Monday, July 15, 2013

It was a setup (Part 1)

Today I put on my teachy-preachy hat.

There! You've been warned. You may leave now, if you so choose.

One of the most critical parts of the structure of a book for children is the setup

What is setup?

The setup gives the reader all of the important basic information needed in order to become grounded in the story.

The setup answers the following questions:

  • Who are the main characters?
  • Where does the story take place?
  • When does the story take place?
  • And the most important question of all: What is the story about?
The setup will also reveal the genre of the book (e.g., fantasy, historical fiction, contemporary fiction), as well as the overall tone of the book (e.g., a humorous middle grade novel, a dark, edgy YA).

The setup should come as early as possible in your story. 

Repeat after me: 

The setup should come as early as possible in your story.

If you take too long to start - and complete - your setup, you run the risk of losing your reader from the get-go. Young readers want to know the who, where, when and what of a story quickly. They want to settle in and become invested in the story. They don’t want to have to keep reading page after page not knowing all the important basic information about the story.

A great example of a masterful setup is from Walk Two Moons by

Sharon Creech:

Gramps says that I am a country girl at heart, and that is true. I have lived most of my thirteen years in Bybanks, Kentucky, which is not much more than a caboodle of houses roosting in a green spot alongside the Ohio River.

We are two sentences into the story (TWO sentences) and we know that the main character is a thirteen-year-old “country girl” from Kentucky.

Just over a year ago, my father plucked me up like a weed and took me and all our belongings (no, that is not true - he did not bring the chestnut tree, the willow, the maple, the hayloft, or the swimming hole, which all belonged to me) and we drove three hundred miles straight north and stopped in front of a house in Euclid, Ohio.

Now we know that she has just moved from Kentucky to Ohio. 

In addition to telling us that the main character is a “country girl,” Creech now shows us:  he did not bring the chestnut tree, the willow, the maple, the hayloft, or the swimming hole, which all belonged to me.
Obviously, those things are important to her.

The next line of the story is dialogue that drives home the point yet again:

“No trees?” I said. “This is where we’re going to live?”

Two paragraphs into the story (TWO paragraphs) and look how much we know!

Let’s continue:

“No,” my father said. “This is Margaret’s house.”

The front door of the house opened and a lady with wild red hair stood there. I looked up and down the street. The houses were all jammed together like a row of birdhouses. In front of each house was a tiny square of grass, and in front of that was a thin gray sidewalk running alongside a gray road.

Now we know two more characters: father and Margaret.

We know that the main character does not know Margaret because she refers to her as “a lady.”

We know that main character does not care much for this location. The houses are "all jammed together" and there is only a “tiny square of grass” and there is a “thin gray sidewalk running alongside a gray road.” 

Notice how the choice of the words jammed, tiny and gray reveal a lot about how she perceives the setting.

The next line, which is dialogue, reinforces, once again, her love of all things country:

“Where’s the barn?” I asked. “The river? The swimming hole?”

"Oh, Sal," my father said. "Come on. There's Margaret."
We know that the main character’s name is Sal.

A few paragraphs later, we are introduced to another character:

I didn’t know it then, but that face belonged to Phoebe Winterbottom, a girl who had a powerful imagination, who would become my friend, and who would have many peculiar things happen to her.

In addition to giving us vital story information, Creech is also beginning to reel us in, especially with that word peculiar.

The second chapter (only four pages into the story - FOUR pages) jumps forward in time, but continues the setup:

It was after all the adventures of Phoebe that my grandparents came up with a plan to drive from Kentucky to Ohio, where they would pick me up, and then the three of us would drive two thousand miles west to Lewiston, Idaho.

Now we have two more characters, Sal’s grandparents.

We know that this is a contemporary story, since they are driving.

We can also assume it is summertime, since Sal is not in school.

Two paragraphs later, we learn that Sal’s mother is not in her life:

My father started chipping away at a plaster wall in the living room of our house in Bybanks shortly after my mother left us one April morning.

And two more paragraphs later:

I was only thirteen, and although I did have a way with maps, it was not really because of that skill that I was going, nor was it to see the “whole ding-dong country” that Gram and Gramps were going. The real reasons were buried beneath piles and piles of unsaid things.

Some of the real reasons were:
1. Gram and Gramps wanted to see Momma, who was resting peacefully in Lewiston, Idaho.
2. Gram and Gramps knew that I wanted to see Momma, but that I was afraid to.
3. Dad wanted to be alone with the red-headed Margaret Cadaver. 

He had already seen Momma, and he had not taken me.

Now we know what the story is about: Thirteen-year-old Sal is traveling to Idaho with her grandparents to see her mother, which she has reservations about.

We are only on page five - PAGE 5, PEOPLE!  - and we know the who, the where, the when and the what of Walk Two Moons

We are grounded in the story and ready to move forward to see what is going to happen.

You have just been set up by a master. 

A round of applause for Ms. Creech!


Stephanie Theban said...

Thanks for giving us this example of how to get into the story. Great post.

mckeer19 said...

I agree, that is a great set-up, and I have added one more book to my ever-growing "to be read" list.

One quick question, though: Where in the opening lines that you quoted, Ms. O'Connor, is this country girl's name mentioned? I don't see it . . .

Barbara O'Connor said...

Oh, you're right! It's not shown in my examples. Good catch! But the name is introduced early on. Thanks!

Barbara O'Connor said...

Fixed it. Thanks Mckeer19

Joana Pastro said...

I think that is especially true for children's stories. My kids are very good readers, but they also like doing a million other things. If a book doesn't hook them right away, they will switch to an activity that brings immediate enjoyment.
I've seen that with my own writing. More than once I've had to tell them to continue reading because "the story hasn't really started yet."
Set up the story ASAP.
Use enticing words.
Lesson learned! Thank you!

Joana Pastro said...

That's especially true with children's books. My kids are really good readers, but they also like a million other things. If a book doesn't hook them right away they won't think twice before switching to an activity that offers immediate enjoyment.
That has happened with my own writing. More than once I've told them to keep reading because the story hasn't "really started yet".
Set-up ASAP.
Use enticing words.
Lesson learned!
Thank you!