The Mid-action Start v the Set Up: Beginnings and Misunderstandings

There are many common pieces of writing advice floating about the interwebs. I don’t know where many of them come from, often they seem to start life as one man’s preference, but once they catch on, the effect is akin to sitting on old chewing gum, almost impossible to extricate yourself from.

One such piece of advice is the notion that we need to start a story mid-action – in chase, just as the blow strikes our heroes jaw, with gun to his head. There is good chance that mid-action is mid-story and there is no good reason a story can’t start at the beginning.

Let's start at the very beginning

However, worse than this is the knee jerk reaction that the alternative – the valid alternative – is the Set Up. Writers resentful of the mid-action advice cite that their preference is for slower stories with slower starts, the introduction where you get to know your characters and their world. The Set Up has entered notoriety in the Pet Peeves Hall of Fame. So reviled it deserved multiple subdivisions, lest we think we can sneak by with a set up in disguise.

  • School Showcase: A character introducing the requisite best friend and the school bully
  • Family Showcase: Introductions of parents, siblings, pets
  • Room Tour: A character sitting in her room, thinking, looking over her stuff
  • Emo Kid: A character sitting and thinking about all his problems
  • Normal No More: A character lamenting how normal, average, and/or lame her life is, which is the writer setting us up for the big change that’s about to happen

~ 12 Clichés To Avoid When Starting Your Story, Courtney Carpenter, from the Writers’ Digest

The argument – the automatic defence – is that virtually all of our favourite stories, certainly most of the classics, began with a set up: To Kill a Mockingbird. The Secret Garden. Great Expectations.

The issue I believe lies with the ‘versus’. The idea being that a mid-action beginning and the Set Up are doing different things, appealing to different kinds of readers and belonging to different genres. After all, not all stories involve guns to the head. However, they aren’t. You can write a literary character study and open mid-action, even if that action is an argument, a garden party or walking in on your husband in his black lace thong. Equally you can write a romping adventure and start with a set up. All beginnings must do the same job, and wherever you choose to start your story, the key is you’re starting your story.

Every beginning is an introduction. Every beginning is a set up. Is there a better way to introduce James Bond than jumping onto a speeding train? Is there a better way to introduce Westeros, the cruel winter-gripped world than with three men who die brutally by their own folly and a wee bit of help from a mysterious evil force?

Every beginning is also in the middle. Even Oliver Twist is mid-story, because we all come into this world with baggage already strapped to us. Our parents, our time, our country, our genetics. And by the time most readers catch up with us, this is even more true. No day we can begin on doesn’t have a yesterday. There is always going to be backstory to where we are and how we got there. Your job is to make it interesting, so interesting the reader wants to know it all.

Which leads us to the one thing that every beginning must do: it must hook the reader. You must present something of interest to the reader and then start leading them in a direction they want to go in.

mum shouted for me to get up for school. I groaned and snuggled deeper into the covers’ probably isn’t going to do it.

There is nothing wrong with an ordinary character. Nothing wrong with starting with the boring guy who lives the boring life, but ironically if you wish to do this, you have to make the boring guy really interesting, while being boring. Otherwise there are millions – probably literally by now – of other writers willing to step up.

The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village…Not a remarkable house by any means – it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

~ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

The argument often given to justify the Set Up is that we need to allow the reader to bond with the character. Bonding takes time, yes, but it takes the time of chapters, sometimes nearly a book’s worth. But more importantly, it’s not achieved by giving us a list of their favourite films. I have friends who watch, read and listen to stuff I would rather weed the Queen’s lawn with a pair of tweezers than be subjected to, and they are still great friends. The best way to introduce and bond us to your character is to let them get on with living, ie put them into action. This might go some way to explain the mid-action confusion. If we see them in danger will we not empathise with them and be drawn in?

Yes and no. Done right and we can feel for a character. Seeing Black Widow tied up at the start of Avengers Assemble doesn’t make me want to cry for her, even if I wouldn’t be offering to swap, but by the end of it I am cheering for her. And again can you think of a better way to introduce and define the character? We are arguing show versus tell here far more than we are arguing set-up versus mid-action.

Because its still a set up, an introduction;  this thread has no part to play in the main story. The Russians, the information she wanted, it’s irrelevant, and it’s just another day in the life of Natasha Romanoff. The only important plot point is that she is being sent on a mission. That mission leads us to the next character we need to be introduced to – Bruce Banner. It’s all character introduction and set up. Film doesn’t have this same weird division that novel writing does, which is ironic given how many blame film for the mid-action mania. It’s basic screenwriting law that your first third is set up, leading us up to the inciting incident. Take some of the biggest blockbusters out there:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy – kid watching his mum die, listening to eighties tunes, getting kidnapped. This is backstory, it’s as close to tell as you can get bar narrating over the top. And some even do this.
  • The Mummy – we are given the backstory of Imhotep’s betrayal and love for Anck Su Namun before we meet the hero O’Connell and cowardly Benny in the sands of Egypt thousands of years later.
  • Stardust –  both book and film adaptation –  we get narration about the Wall, the town of Wall, the market, the king, and of course, Tristam’s conception.

I’ve noticed a tendency in those who put an emphasis on the introduction, to overplay the sympathy card. It’s a tired and cliché trick. Does it ever work? Even people I know who love Hunger Games claim Katniss is cold. Heartless. The girl who mothers a child she’s supposed to kill, who makes her first kill in retribution, who volunteers to almost certain death to save her sister. Facts and effect are odd bedfellows. You can make your readers fall in love with your psychopath, Mr Lector and still maintain his grisly passion. In Oliver Twist is it his orphan status that bonds us to him or is it the fact that he stood up and asked for more? We’re not bonding with Romanoff over her helplessness, the connection happens when she shows us her helplessness is just a routine, we cheer at the looks of surprise on the Russians’ faces, and we’re now intrigued by the character and therefore interested to know what that phone call was all about. The key is intrigue. Defying expectations and making the reader curious to see what else the story might hold. Everything you present from world to character can and should contribute to this effect. This is what draws the reader into the story and make them care, not because your character is worthy but because they were engaging. That’s fun. And we like fun.

Tom did play hookey and he had a very good time. He got back home barely in season to help Jim, the small coloured boy, saw next-days wood and split the kindlings before supper – at least he was there in time to tell  his adventures to Jim while Jim did three-fourths of the work.

~ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain.

Part of the reason we draw this distinction between mid-action and set up is because of the divisions we place on plot and character. We talk of character driven and plot driven novels but I’m never convinced it’s a particularly effective means of dividing genres. Often what we really mean is realistic versus idealised characters, contemporary everyday setting versus adventure fantasy setting. Citing or even thinking your story is plot driven ignores how Natasha’s innate nature leads Fury to choose her to recruit/charm the Hulk, how it dictates her style of fighting, tricking Loki into thinking she is helpless. Good story always meshes and works with your character, otherwise you risk a contradictory mess which breaks the reader’s trust.

And this leads to one of the key mistakes in the Set Up. Too many approach it with the idea that they should be setting up their characters before they engage the plot. A set up is not merely about the static elements of your story – character description, world building – in fact I would say the set up primarily is about setting up the plot. Putting everything needed for your story to happen in place.

The beginning of Gone Girl might be said to be an introduction to the characters, but in actuality it’s an introduction to their relationship and the manipulations, machinations and justifications of a couple tearing each other apart, as each tries to get you on their side.

‘Should I remove my soul before I come inside?’ Her first line upon arrival. It had been a compromise: Amy demanded we rent, not buy, in my little Missouri hometown, in her firm hope that we wouldn’t be stuck here long.

~ Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Their perception of each other is at the crux of the book and how it creates confusion and misdirects the reader. Their relationship is the plot, its the hub around which everything spins.

As always what you withhold is as important as what you show. Narrative drive hinges on what is left out and the start needs to demonstrate strong narrative drive. Part of the reason so many have an issue with the Set Up is because writers too often waste words on the unnecessary; the parts that can confidently be left out because they are either so generic they add nothing to the story or can easily be inferred from other more intriguing details. Sometimes what isn’t said is our entire reason for reading. In the opening chapter of Harry Potter, we are introduced to You-know-Who, only we don’t know who. But we really want to, more so because of everything else we are given.

‘Don’t be sorry, my dear sir, for nothing could upset me today! Rejoice, for You-Know-Who has gone at last! Even Muggles like yourself should be celebrating this happy, happy day!’

~ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K Rowling

All the strands of her story are set in place, from the secret otherworld, the Dursleys’ deep dislike of their odd relatives, to the defeat of You-Know-Who to Harry Potters accidental destiny:

One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours time by Mrs Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles… that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: ‘To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!’

~ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K Rowling,



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