“The first quarter of your book is set-up!” says writing advice A.
“You have to jump immediately into the action. Page 1 is already full gallop!” says writing advice B.
Who Is Right?
They’re both right! (whee, isn’t that fun?)
The first quarter of the book IS set-up.
It’s set-up for the world, set-up for the characters, set-up for the story.
It is not, however, stuff that happens before the story begins.
I realize that’s a little confusing, given the term “set-up” is generally used to mean “getting ready for” … but it’s still a good term.
You cannot cannot cannot spend that first 1/4 waiting or preparing for stuff to happen. You could, back in the day. You absolutely did, as a matter of fact. These days, though? That’s book death. You have to show me your world, character, and conflict on the FIRST PAGE. Hook me with the first line.
That’s a tall order, but it’s doable while still leaving the first quarter of the book as “set-up”.
Let’s assume you’re writing a murder mystery book.
You don’t drop the reader in the MIDDLE of a murder investigation, right? But neither do you show us the sleuth making breakfast for 100 pages before someone dies.
The character has to make a decision in that first quarter of the book — the kind of decision that changes everything for them, and that once they’ve made it? There’s no way they can go back to Normalsville ever again.
They can’t make that decision on page 1, because the reader doesn’t know enough to care that they’re making it.
So, what do you do?
If you’re writing a murder mystery, you off someone quickfastandinahurry. First page, maybe. First chapter, almost certainly. You’re writing a murder mystery here. No need to be coy about the fact that someone dies. The reader already knows that. (Side note? I hate it when I read a book where the main character is supposed to be dropped into a magical world…and I’m more than a quarter into the story and NO MAGIC IN SIGHT. Is the writer thinking I’ll be pleasantly surprised when it happens? Because I bought the book FOR the magic. Stop with the dillydallying! *flails*)
The fact that someone died isn’t the story. The MYSTERY of the death is the story. So your sleuth is poking around, looking for more information … and by that 1/4 mark, the reader knows them, knows the other characters, cares about the MC and BLAMMO, now you show the MC making the decision that changes everything.
You’ve laid down the foundation for the plot (you haven’t waited till this point to give clues or add conflict, which should be in every chapter), but at the 1/4 mark, there is NO way this sleuth isn’t going to do everything in their power to find the killer. Maybe the killer kidnaps their kid or threatens their own life, or does something the MC considers unforgivable. That part’s up to the writer.
The first quarter of the book is set-up for that decision … not for the events of the story.
You’re setting up all the little bits and pieces in the reader’s mind that they need in order for that decision to matter.
Does that make sense?