Never say anything bad about a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. By then, he’s a mile away, you’ve got his shoes, and you can say whatever you want.
Like a joke (even that one), a story doesn’t work properly without set-ups. What are set-ups? Just the crucial planting of key information in order to understand what comes next, that’s all.
Set-ups create expectations, which you’re then free to mess with. In our joke example, starting out with that well-known aphorism helped build the expectation that something profound would follow — which I then stood on its head. Without that opening, there would be no contrast, and hence, no joke.
Same thing with stories. Here, set-ups and payoffs create and subvert expectations, yielding surprise, humor, alarm, and other desirable emotions in the reader. Set-ups form the foundation for key story twists. How does it work? Well, for example, by planting various bits of information in set-ups, you can lead readers to believe that Professor Snape is the villain, then at the climactic moment, reveal that the meek Professor Quirrell is behind all the skullduggery. (Belated Harry Potter spoiler alert!)
But not all set-ups lead to twists. Some merely serve to plant information before it’s needed. For example, if your hero knows how to pick locks and escapes from a tight situation because of it, you darned well better give us that information in advance, or readers will feel cheated. “Why, yes, Bob, I just happen to know advanced lock-picking techniques” doesn’t constitute advance notice.
Ultimately, whether you subvert or fulfill your set-up, you must pay it off in some way. Playwright Anton Chekhov knew the importance of this. In 1897, he stated one of the great axioms of story structure: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” That’s called playing fair with the audience and following through on set-ups.
Three key things to remember about story set-ups:
1. Don’t telegraph.
Telegraphing means tipping your hand, being too obvious. If you make too big a deal about planting your set-up, readers will notice and see the payoff coming. In joke-telling, if you say, “A funny thing happened on the way here tonight,” it announces, “Here comes a joke!” And it eliminates the element of surprise, which ironically enough, is what makes the joke actually funny.
Say you’re writing a mystery and playing fair, so you plant the clue that reveals sweet Daisy could actually be the Evil Countess in disguise. If you plant it too obviously, the reader guesses your payoff and it spoils the surprise.
2. Don’t overload with info.
As in general exposition, a little goes a long way. You want to give the reader just enough information, but not too much. Your goal is reader understanding and a satisfying payoff, so bear that in mind when deciding what to include and what to leave out. Less is more. This is especially true if you’re planting a clue and don’t want to tip your hand.
3. Don’t set it too close (or too far).
You have a tricky balancing act to conduct here. If you’re setting up a key element of your story, bear in mind that — shocking though it may seem — readers don’t retain every line of your deathless prose after they’ve read it. By your canny placement of the set-up, you can make sure readers recall it when the payoff rolls around.
For example, if you mention in Chapter 1 that your hero has a gift for accents, but she doesn’t actually break out an accent until Chapter 25, your readers might need a brief reminder somewhere in between. And on the other hand, you wouldn’t want to place the first mention of this linguistic ability in Chapter 24; that’s not playing fair.
In the end, if you keep your set-ups short, subtle and deftly placed, you’ll reap the ultimate payoff: Readers who can’t put down your story.