Forget plot and character, start with the set-up

When writing a story should you start with plot or character? Neither, start with the set-up.

There’s a lot of debate about plot and character, and which is the most important and which you need to get down first. Writing snobs say character. People who want to be entertained say plot. The debate goes backwards and forwards. As aspiring writers we get it: we need both. But how do we start writing a story? The set-up.

Set-up

The set-up is the predicament that a person finds themselves in. It’s the thing that’s going to disrupt their current life.

For example, a predicament could be: finding out your husband is cheating on you; terrorists planning to blow up your city; you accidentally kill someone; zombies take over your neighbourhood; your dog dies.

So choose a set-up. Let’s go with the first one: a woman finds out her husband is cheating on her. Doesn’t seem remarkably original, but wait and see.

Current life of your main character

Next think about the current, ordinary life of the main character. Is she the prime minister? Does she have six children? Is she severely disabled? Is she a contract killer?

Now by putting together your set-up and the current life of your main character, your story will start to unfold. How a contract killer deals with a cheating husband is probably going to be very different to how the prime minister would. And this is where originality comes in.

How characters react

We don’t all react the same way to a particular situation. Stories are about how different characters react to a set-up.

Let’s say our main character is severely disabled. She finds out her husband is cheating on her. What does she do? Does she try to take revenge by fiddling with breaks on his car? Does she come to accept his actions? Does she file for divorce and try to live independently?

Each of these reactions will launch your story. Your story rolls out from here. The plot unfolds.

It’s a three step process in making decisions as a writer:

  1. Set-up
  2. Current life
  3. Reaction

It’s not a formula. It just a way to get started – to get words on the page.

And just to touch on theme: Theme is the meaning of your story. You might know this already before you put pen to paper. If you don’t, it’ll come from the choices you make about the set-up, the current life, and the reaction. If you want to write a story about forgiveness, your female character will probably not fiddle with his breaks…or if she does, she might realise this was a bad idea by the end of the story.

I just wrote all this down to help me figure out how to write my story. It’s still bloody hard work.