Have you ever walked into the middle of a joke? You know, two people are talking and you walk in on it. One person is telling the other a funny story or a joke. The punch line comes and the listener laughs and laughs, but you just don’t get it.
If you miss the set-up, you can’t appreciate the funny.
Have you ever walked into the middle of a scene and just started your story? You know, you tell your readers what happened. You give them the blow-by-blow. But your reader walks away, saying, “So what?”
If you miss the set-up, you can’t appreciate the story, either.
Sure, there’s a lot of advice out there about jumping as deep into a scene as you can. It ramps up the pace and keeps things moving. But sometimes, if you do that too much or cut it too deep, you end up moving so fast you pass your clueless readers right by.
Setting a scene isn’t just about the space your characters are in. It includes relationships, feelings, and histories. What about these characters makes this scene important? What about this space makes this scene important? Without the backdrop, the background, and the backstory, you’re story has no depth, and sometimes it has no meaning.
Think about television. Have you ever gotten sucked into a new episode of a television show you used to watch? Sometimes, especially with shallower shows, you can simply enjoy it without caring about what happened in the episodes you’ve missed. Often, however, the moments created on the screen assume you know what happened before them. And that’s fine, to a certain degree, for serialized fiction.
But every scene has a set-up. You have to give your readers enough of the set-up that they can appreciate the scene, but not so much that it bogs the scene down. This isn’t just for the beginning of your story, either. Every scene has a set-up. For every scene, there is significance in the backdrop, the background, or the backstory. If not, then all you have is a shallow event that could be anybody, anywhere. And what’s the point of that?