Episode 129: The Art of the Setback

On January 16th, Kasie and Rex took on the idea of the setback — a necessary raise-the-stakes move in literature and storytelling. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

The Art of the Setback


  • Events & Opportunities
  • What is a “setback” and why does it matter?
  • How to organized the setbacks in your work
Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

Did you know we have a YouTube channel? Check us out, dudes! Last Saturday, we premiered our first Featured Author Interview with Patron and publishing industry veteran Carolyn Hartley, author of Redemption: One Woman’s Dream to Overcome Oppression, Find Family, Love, and Forgiveness

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On February 4th, 2021 at 1:00 PM, SCWA Columbia II chapter member Dr. Walter Curry will be a featured guest on BlogTalkRadio show Research at the National Archives and Beyond hosted by Bernice Bennett. The topic of discussion is “Incorporating  Narrative Inquiry to Research Family History”. Click here to learn more and listen to the show.

This week I submitted one of my favorite short stories to a contest with a rather lucrative prize. What struck me about the story was the unintentional (but in hindsight obvious) structure of the piece. It begins in media res, or after the scene has begun, we pick up the conversation in mid-heat. Kate, the first-person narrator, is attempting to convince her ex-drummer and lover, Tyler, to rejoin her band for a single gig. Over the course of the story, Kate tries multiple appeals and each time is rebuffed.

The structure of the story is:

  1. Straight ask, get rejected
  2. Appeal to common history and nostalgia, get rejected
  3. Confession, low stakes ask, get rejected
  4. Accusation, try to turn the tables, get rejected
  5. Fake independence, try to make him jealous, get rejected
  6. Get at the real issue, stand your ground, get rejected
  7. Make a connection, think maybe he’ll change his mind, but then get rejected for the last time
  8. Acceptance and end of story.

Each time Tyler says no, Kate suffers a setback. The idea that she can talk him into this, why she believes she can, is delivered in exposition: because she always has. She’s been able to manipulate him before, so she thinks she can do it again. Whether Tyler can stand his ground is the real tension in the story.

Okay, so what does this tell us about “the setback” as a necessary part of storytelling?

Think of it as a “turning point” and consider these famous novel examples:

  1. The Hero/ine is given an opportunity  
  2. The plans change — for whatever reason, the original idea the hero/ine was following will no longer suffice
  3. The point of no return — this decision changes everything and the hero/ine has to know it either before, or immediately after the decision is made
  4. The major setback — the point at which is appears all hope is lost
  5. The climax — the top-most point of the story, the most to lose, the most at stake and everything is downhill to resolution from here.

Segment 2

The SCWA is glad to present, in partnership with the South Carolina Humanities, a series of midday workshops called Writer Conversations that begin this week with the Hibernation Series. Three weeks of lunchtime programs beginning with a goal setting workshop led by our own Kasie Whitener. These sessions are free and open to the public in their original airing but the recordings are only available to SCWA members. Get registered and learn more about SCWA here.

So why do we need the setbacks? Well, without them the story would be pretty frigging boring. So let’s put obstacles between the main character and his/her desire. Consider it to be about building character (this link).

In improv theater, there’s a rule called, “Yes, and…” this means that whatever is happening on stage when you join, you must accept it (Yes) then add to it (and) to enhance or complicate the scene. Some examples:

  • Mom’s crippled and can’t walk far … yes, and the top floor has caught on fire.
  • It’s snowing out and school was canceled … yes, and the power has gone out and the house is getting colder and colder.

It’s basically raising the stakes in real time.

So consider your setbacks as doing the same thing. They’re complicating matters.

Did Indiana Jones find the ark of the covenant? Yes, and he was captured and detained.

Did Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy finally connect and start something real? Yes, and her sister Lydia ran away with Mr. Wickam, ruining the family.

Did Luke Skywalker rescue Princess Leah? Yes, and he led the empire directly to the rebel base.

So what are some possible setbacks?

My favorite is the physical demonstration of how much harder this is really going to be. The best example is Moana deciding to take her father’s boat and sail beyond the reef against his wishes. It’s overturned and she’s washed ashore, humiliated and humbled by her failure (link here)

Physical — maybe it’s the U.S. Olympic hockey team being beaten by the Russians just two days before the Olympic Games begin in 1980 (link), maybe it’s Rocky (III) training with Apollo on the beach and he’s hit a wall or losing a practice bout or suffering through the training montage, maybe it’s Daniel taking the sweep to the leg, what we think will be his bout-ending injury. The physical setback is a classic.

Mental — maybe it’s losing faith in something the main character thought was true (A Bug’s Life), maybe it’s following a leader that turns out to be a fake (Prom — the Broadway “helpers” had come to help for their own selfish reasons, leaving Emma feeling used)

Skills or Tools fail — training was insufficient, gadgets or tools fail (Wonder Woman fails to kill Aries with the sword), specially-trained allies die, the spell/weapon/ritual fails to bring about the desired results

Segment 3

Is there a specific progression for setbacks? Such as: low stakes, higher stakes, highest stakes?

(this link) Consider the purpose of the obstacle before deciding what kind of obstacle to use:

  1. Force characters to zig, zag, adapt, struggle and overcome before they reach their goal
  2. Add uncertainty to the question of whether the character will reach their goal
  3. Create tension for readers
  4. Trigger consequences for characters
  5. Reveal characters’ strengths, weaknesses, and loyalties
  6. Raise the stakes
  7. Gather resources for the next step of the plot
  8. Force hard choices and sacrifices

How does the main character overcome the setback?

Hack solutions (read: don’t do these):

  • A new, special ability or tool
  • A fluke law or missed prophecy rescues them
  • Reality wasn’t what it seemed
  • Another character takes the blame or removes the obstacle for him
  • A prophecy corrects the misinterpretation and sets the story on the right course

Real Character-Building solutions:

  • Develop the necessary skills to win the second bout
  • Perseverance to try again, or try a different way to overcome the setback
  • Learn something about himself/herself that gives renewed confidence to try again
  • Realize the only way to overcome the setback is to abandon old beliefs — to change
  • Ask for help and accept whatever consequences that ask creates
  • Get advice or coaching from someone who’s been there
  • Time. There’s no substitute for time.

Segment 4

How, specifically, do you do it?

Should we outline?

Should we draw arcs?

Should we ask specific questions at each turning point?

  • What happens?
  • How does the M/C respond?
  • How do supporting characters respond?
  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • What’s the best possible outcome? (don’t do this — but make the character think this could be what happens)

Is this back to beats and structure and being intentional? Yes.

Is this the boring part of writing? Maybe.

If you’ve written a story intuitively — like my story about the school teacher whose first grade class visits the zoo and sees a elephant with an arousal — then the pattern of details you use, that’s what establishes the importance of each step. For example: the class walks by the monkeys and there’s noise and disruption and it’s wild and unruly; the class walks by the elephant with its arousal and it’s embarrassing and taboo; the class walks by the lioness and she’s restless, she’s like a mirror for the teacher – and really weren’t the monkeys mirroring the kids and the elephant showing her the obvious things she was trying to avoid — so that when she’s face-to-face with the lioness, she must consider what her own caged feelings, her own sexual restlessness, really is.

When you write a story intuitively — like our Kate the Rock Star story from the beginning, you may not see the beats. You may not see the escalation. But when you revise it, and get intentional about how they say what they say, how far apart they are when they say it, whether they’re looking at each other or looking away — when you revise those details in, you’re being intentional about laying the setbacks — the stakes — into the story.

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