Nobody goes into writing a book and thinks “I’m going to write a story that doesn’t hook.” But everybody worries about writing a story that doesn’t hook.
And most importantly, you don’t always know you’ve written bad setup. Not only because you’ve been living with the story for a while (whether you’ve been writing it or seriously contemplating the events before you even sit down to write it). But also, there’s very much the possibility that you think you’ve communicated your setup to the reader in a way that makes sense, and the reader won’t perceive it that way.
Either way, it’s always a good idea to temperature check your setup and make sure that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
The safest option for authors who might not know if setup is their strong suit, or writers who just want to incorporate checking the effectiveness of their setup as part of their writing or revising process, is to run a series of diagnostics.
Diagnostics are super helpful in just double-checking whether or not you’re including the right information in your setup, and if your setup is creating the right expectations for the story you intend to tell or have already told.
Whether you run these diagnostics before your book gets edited, during revisions, or use them to inform writing your next book, diagnostics are really there to help you identify your setup strengths and weaknesses.
So, let’s explore some ways you can identify if and why your setup doesn’t hook a reader.
Run a Setup Pilot Test
The first diagnostic tool you can use to identify if your setup is enough to hook a reader, is to of course get somebody to read it (just that first 25% of your book and nothing more).
You can get your beta or alpha readers to do this, or if you have a fantastic fanbase in your newsletter subscribers, you can ask them to do this. And if you already got Patreon level engagement with your readership, your patrons would love it if you asked a few of them if they’d be willing to read just the setup of your next book (early access, hell yes!).
Five setup readers is a good number, just because you have a tie breaker in there, but also you don’t want to field too many responses from too many people. Just pick five people you absolutely trust, who you know vibe with your writing style, and are very excited to see you succeed in your next project.
The goal with a Setup Pilot Test is to ask five people a series of questions that will enable you to understand where your setup is not as strong as it could be, and the elements that are working really well thus far.
I often see authors get feedback about revising their setup, and they lose the things that made their story opening very unique or the elements of their own voice that were so eye-catching to begin with because they go in and fix everything. We want to pinpoint what actually needs fixing versus what should actually be continued throughout the rest of the book (i.e. the things that readers will want to see more of going through the rest of the book because they keep them engaged).
For example, your setup might lack structure—a sense of a timeline or stakes with a due date that the reader can anticipate the story revolving around. But your setup might have fantastic family dynamics that make the reader laugh and keep them reading just to see what kind of shenanigans your characters might get up to. You want to keep all of the good stuff and raise the stuff that isn’t quite working so well up to the same level.
So your pilot test readers should be reading for:
- Character personality
- Their understanding of the internal GMCs
- What they gleam from the setting and context of the story
Are they reading your character the way you intended to write them? When you compare your character sketch versus how they perceive your character, how well do they match?
More importantly, your setup pilot readers should tell you:
- What they think the rest of the book will be about
- What difficulties they experience in understanding and or connecting with your characters or story
- What questions or feelings they have that they think the story will resolve by the ending
Answering these questions really helps you start to see where maybe you could put in more information (answering the last question that identifies any areas of confusion), manage expectations (making sure that the setup is signaling the shape of the story arc you want to tell), and the satisfaction rating of the reader experience (pointing out what questions need to be answered for the reader to feel like you’ve given them good payoff for the particular setup they’re reading for).
Remember, the purpose of the setup is to:
- Create anticipation and understanding for the story to come
- Show your character’s momentum and depth (motion)
- Focus on what the known conflict is at the present time
Therefore, if there’s any discrepancy between what you intended your setup to do and what your pilot test readers are getting from what is actually on the page, then those are the areas you need to fix. If they understand everything that you meant them to, then your setup does its job.
If you don’t want to get critique partners or beta readers involved, or you want to give your Setup Pilot Test readers a more structured questionnaire and way of rating how well your setup does to introduce your plot, I definitely recommend checking out J. Thorn’s Story Rubric.
Run a Synopsis Crosscheck
For those of you who might be writing to get traditionally published, or don’t necessarily have an established readership who you can ask to be your pilot test readers, another good way to see if your setup is doing its job is to run a synopsis crosscheck.
If you ever find yourself writing something in your synopsis that doesn’t occur anywhere in your manuscript, chances are you need to find or put that information somewhere in your setup.
This is especially true if your book has a lot of world building (e.g. PNR, UF, sci-fi fantasy stories). If you need to preface your synopsis with a few paragraphs that explain your world and how it works to your prospective editor or agent before you get to the part where your setup actually starts, then you either need a prologue or you need to do a lot of heavy lifting in your setup so that there’s no confusion.
The same goes for contemporary writers. If there is an event that is so pivotal to the reader’s understanding of the story and where it starts, then you need to slip that in as some kind of narrative backstory, flashback, or in the extreme case a prologue, so that you minimize the level of confusion your reader will start your book off with. Readers don’t like being confused. Don’t give them an excuse to DNF.
I highly recommend doing the synopsis crosscheck even if you do have alpha or beta readers because your synopsis is basically the long-form version of your promise to your reader. If it’s in the synopsis, it should be in the book and vice versa. Checking to make sure that your synopsis and book are promising and delivering on the same premise and series of events is very key.
And yes, editors do check for this.
Drill Down on What Needs to Change & What Shouldn’t be Lost in the Process
Whether you’ve done the Setup Pilot Test with your five readers, or you self-diagnosed with the Synopsis Crosscheck (or you’ve done both), you’re ready to look at a) what elements need strengthening in your setup for it to be effective and b) what elements must be preserved so you do not lose your voice and/or the magic sauce of your current setup.
This is often where you start to see the difference between newer authors and established ones. An established author knows what makes their voice unique, and what their readers are looking for when it comes to their writing. And each time they write a book they find a way to spin that expectation to not only meet the readers’ needs but enhance them.
Newer authors haven’t quite figured out what their special quality is just yet, and when you’re not aware of your superpower it’s very easy to remove it from the manuscript in your quest to pursue better craft. We don’t want you to lose what makes your voice unique. We just want to supplement it with the craft to make it even better.
So it’s really important that you don’t lose your individuality or the thing that your specific readership will gravitate to by trying to become a stronger writer.
Like I really stress in my Reworking Character Arcs webinar: critique partners, beta readers, and editors are all very good resources for seeing what needs more work, but their opinions and suggestions should always be measured against your intentions. It’s your book, your vision.
So as you do these diagnostics, filter the feedback from your critique sources through the scope of your intention. Ask yourself:
- What kind of character did you mean to write?
- How did you want the reader to perceive them?
- What story are you trying to tell?
- What audience are you trying to reach?
Once you’re very clear with your intentions, it makes it very easy to filter through your feedback from the setup diagnostics and see areas where your intention and your execution don’t meet up. Those are the areas you want to go back and fix, not the areas where intention and execution are in alignment.
Revise or Write Your Book
So now that you’ve filtered your critiques, you know your setup’s strengths and weaknesses, and maybe know what common traps you might have fallen into. The next obvious step is to revise your setup. You’ve checked in with your intentions, you know where you’re falling short— now it’s time for you to revise it (or write) the damn setup.
If you’re revising, you already know what parts need to work better in order to meet up with the expectations your book will actually live up to. If you know what happens in the middle and end, you have a better sense of where your starting point should be.
Whether this is looking at your internal character arcs and making sure that opening character arc demonstrates their GMCs and internal needs versus goals, and that all of that forms a beginning character who, after being tested by the events of the middle parts of your story, will realistically become the end character you’ve written. Or looking at the series of events that happen in the book, and making sure that your setup reflects the tone that is created by those events (e.g. if you’re writing a laugh-out-loud romcom, where all kinds of embarrassing things happen, then your setup should start with a similarly embarrassing moment).
If you’re just starting your book, it’s a little harder to make sure that your progressions match, but you’ll have a firmer understanding of who your character is from the get-go. Chances are you’ll have less work to do in revisions, because you’ve gone in and done the hard work with your setup right off the bat. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to change some things (there is no perfect first draft after all), but you’ll be going forward in your writing with a stronger vision for your book and that’ll influence how you write the rest of it.
Optional: Run Another Diagnostic
And for the very, very careful among us, you can always do another diagnostic read of your setup. If you’re just wanting to check that the changes you’ve made have successfully addressed the concerns raised in your first check, you can go ahead and send your revised setup to the same five readers who read the original one. And go ahead and ask them some questions about how does their understanding of your book change now that you’ve made changes to clear up any areas of confusion or misunderstanding.
You can also send it to a different bunch of readers (i.e. people who haven’t read your setup before) and send them the whole book instead of just the setup. Not only will they give you feedback on your setup because they’re seeing it for the first time, but they’ll also be able to tell you how your setup successfully and effectively shapes the expectations for the book and how the rest of the book actually lives up to those expectations.
Again, I just want to reiterate that these diagnostics are there for you if you feel like you need them. Not every book will need a Synopsis Crosscheck, a Setup Pilot Test, and a full beta read. It’s like editing. If you know you are excellent at setups, maybe just go for the full beta read one time. But if you find yourself often struggling with finding the right place to start the book, or overloading or underloading readers with information, then take the time and make the most of the resources you have to help you get that setup to a point where you’re comfortable submitting that book. It’s never going to be perfect, but it will be effective.