credible cause, then you have not only set up the telling of the scene, you have set up the scene, itself. If you want to read more about cause and effect and writing and on worldbuilding in general, look for Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex, coming out in late May from Alliteration Ink, which will include my chapter, "Cause Ways."



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