RANT: Set-Ups

You know, I try to be open-minded about writing, I really do. I do believe that each story is different, that no rule always applies, that rules should be tools not strait jackets, that . . . The hell with that. SET-UP IS NOT STORY.

I swear to god the next film/TV show I see or book I read where there’s a ton of lifeless crap at the beginning because the writer needs to set stuff up will be the last show or book by that writer I will invest my time and money in.

I know it’s easier to write story if you can say to the reader/viewer, “I have a great story to tell you but first, I need to set it up, give you some background, let the character ponder his or her situation, and introduce characters that will be important later without giving them a reason for being on the page now, so just bear with me and remember all of this stuff because I’m going to use it later in the story.” You know what? Making things easier on yourself as a writer while making things harder on the reader/viewer is just lazy, crappy storytelling, no excuses. Start with the story, with the protagonist in conflict and then keep going. Nobody put a gun to your head and said, “You must make things up.” You volunteered for this gig, you’re taking time and money away from people in exchange for your story, get off your ass and TELL THE DAMN STORY. There. Rant over.

Okay, maybe not. I still need to talk about it. I just watched this week’s The Mentalist. This was supposed to be the big revitalizing episode, the one that happens two years after Jane strangles Red John, everything different, the new story after the turning point. Exciting, right?. Except the show is still moving at a pace a snail would sneer at. They spent the first THIRTEEN MINUTES on set-up that included a Mean Drug Dealer and a Mysterious Women, a set-up that pretty much laid out the next thirty minutes of our hero leisurely paying back the drug dealer (but only after he killed a dog) and dancing with the woman who of course turned out to be an FBI agent looking for him (did ANYBODY not see that coming?), ending in last two minutes that basically said, “Never mind all of that, that was all just set-up for the reboot, we’ll tell you about the new direction the show’s going next week.” Well, no, you won’t. I’m out. You know who the writers of The Mentalist should talk to? The writers of The Blacklist. Celebrity Sightings In New York City - October 3, 2013

At the start of the season, the premise of The Blacklist left me cold (an internationally known terrorist makes a deal with the FBI to supply info about the people on their most wanted list as long as they make a newbie FBI agent work with him), plus it had a twinkie (Megan Boone) as the newbie, and I was already twinkie-poisoned by Skye on SHIELD, so I wouldn’t have watched the pilot except that it stars James Spader and James Spader does good work. The start of the pilot was pretty good, it hit the ground running and told a good story while setting up the season to follow, although it was obvious that Spader’s character (Red) was Boone’s character’s (Lizzie’s) father and they were going to milk that for the entire season (everybody saw that coming) and . . . oh, wait a minute. Maybe he’s not. Okay, but Lizzie has this crunchy-granola perfect husband and they’re going to adopt a baby and her marriage is so sweet, it’s cloying and . . . oh, wait a minute. Maybe Crunchy Granola is evil. And then there’s Red himself, a snarky terrorist with a heart of gold, and . . . sweet Jesus, did he just do what I think he did? Heart of gold, my ass; this son-of-a-bitch has no boundaries.

So I kept watching. I had to. Those writers would do anything. And then every damn episode hit the ground running and twisted and turned, with Red looking dour except when he smiled which was when things really got terrifying. And Lizzie, well, she was a fast learner and she wasn’t taking any crap from Red, so there were no tearful, heartwarming are-you-my-daddy moments. Plus there was all this other stuff, like her I’m-pretty-sure-he’s-evil husband, and the Ken doll FBI agent who sneers at everybody is actually not a Ken doll, and Red’s bodyguard Dembe has real dimension, so I stuck with the Criminal of the Week stories and kept getting gobsmacked every week. That Red, he’ll do anything. And then this week, they earned my undying admiration by blowing it all up. The deal’s off, Alan Alda is a torturing son-of-a-bitch, there’s a mole in the FBI, the Ken doll is flirting with his engaged ex, I really do not trust Lizzie’s tree-hugger, secret-keeping husband, and Red is in the wind. It took The Mentalist five and a half years to do what The Blacklist did in ten episodes. I am so impressed. And you know what a jaded bitch I am about story.

Here’s something I love. The Blacklist’s titles are all the names and numbers of the people on the list: “The Courier, No. 85,” “Frederick Barnes, No. 47.” But when the show comes back January 13, the episode is titled, “The Good Samaritan Killer.” The Mentalist did five and a half years of titles with red references; Blacklist writers set up numbered titles and then turned left with episode eleven. I LOVE THESE GUYS. They take such delight in overturning expectation, and that makes for great story because one of the keys to great storytelling is fulfilling expectation while surprising the reader. If all you do is fulfill expectation, you bore the reader. If you come completely out of left field, the reader says, “WTF?” and leaves for a story that makes sense. If you can surprise the reader and still have her say, “OF COURSE that’s what happened, why didn’t I see it?” you’ve grabbed the storyteller’s gold ring. The Blacklist writers must own a jewelry store by now.

I think abusing set-up (and it’s older, dumber cousin, slow story-telling) comes down to one fatal flaw: underestimating the reader/viewer. I think you have to assume that your reader is smarter than you are. The minute you start spoonfeeding back story, over-explaining and over-simplifying, you’ve dumbed your story down, slowed it to a crawl, and drained the life from it. I remember one of my writing teachers once saying, “Don’t ever save anything for the next story. Put it all in the story you’re writing, everything you can.” I think he was right. I think you have to trust that your reader is not only smart but that she wants to be challenged, thrilled, delighted, that there’s something exciting on every page, in every scene, that she’s always a little off guard, that she loves those turning points that make her go “Whoa!” and recast what she thinks about the story and then read on with renewed excitement. I think the minute you think “I have to write this part to set up the story,” your story is screwed because you’re not thinking, “I have to write this part because it’s SO DAMN GOOD AND SO MUCH HAPPENS AND THE READER IS GOING TO LOVE IT.”

I was afraid that The Blacklist might get cancelled because it’s so different, its hero is such a bastard, and it turns its story so swiftly and so ruthlessly, but it turns out the writers were smart not to underestimate their audience. It’s the most watched drama on NBC in twenty years and the number one new show on the Big Four networks. And it’s just been renewed–after ten episodes–for another year. Slow set-up kills, smart story sells, and you really should be watching The Blacklist, although be prepared for an anti-hero; that Red is a real son-of-a-bitch.

46 thoughts on “RANT: Set-Ups

  1. Elizabeth George’s first novel was a stunning example of jump right in; I thought it must be a second novel about the hero, because she didn’t explain him, she just put him on the stage and let him do things. In an amazingly short time, I felt I had known him for years.

    A dear writer friend of mine solved her slow start problem by writing the first half of the book, and then going back and just lopping off the first three pages. She said for her, three pages were almost always the exact amount that needed to go. Sometimes had to re-write the opening sentence or add in a factoid, but mostly not. I always found this fascinating.

    1. I’ve also heard the first three scenes or the first three chapters, depending on how egregious your need for set-up is. In the first draft, you can go for it. You just can’t expect other people to read it. The three pages idea is interesting; I have a feeling she’s probably on to something.

    2. Jennifer – are you talking about Elizabeth George, the mystery writer? Or another Elizabeth George?

  2. When I pick up a potential book, I read the first few pages. If I roll my eyes at any time, I put the book down. I am usually thinking, where’s the story?

    Ditto to your whole rant.

    I gave up on the Mentalist after about 5 shows when I realized I wanted to slap that smug, sanctimonious Jane – really, really hard. Blacklist, I am still watching.

  3. I love The Blacklist. Missed a couple of episodes by going to Australia. They don’t have it yet (or not on the country stations) but I know how much Mum would love it. They did have some great mystery shows though. Mostly British ones that we don’t get over here.
    Your rant is great. I remember you telling me this some years ago. I’m going to have to look at my WIP, because something isn’t working. Maybe I’ve been setting up the story. I tried to scrap it but it keeps on calling. Time to be ruthless and chop, chop, chop.

        1. I just finished the one with the hypnotist magician. James Bolan is still part of the cast, so I’m thinking no. He leaves, though, right? Must go google.

          1. I think Sandra is the only hero character I have ever forgiven for killing a dog. Because she is amazing and I want to go out and have a drink with her and Esther and it would be the best thing ever.

            And if you’re on the hypnotist magician, I think you have five (? maybe fewer) seasons before James Bolan leaves. There’s a bit coming up where it seems like he does, but don’t worry, he’ll be back for a while longer before the final leaving.

          2. I already did the bit where he goes walkabout. And Sandra was being attacked by a rottweiler. Although as she keeps repeating throughout the series, “you kill one dog and they never let you forget it.”

          3. The first season is free on Hulu. I think their plan is to get you hooked on a series so you’ll want to get Hulu Plus to watch the other seasons. Sneaky bastards.

            I don’t think BBC is as good as it was a few years ago. Back when I had cable tv I was a BBC addict.

    1. Actually, we get The Blacklist within, I think, 48 hours of it being shown in the US – this has only happened this year, because the free-to-air channels suddenly realised that we’d all stopped watching them because we hated waiting two or three _years_ for them to bother showing stuff, and were all downloading things instead.

      We don’t get everything like that, but Blacklist, Sleepy Hollow, /Elementary and a few others are definitely ‘fast-tracked’. Like we should be grateful that they actually show them on time.

      I love the two leads in Elementary – great acting. The only downside is the puzzle is too easy – I work it out before Sherlock.

  4. Epaulettes.
    A whole scene, in Spanish, involving how to tailor a shirt. Jesus wept. There’s set up. and then, there’s wandering around aimlessly, and taking bets to see how long it takes for the audience to start throwing things at the TV. I strongly suspect that there will not be an episode later where a corpse is found in a cotton casual print shirt, and Jane goes, “Epaulettes!”

    Switch to Person of Interest. That show just gets better and better for me. I love all the characters. I care about flashbacks. They finished up their ‘big bad’ arc in the same week as Mentalist, but with a totally different take on vengence and justice. And, they have a dog.

    1. The love Argh has for Person of Interest knows no bounds; I did a whole post on why they had to kill Carter awhile back, but I wept copiously the whole time. Love that show. Blacklist is almost as good.

      Re the epaulettes: I know. I didn’t see how that could possibly pay off and of course, it didn’t. I couldn’t believe it. And the two women at the post office: used for absolutely nothing. I could have gone for days ripping that episode apart. Actually, I did, I just cut it all before I hit “Publish.”

      1. @Jenny, you were much more restrained with your reaction (to Carter’s killing) than I was. I think I bolted upright in my bed and screamed “MoFo!!!!!” at the TV and, figuratively, at those damn brilliant writers.

    2. See, I might actually want to watch the tailoring a shirt part. Which episode is that? (Haven’t seen any of The Mentalist.) I can see how it wouldn’t be germane to any plot anywhere, but I’d actually be interested in the tailoring stuff. Though I rarely wear epaulettes.

      1. It was stupid. The tailor wanted epaulettes on the shirt. Jane didn’t. The tailor got mad. Jane smiled and said, “No epaulettes.” That was it.

  5. Like you, I worried at the beginning of the series whether they were going squeeze the Are You My Daddy? story line for all it was worth. I actually stopped watching for a couple episodes, convinced it was going to be all smoke and mirror. Thankfully, I tuned back. Last night, I was the marlin on their line, dancing in the boat’s wake, trying to anticipate those writers’s next turn.

    1. My favorite bit so far is the husband.
      Who are you going to trust, a ruthless terrorist you don’t know whom you’ve seek kill without qualm or the loving husband who supports you in everything you do and thinks you’re wonderful?
      Yeah, I’d go with the terrorist, too. I’m loving watching that one slowly unspool in the background.

      1. But does the husband really? He’s already tried to talk her out of the FBI (multiple times, I think), in between the “I’m so proud of you honey” bits. Granted, he’s been hospitalized because of her job, but the box under the carpet in the pilot? Yeah, that’s the guy to trust…

  6. I’m glad you posted this rant, because it got me thinking again about the story I’m working on. Usually I don’t have a problem starting more or less at the right point, but this story escalates within the space of several pages from A) imaginary trouble to B) real trouble to C) terrible trouble to D) life-threatening peril. I’m tempted to jump right in at D, but am worried that will mean too much explaining (no, not in a sitting and thinking way) afterward. I guess I’ll keep going as I started (with A) and decide where the story really starts afterward–but I do appreciate the rant.

  7. Damn. You’ve hooked me. Now I have to see if The Blacklist back episodes are on Amazon Prime (which my housemates have) because I have to watch this show now. Dammit, Jenny, I really wasn’t going to watch any more intense crime/suspense shows! If I have to up my Xanax, I’m blaming you.

  8. This rant is how I felt reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Yes, there needs to be a set-up, but Mother-of-God, get to the point already. 50 pages (there was probably more, but I’ve blocked out the trauma of the meandering set-up) and Stieg is still on Nazis, violence against women, a libel case, and the protagonist’s affair with his editor. The girl in question didn’t show up until the middle of the book. I understand this was published posthumously, but you figure that any good editor would have chopped all that nonsense down to the first chapter.

  9. Up until this last year I watched The Mentalist every week. But got bored and stopped. Now I won’t go back for sure if they killed a dog…how low can you get? I hate animal abuse in any form. However, I agree with you on The Blacklist. I love it. And like you, Red just keeps me guessing. When he put the pillow over you-know-who’s face I looked at my cousin and asked, “did he just kill him?” Seriously, nothing is sacred. I can’t wait to see the 2nd half of last weeks’ show, to see how he gets out of the safe-place. I don’t trust the hubby either. At least you know what you’re getting with Red, the hubby is something else.

    1. In Red’s defense, the guy had just said he’d wished he’d died, he didn’t want to linger for the next six weeks, but that’s not why Red offed him.

  10. I GAVE UP my Tuesday Night Sanity Break to stay home and watch Blacklist! It has me so hooked, and every single one of the characters has me. Lizzie is so not a twinkie now. She’s reminding me a lot of Sarah Connor’s transition from young, fluffy waitress to the lock-and-load warrior. And damn, the storytelling is good!

    1. Hulu (the free version) has Blacklist. You don’t need to give up your Tuesday (as long as you don’t work with a person who hashes it out before you get to watch it).

  11. Great rant! I love it. I recently gave up reading a book – Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. It was published in 1926 and was a successful fantasy novel in its days, one of the very few fantasy novels in existence. Many reviewers bemoan the fact that it was forgotten for a very long time and only republished recently, but I know why. I stopped reading on page 85 – still nothing happened, just a vague expectation and a lot of back story. A fatal flaw in any book.

    1. Interesting that you should mention Lud-in-the-Mist. I adored that book as a child, bought it again several years ago, and found it a much more difficult read now. Tastes do change a lot with the times.

      1. Oh, yes. Tastes also differ with places. I heard a joke once about a difference between a European movie and an American one. It sounded something like that.
        A European movie: first scene – a red sunset; second scene – the same sunset with pink stripes, third scene – the dark splashes of the night spread across the red sunset.
        An American movie: first scene – a red sunset, second scene – a plane explodes.
        We’re somewhat spoiled by the American approach, I think.

  12. I kept watching The Mentalist episode this week and waiting for there to be some kind of point. I thought maybe I’d missed it. Apparently not. SIGH. Thank the gods for Doctor Who and Sherlock. That is all.

  13. I agree on how well written Blacklist is. My only peeve with the show is that I don’t care about any of the characters. Red makes me feel like washing my hands and saying prayers, he’s so mind-f’ing with everyone. And it’s just making her less of a person and more of a precision machine. I guess some might think that’s good. I kinda don’t.

    1. I think he’s making her grow up, or maybe circumstances are. I get the feeling that he came into her life because he doesn’t trust her husband. If that blows up . . .

  14. Unfortunately, I think this is why I’ve given up on so many “classic” books. They take forever to set up the story, and honestly, if you haven’t gotten to some kind of plot or character point in the first five pages, I’m not going to want to keep going. Because let’s face it–while a discussion of the various crop rotations and farming methods used in your fictional land may be interesting to certain people, if I picked up your book expecting the well-known adventure story people always talk about, I’m going to be bored out of my skull.

    I never really liked the mentalist, I’m afraid. I’ve only seen one or two episodes, but the characters annoyed me. I just wanted to smack them every couple of minutes. And everything I’ve heard about the Blacklist makes me really, really want to try it but I can’t stand James Spader *ducks to avoid thrown shoes*. I blame too many 80s movies where he was creepy and/or the villain. It’s kind of like Anthony Hopkins–I know he’s talented and awesome and whatever else, but every time I look at him I hear “Hello, Clarice” and try to suppress the shivers traveling down my spine.

  15. Love The Blacklist with a weird and fierce passion. At least once an episode I do that funny little squeeing clap-with-your-hands-at-your-face thing and wiggle in my seat because I just love Red so much.

    The husband is evil and not the charmingly ruthless way Red is. It’s the glasses. Seriously, those glasses are just wrong. Hipster wannabe, gender sensitive, mild mannered social studies teacher my ass. If he’s not some sort of black ops/gov’t assassin/killer for hire he’s the kind of guy who keeps body parts in a locked freezer in a storage unit rented under an assumed name – probably Raymond Reddington.
    And if I called my husband’s cell and some guy answered and said he was the guy going to kill the love of my life, I would not politely suggest we move to Nebraska when he got home. It would be full on cave woman drag him by the hair to a safer life. Now I know that there are people whose jobs require that they put their lives on the line on a regular basis and I thank them for it but you have to admit that was a special situation. And it required something more from the husband than what he gave. Lots more.

    1. In his defense on that one, she’s an FBI agent. He knew the job was dangerous when she took it.
      But yeah, he’s evil.

  16. Some people meander in a very charming fashion. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” either has about five or six prologues, or it is patterned fiction instead of linear. There’s a lot of set-up there, but I’ve loved it every since I was a teen, and the book is still one I will re-read in the future.

    But that’s Fantasy and Science Fiction. I don’t think you are allowed to meander too much in crime fiction unless 1) it’s a cover, 2) it’s playing with the trope (sharp-minded detective is absent-minded — used so much it’s its own trope, like Colombo, or one of the sweet-little-old-lady detectives) or 3) it indicates deep personal tragedy like Peter Wimsey. And to be honest, I can’t think of any good mystery fiction that meandered around the orchids for the first 10 pages, and then led into a murder. I may be forgetting something, though.

    Although, that said, I wonder if some of the Brother Cadfael mysteries started off with fulling wool or some other picturesque side theme that set us right in the middle ages, and was good set-up for the crime to come. Not sure how they handled those bits with the TV shows.

    Interesting topic. I’m still wrestling with where to start.

  17. Love the Blacklist. James Spader is so great, and he is the only reason I gave it a chance-glad I did.

  18. I dunno. Even crop rotation can be edgy when handled right….

    It all started the year the Lockerbie Plains farmers changed the crop rotation rota. Maddie never really trusted the man from the Ministry of Agriculture, with his promises of greater yields if Neb Halkins moved the canola to the westernmost section and Burt and Sally Webb gave up corn for wheat this year.

    But it wasn’t until the Marlborough twins fought over whether to plant turnips or rutabagas that everything really began to go horribly terribly wrong.

  19. Susan D,
    Yanno, you could market that as a template.

    It all started the year the _______ changed the _____. _____ never really trusted the man from ____________, with his promises of _________ if ______ moved the _____ to ________ and _________ gave up ____ for ____ this year.

    But it wasn’t until ______ fought over whether to __________ that everything really began to go horribly terribly wrong.

  20. There’s a Barry Longyear book on writing which suggests that, if you don’t have an organic way to start in the middle of the action, pick out an exciting scene from the middle of the story, use that as the opening, and then show how the characters got there, and keep going from there. His idea is that it’s better to mess with the chronology than to start with boring.

    If you need exposition and setup, make sure the reader is hooked before you start doing that to them. Yeah, starting out exciting and making sure that all your exposition is organically and seamlessly integrated is better, but that’s just not always going to happen.

  21. When I sit down to write novel-length, I always, always, start with something visual. When I’ve gotten 50 or 100 pages down the line, I go back and look at it and try to tell myself it’s setup, visual setup, but setup. .I just can’t stop myself. 😉 Maybe I should switch to screenplays because I’m describing what would go perfectly under the opening credits, except the screenwriter isn’t the one who chooses what’s shown then. Sigh. Shorts – short story, novella – I stay on track with no problem. But give me some elbow room, and I’m drawing word pictures.

    Of course, that does give me more patience for overlong setups in books. For me, it depends on my mood, actually. If I’m feeling relaxed and mellow, I’m not really wanting a read that starts with a bang. Almost every story and storyteller has the right audience out there somewhere, if only they can connect.

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