Over the last eleven weeks, we’ve had a lot of blog posts and YouTube videos about what the setup is, the ingredients for a good one, tips for fixing it, and some things that you maybe want to save for later in your career before trying in your opening. It also needs to preface your book in a way that matches the energy of the rest of the manuscript.
This week, I really want to give you an example of what a good setup looks like—not really about having an opening line that’s super memorable, or having things in a set order, but a setup that achieves the goals of:
- Creating anticipation and understanding for the story to come
- Showing your character’s momentum and depth (motion)
- Focusing on what the known conflict is at the present time
The first thing when I thought of a good case study for setup and openings is Netflix’s Vincenzo. I watched this during the pandemic, and this show has stayed in my mind as one of my favorite K-dramas of all time.
Actually, it’s what got me into watching K-dramas in the first place, and everything I’ve watched after it struggles to match or meet my expectations (e.g. I like everything Song Joong-Ki has been in, and loved Man to Man, but I didn’t LOVE them like I did Vincenzo).
For the purposes of this case study, I highly recommend that you watch as you read the post. I’ve gone ahead and included the relevant timestamps so that you know when to start and stop watching and make sure that you don’t read ahead. The whole idea is for you to be able to watch and form your own expectations and conclusions, before reading mine.
I think this is a great opening because it is just so hooky and it does so much character work in a way that’s very implied and smooth (it’s so easy to brush it off as good without really diving into why it’s good). I have literally dared friends of mine to just watch the first 15 minutes and not continue watching (they all failed).
So if mafia romance is your jam, you’re going to enjoy the heck out of this post.
Let’s do this.
The Prologue | 1:23:30 – 1:22:38
The show opens with the hero’s goal—he literally says “My goal is to tear down this building.”
Immediately, the viewer’s response is “What did that building ever do to you, sir?!”
So within the first 92 seconds, we have a glimpse of the hero’s internal arc in the form of his goal of tearing the building down, which also implies the character arc question (will he succeed in tearing down the building?), and we have the story hook (by 1:23:05).
We also have a sense of the character. Your average person doesn’t tear shit down. There is a certain carelessness in that opening line that suggests that Vincenzo (who is the POV character) doesn’t care what he has to do in order to achieve his goal. This is backed up by his imagined visual of the building crumbling down before him. The juxtaposition of him, looking right and powerful in his suit, versus the somewhat weathered building crumbling into dust and rubble in front of him enhances the idea that this is not a guy to mess with. He means business, and that self-confident and satisfied look on his face just adds to that impression.
His Internal Conflict | 1:22:36 – 1:20:42
We have the 72 hours earlier time marker and the Rome place/setting marker, which precedes the opening scene that is an introduction to Vincenzo’s normal world.
He’s there in yesterday’s clothes, in bed, looking like he came in late or was drinking and just collapsed on his bed. He’s clearly exhausted, and from the way he reacts to his alarm and the church bells, he is not looking forward to what the day brings.
But he gets up anyway. Even though he feels like a shadow of himself (the cinematography actually emphasizes this), he gets up anyway. He showers, he gets dressed.
The way he puts on his tie shows that he’s methodical and meticulous. And his space reflects that. And when he has his suit of armor on, that’s when you learn he’s the Consigliere of the Cassano family.
That juxtaposition of Vincenzo, the guy who is very weary and not really ready to face the world, and the Consigliere who is in his suit of armor and ready to do what needs to be done is really powerful. And it comes with the reveal of his name. The consigliere is Vincenzo Cassano. His name is synonymous with his power.
You then learn what it means to be a consigliere, and it’s almost performative. When he’s in bed he is an ordinary man. Once that suit goes on? He is Vincenzo Cassano, Consigliere to an Italian crime family. And him walking into the world (out of his apartment building and into his car) being received by his driver (Luca!) and security detail shows him wearing that title and his reputation. And he’s treated that way—Luca calls him by his title, and Vincenzo is giving orders like the boss he is.
But there’s this second of vulnerability. He’s donned on the reputation, the title, and the demeanor, but bedroom Vincenzo, the guy who was weary to face the day, makes an appearance for a split second when he gazes out the window of the car. And the viewer can see that even though Vincenzo carries this title and has all the respect and deference it commands, it’s taking its toll. He can do it, but does he want to? (this foreshadows the secondary character arc question).
The Character Moment | 1:20:40 – 1:13:43
The true opening character moment doesn’t happen until the vineyard scene. Up until now, the story writers have been giving you context and internal conflict. It hinted at who he is—a mafia a guy with power and authority that is weighing down on him—but it hadn’t given you the true bounds of his character—his limits and moral code. The essence of who he is.
This opening character moment does.
The implicit question at the beginning of the opening character moment is “What’s going on with the plane?” They draw your attention to it. Vincenzo looks at it. Luca looks at it. You wonder, “Why is the plane important?”
Meanwhile, the scenery is giving you that impression of opulence and boss bitch energy. He’s being driven by his driver while he’s looking at his iPad, driving through this gorgeous vineyard setting, and it just screams money and danger.
This is reinforced by the fact that they pull up to an estate with armed security. They’re not even trying to hide their guns, they are being purposefully intimidating, and yet these people fit there. Sir doesn’t even need to give his name at the gate. They know him on sight, and they respect him enough to not keep him waiting.
When he makes it to the estate of the Greco Vineyard, that’s when you find out that it’s the day of his boss’ funeral. And the way this information is revealed shows a lot of the disdain Emilio has for both Vincenzo and his now-deceased boss. I love the juxtaposition between the opulence of the estate and the crassness of its owner (Emilio’s constant slurping of his pasta is a whole situation), while Vincenzo, who is experiencing overt racism from Emilio, is everything you’d think an estate owner of that level of class and opulence would be. He looks like he should be the owner of the estate, not Emilio.
The following dialogue really embodies that dynamic of Emilio being inferior because he doesn’t have the class and the wherewithal to interact in this particular setting (he has no negotiation skills, and actively antagonizes his opponent). And even though Vincenzo is being insulted, and it seems like he’s not going to achieve his goal, he is still very classy and self-assured that he will get what he wants.
And then again there’s that emphasis on the plane and what it is doing. Which is drenching the Vineyard in gasoline. And that is the source of his self-satisfaction. And Vincenzo has this deep-seated sense of “I gave you an opportunity to do it the nice way, but you just had to push it.”
Cue the overt threat. “You sure you won’t regret it?”
And the threat is followed by the double down of “Regret is the most painful thing you can experience in life.” Not only does this apply to the situation (that Emilio was going to regret rejecting Vincenzo’s offer), but it also talks to Vincenzo’s internal arc that he is regretting a lot of the things that have led him to this point in his life. This is referencing that wistful look out the window where he looks so overwhelmed by his alter ego as the Consigliere of the Cassano family (and what that means for him now that his boss is dead).
And again, he gives his opponent the opportunity to take the peaceful option. That’s three times now that he’s given this man a chance to go the right way, the path of least resistance, the path that avoids war. Only for Emilio to show his racist, uncultured side. He mocks Vincenzo. Losing him his last chance.
That last part of their dialogue not only shows Vincenzo’s long-suffering and patient side, but it also serves to show a part of him that almost anticipates his opponent’s reaction (he knew going in that Emilio wasn’t going to take the offer), and his mean streak that says once you’ve pushed me to that point I have no compunction doing the worst thing to you.
It’s not until Vincenzo is walking away from him that Emilio starts to become more aware of his surroundings, and notices the plane that has gotten so much emphasis since the beginning of this character moment. And that’s when you as the reader goes from “Why is there an emphasis on this?” to “Oh shit, it’s about to go down.”
By the time Vincenzo lights Emilio’s Vineyard on fire, you know what kind of man he is. He went there out of respect for the dying wish of his mafia boss, employed methods that are somewhat lenient in that he gives people the opportunity to do the thing he wants before forcing them, but you know that, if he’s pushed too far, his next course of action is also a punishment for your rejection of his fair deal (i.e. he has a vindictive streak in him that’s like “If you choose to take the path of most resistance, I’m gonna give you good resistance.”). And so for him to nonchalantly enter his car like there isn’t a raging fire, or Emilio might die in that fire, is everything you expect from his character at this point.
He is the calm at the center of panic.
And the scene ending shows that he came to and left the vineyard with the same energy, reinforcing how commonplace this behavior is for him, and how his internal struggle (his worry about what comes next and grief over Fabio’s death) is so much more important than Emilio and his racism and disrespect. Vincenzo is equally aloof and more internally focused on his internal state than he is about the fact that he just brought some dude’s livelihood down.
And Luca’s little smile at the actions of the Consigliere of the Cassano family is everything in showing that what you see is what you get—Vincenzo’s actions that day aren’t out of grief. That’s just how he rolls, and that’s how he got the position in the first place.
He doesn’t just perform it; he embodies it. And that’s what people expect. Luca doesn’t see his actions as overly ruthless. Vincenzo just does what needs doing.
Introducing the Conflict | 1:13:44 – 1:10:33
The next scene not only continues the fact that Vincenzo’s moving on from this very big dramatic action (the action) of burning some guy’s vineyard down and is completely OK with pretending that just didn’t happen, but reinforces the fact that he’s very comfortable around wealth. He rolls up to this huge Italian estate and he belongs there.
And the thing that gives him pause is not what he’s just done or who he’s going to meet. It’s the impact of the death of his boss that is giving wary Vincenzo energy. That hesitant pause before entering the house is not about the house itself or who’s going to be there, it’s about who’s not there. And what it means for him.
This is reinforced by the fact that everybody else is giving loyalty to Paolo, whereas Vincenzo is instead paying respects to Fabio and thinking on what he meant to him (“Father”).
And the jump cut between him paying respects for Fabio and Paolo cutting his cigar is there to signify how uncomfortable Vincenzo is with expressing his emotions. They don’t dwell on him in these very feeling moments, because he’s not used to being that feeling. He’s not used to experiencing regret, pain, and uncertainty with regards to himself.
It’s also a signal of Paolo’s disrespect. Everything has been going along quite flowing and smooth until Paolo cut that cigar to show his abruptness and his lack of respect not only for his father but also for Vincenzo.
Cue the battle for dominance.
It’s very clear from the conversation that while Vincenzo really respected Fabio, he does not hold Paolo in the same regard. And I believe that part of the reason Vincenzo doesn’t respect Paolo is that Fabio himself didn’t respect Paolo. Fábio wished that Paolo upheld the same values as him, and Vincenzo never respected Paolo because he never followed the rules. Not only is this feeling in the subtext, but Vincenzo clearly states, “Paolo. My Brother. I’m always ready to show you my loyalty as long as you deserve it.”
The sarcastic use of the word brother throughout the scene shows the contentiousness of their relationship (it feels like this dynamic was thrust upon them by Fabio wishing they’d treat each other like brothers). This is not just an explanation for why Vincenzo didn’t go to pay his respects to Paolo before Fabio, but it encapsulates their entire dynamic and foreshadows the fact that now that Paolo is in charge, Vincenzo does not feel comfortable following that vision.
And he walks off in his new direction.
That’s the inciting incident.
But wait, this show has a double inciting incident, continuing the theme of giving people multiple chances to prove who they are.
Inciting Incidence 1 (The Lead Up to the Choice) | 1:10:33 – 1:08:44
The choice begins with Vincenzo coming home and smoking a cigarette. The hero has a vice, but he also has a vulnerability in that he has nobody to come home to (i.e. no support system outside of the mafia which he has basically just left behind because of Paolo).
There is the intimated fear of cigarettes (implying that Fabio died from lung cancer because of him smoking cigars or cigarettes), so he can’t even get solace from his only vice.
You then find out that Paolo sent a three-man hit squad to kill the man he was just calling his brother. All because, in their conversation, Vincenzo basically told him to step up or step off.
And of course, Vincenzo who has been established as somebody who is very good at anticipating what his opponents will do, has rightly judged Paolo as the kind of guy who’d try to kill him in a cowardly fashion (no threats, no promises, just a non-sporting shot in the night while he’s sleeping).
And the confidence Vincenzo displays in his matching pajama and robe set is amazing. He knew it was going to happen, he was prepared, and he executed. Literally.
When he asks “Looking for me? Huh?” He’s not asking because he’s wondering who sent them, but because he is offended that they expected it would be easy for them to kill him (he’s obviously earned his position, so why are Paolo’s goons treating him like he hasn’t).
Inciting Incidence 2 (Commitment to the Choice) | 1:08:41 – 1:05:53
When he kills the last guy that his supposed brother, the new leader of the Cassano family, has sent to kill him. That’s the moment he decides “Fuck the Cassano family, clearly I’m no longer part of it, I’m going to Korea.”
And it’s the same moment that he decides to permanently burn those bridges by setting Paolo’s car on fire. And he does it in a way that shows all of those characteristics that have been made clear in the character moment and the scenes leading up to it.
He’s meticulous (he knows Paolo’s routine), he’s conscientious (a threat is more effective than violence), and he knows his opponents (he knew Paolo would send people after him so he long placed that bomb in Paolo’s car just to prove his point). Vincenzo literally says “Paolo. I knew you didn’t deserve to be the boss.”
And again, his moral compass is very clear. He didn’t kill Paolo out of respect for the fact that he is Fabio’s son. But at the same time, he’s making it very clear that this is Paolo’s last chance to escape him unscathed. The message is: Follow me and die. This is not somebody who makes empty threats.
And the fact that he’s having this entire conversation on the plane to another country, just adds to the fact that this is a man who has plans that have levels on levels.
And the SIM card in the champagne? That just cements his decision to leave Italy and pursue his new course of action.
And you get a hint of this new course of action in him reviewing papers for the list of business of Geumga Plaza and the pictures of the very building the prologue made clear he wants to demolish. And the plot conflict? Showing in the article with the title “Geumga Plaza to be Demolished Due to Conglomerate’s Tyranny”.
There’s resistance and a negative reputation waiting for him on the ground.
At the end of the first fifteen minutes of the pilot, you know:
- Who Vincenzo is (name, job, moral code, and the goal he’s striving for)
- What (or who) he’s trying to escape or avoid (i.e. bad relationship with Paolo and his trash leadership, and to some extent, his grief and loneliness over Fabio)
- How he deals with negative stimuli or stressors (i.e. permanently and effectively, but only after he gives a kinder option)
- What would make his life better (i.e. someone he can care about and who in turn cares about him)
- The kind of energy he has and how it lends itself to the kind of trouble he’s going to find himself in throughout the series (i.e. he brings big boss energy but lacks the mafia resources and the fearsome reputation he had in Italy when he lands)
And what makes this a really good setup for this series, is that everything that happens after this point stays true to his character, develops solutions for his needs (friendship and love interest), and has a ton of conflict that is so up his alley (a mafia-like antagonist who is very much what Vincenzo is used to dealing with) with the caveat of his obvious weaknesses (his reputation and inability to access resources).
I’m not trying to give spoilers for those of you who really don’t like them, but just go and watch the rest of the show and let me know what you think. The payoff is definitely worth it.
I hope this quick case study like this really helps you see those dynamics in action. I know TV versus writing is a little different, but really think about how you would go about writing this particular opening, and do the same for your book (visualize it playing out like a movie in your head, and then write what that would be on the page).
And pay attention to what is emphasized from the movie perspective (focus more on character and what the setting says about the character or how it limits/impacts their behavior). Readers are very much there to connect with your main character(s), so give them all the information they need to know so that choice that the protagonist makes during or after the inciting incident is a no-brainer.