Mistake 21: Overusing Setup

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70 Solutions to Common Writing Mistakes by Bob Mayer, from The Writer's Digest Writing Kit

Why this is a mistake: Setup is not story. History is not story. Too many novice writers feel like they need to setup everything before they start the story. If you do this, the reader will quickly become bored and never get to the story. The reader wants action and conflict, not pages of tedious backstory.

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This is true not only of a book, but of a scene. Every time you show your character waking up, driving some place, going somewhere, doing anything that in no way contributes any tension, ask yourself if it is necessary or if it can be cut.

The solution:
There is a maxim in screenwriting: Start as far into the action as possible. You can always layer in backstory later, when the reader really needs to know the information in order to understand what is going on.

Look at what Frank Herbert does in his classic book, Dune. He invents an entire new universe for his book, but he doesn’t start out the book by explaining this universe to the reader. Instead, he starts out small, hooks the reader with the protagonist, conflict, and action, and then explains the pieces of his universe only when the reader absolutely needs the information in order to understand what comes next in the story. For example, Herbert has space travel in his story. However, he does not explain space travel to the reader until the moment when his protagonist gets on board a spaceship. That is the appropriate time to explain it.


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