THE JOB OF THE MIDDLE is to build toward and deliver crisis. That’s true whether you’re working in long-form or short-form fiction.
And since scenes are the foundation of fiction, the foundation of plots are special scenes, big scenes. They’re generally called set-pieces – I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because they need setting up to be effective.
SLOWLY IT TURNS, STEP BY STEP
Stories, especially long fiction, need to be divided into stages, intermediate short-term plots, each with its own build-up, crisis, and resolution. Before Frodo and Sam can reach Mount Doom to destroy the terrible Ring, they have to reach Rivendell and Lorien and pass through Shelob’s lair. Before Sam Spade can find out who killed his partner, he has to disarm Joel Cairo and the gunsel, dodge his partner’s jealous wife and the police she sets on him, and find out who the Fat Man is and what this black bird is that everybody seems so interested in.
Even if your story is a journey through time or one of realization and revelation, rather than one across distance, it’s still a journey. There need to be destinations, memorable landmarks, and even rest stops, several of them, before it reaches the final goal.
These intermediate moments of climax and partial, temporary resolution are what set-pieces are designed to provide. A set-piece is a big scene the reader can see coming and can look forward to awhile, either in fear or in hope, before it’s reached. The duel between Luke and Darth Vader is a set-piece. The burning of Atlanta, in Gone With the Wind, is another. In the Lord of the Flies, Simon’s journey up the mountain to see what’s really up there, monster or not, is a set-piece, as is his return into the middle of the hysterical tribal dance by which the boys are trying to drive out fear. Simon is mistaken for the Beast and killed. We could see it coming, even though Simon didn’t. we weren’t sure – we hoped for the best, but suspected the worst.
Seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama, and suspense in a story.
The earliest set-pieces will be the hardest, because they’ll still have expositional chores to do – developing the characters, demonstrating the nature of the conflict, establishing the setting, and so on. They’ll also have the briefest preparation. The later ones can be more streamlined and direct. You’ll have your little world set up fairly completely in all its complexities by then; the reader will already know your characters and appreciate what’s at stake, and you’ll have had time to lay your groundwork to build toward the set-piece that’s coming.
Being more direct, and carrying the whole foregoing story’s momentum behind them, these later set-pieces will gain in impact and drama. You and your story will be up to speed then: in third gear, and rolling fast. Later set-pieces will be easier to write.
Remember that and take heart: after the beginning, and after the sections immediately following, it gets easier. The story itself will be on your side, helping you to create and move.
If you choose your set-pieces well, build up to them so that the reader can see what’s coming, and deliver on them, your story will be good reading from beginning to end.
Delivering on Set-Pieces
I emphasize delivering because far too many beginning writers get terminally shy about their set-pieces. They dodge away into talk, or skip the scene and maybe refer afterward to what happened. They’ll do every blessed thing except actually write the scene.
I don’t know how or why this kind of fundamental narrative timidity originate (although, rereading my own early stories, I see that I suffered from a touch of it too, here and there). I only know I’ve seen quite a lot of it, mostly in unpublished work.
Maybe intuitively such beginners realize that a set-piece is the third most important part of any story, after the opening and the ending. Maybe they realize their story is going to stand or fall by the scene coming up, and they just can’t face the responsibility of writing it and being judged by it. They’re afraid to commit themselves and go for broke. So instead, they skitter off into exposition or summary, and the story sags.
Face up to set-pieces. Make up your mind to write them, even if – especially if – you’re afraid to. If you see that things in your story are heading toward a blowup between Ginger and Fred pretty soon, show the tension building up, show the hurt feelings accumulating, and then blow everything sky-high. Make their blowup happen at a party, on a train station, or someplace where neither can get away until they’ve both had their hurtful say. Use the setting to complement or contrast strongly with the action. Write the battle as though it were a new beginning, with that much clarity and intensity.
Write the scene.
Notice and polish every legitimate, intrinsic bit of drama inherent in the scene until it absolutely glitters. Embody that drama in action – things done, things said, in a scene happening right before the reader’s eyes.
Not All the Scenery Has to Show Tooth Marks, Though
When I say “write the scene,” I don’t mean overwrite it. If what you’re writing is a domestic quarrel, don’t throw in a burglar or attacking commandos or the kitchen sink just because it would make the scene dramatic. That sort of overkill will only push the scene over the edge into farce.
What I mean is that, whatever your set-piece is, you should bring out all its facets and polish it like a jewel. Make it the best domestic quarrel anybody ever wrote, one the neighbours would buy tickets to watch, not a garbled, hodgepodge screaming match with tanks bursting in.
Write the scene so that something has completely happened, every bit. More will undoubtedly come of it later on, but this one scene shines. Frodo really does resist the Dark Riders at the ford, at least long enough for wizardly help to arrive. Simon really does see, clear and plain, what horrible, pitiable thing actually is on top of the mountain.
Setting Up What’s to Come
Now, after the beginning that set up the major narrative and structural patterns, and after the opening section where your plot really got rolling, you should start imagining where, in the short run, your story is going. What major event, several pages or Chapters ahead, is going to happen? Start imagining it. Who will be there? What’s going to lead to it? And what’s going to happen? What will you need to establish beforehand, so that set-piece can have its full weight and impact? How can you go about laying that necessary groundwork now, where you are in the story?
As I’ve said before, stories – especially live, convincing stories – will change under your hands. That’s the reason I’ve never been persuaded of the usefulness of outlines. By other writers’ experience and my own, I judge that you generally won’t know how a story’s going to go until you get close to the place where something is just about to happen. It will take its own shape and tell you how it wants to go, if you listen and watch attentively for the ways it’s telling you.
My advice is that you should always know what your next set-piece is going to be. You should be laying the groundwork for it right up to the time it happens. You should start that groundwork either from the story’s beginning, or lay down the first seeds back before the previous set-piece, to mature and bloom later. And you should be thinking of how that set-piece relates to your main story and making sure it won’t seem grafted on, invented on the spot, but is a natural outcome of everything that’s gone before.
It can’t be just any scene, either. You’ll have only about a dozen set-pieces in a whole long novel; in a more compact book, there will probably be more like six. In short fiction, perhaps three: beginning, middle, and end. Or, in the tightest and most focused of short stories, maybe only one. These set-pieces are going to be your story’s high points; the scenes a reader will remember when the build-up, transition, and explanation have all been forgotten; the scenes where your plot rises to crisis.
So choose them well. As much as possible, let your story generate them. Let them arise out of who your people are, what problems they’re facing, what they’re trying to do – the story’s central conflict. After they’re in place, they’ll seem inevitable, as if nothing else could possibly have happened. But you have to make them up: not quite out of nothing, but out of the body and bone of your story as it takes shape under your hands.
Things Get Blacker and Blacker
In long fiction, scene builds on scene, set-piece on set-piece. The impact isn’t isolated, but cumulative. It becomes a story’s momentum, its pace (about which, more in Chapter 9: Pacing, Transitions, Flashes, And Frames.)
Very often, several or even all of the intermediate crises will be disasters, with matters apparently much worse than before. The protagonist will be defeated, though not quite utterly. This increases tension and suspense, acting as build-up for the final crisis. But each of the intermediate crises should also open a new door, present a fresh opportunity, off a revelation as to the real nature of the problem the protagonist faces. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the attic conceals brooding Rochester’s first wife, and every crisis in Jane’s romance brings her nearer that crucial discovery. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is also found on a fundamental lie – that Rebecca, Maxim’s dead first wife, was a paragon whom Maxim loved profoundly and now mourns continually. Every major crisis the young protagonist faces unravels part of that lie to disclose the truth: that Rebecca was an unfaithful and unfeeling wife whom Maxim came to hate deeply, perhaps to the point of murder.
To the degree that your plot is a mystery, your set-pieces should provide, not only crisis, but unfolding revelation of the central truth concealed at the story’s beginning and not completely demonstrated until the final crisis.
But it’s not just mysteries which set-pieces can reveal. Remember, plot involves actions with meaningful consequences. Such consequences evolve, one step at a time. Each set-piece (after the first) should be set in motion, at least in part, by what happened in the previous one. This present scene should dramatize and arise from the effects created by what’s gone before, and in turn have effects played out in the story thereafter. Cause sparks effect, which in turn becomes cause, right up to your story’s end.
Using the existing story as a step from which to find and reach the next level of tension and crisis is what creates unity in long fiction: the feeling that all the parts are necessary to the whole and are meaningfully connected, each with the others.
Outlining from Inside
When you’ve written your set-piece, you should be looking ahead to the end, to see if you can see its shape any more clearly from this vantage point than you could before. And if you can, make adjustments to make this scene lead more clearly, more precisely, toward the last cliff, with fewer possible turnings-away, so that the story, crisis by crisis, narrows down to a point that seems inevitable when it comes.
I call it outlining from inside. Blocking out the story, one set-piece step at a time, from inside it, taking due account of what it seems so far to be trying to become. That much outlining, I believe, every writer needs if his story is not to appear a funhouse, a random series of events sprung on the reader for no particular reason, gone too fast to have impact, leading from nothing to nothing. You need some kind of an outline, some idea of where you’re going and how, if you’re going to keep your story out of the funhouse which, in fiction, is on fun at all.
Look ahead at least to your next major scene and get ready for it. Then deliver.
But Don’t Hint It to Death
In your build-up, though, take care not to try to write the set-piece before it’s ready, before it’s had a chance to simmer properly. Establish that it’s coming, and maybe hint at the basic nature of confrontation. You’ve established your characters, so the reader has some idea how each will react in crisis. But don’t give away the exact crisis, or the outcome. Leave that for the scene itself. Grant the reader not only the enjoyments of looking forward but the enjoyments of discovery, scene by scene, as well. Write your set-pieces boldly and thoroughly, but keep some of your cards hidden right up to the end.
Or Serve It With a Twist
If the outcome, or the crisis itself, seems too predictable, like the traditional western gunfight, you can throw in maybe one surprise element – not attacking guerrillas, but something you’ve carefully refrained from hinting about. If you’ve set the stage for a duel, deliver a duel, all right – but fought with dynamite instead of guns. If your build-up has promised an explosion at a bank, deliver an explosion – but one that not only opens the safe but sets fire to the thieves’ getaway car.
Never fail to deliver what, implicitly or explicitly, you’ve promised your reader. But don’t assume you have to serve it up in the same, predictable old dish, either.
Your sudden twist mustn’t change the basis of the confrontation itself, like guerrillas in the middle of a domestic argument (unless, of course, you’re writing surrealistic farce, in which case all bets are off, anyway: even twittering nine-armed Martians are legal, then, if they work). The mood and meaning should be the same, regardless of the twist. Don’t make the scene anticlimactic, like a duel that’s fought with wet spaghetti or water balloons, or a ball where friends try to keep the feuding male and female protagonist apart – and succeed, so nothing happens after all.
Play with Murphy’s Law. Try to think of what, within that fundamental situation, could go surprisingly wrong, yet seem believable and reasonable, within that context, when it happens.
For instance, on the mountain, Simon finds, not a monster, but a dead pilot. But since Jack’s tribe is in the process of turning into warriors, and since the irrevocable step in that transformation is their killing of Simon, a dead solider isn’t a neutral thing either. It’s the essential savagery and warlike inclinations of humanity that’s the Beast in the book. So it’s a real Beast, the real and only beast, which Simon discovers. It’s just not the sort of beast either Simon or the reader had expected.
The scene throws in a twist, but it works. It delivers true monsterdom, in the book’s special context, and monstrous things come of the discovery. It works better than it would have if Simon found nothing, or Godzilla. And part of its being better is the surprise twist that makes more sense than finding either noting or a trampling reptile, because it’s appropriate to its context. We couldn’t have predicted it, but it fits. It works. It’s a masterly twist – one of many in the book. There’s another at the end. And, no, I’m not going to tell you how it all comes out.
Read Lord of the Flies, if you haven’t already. It’s not cheery, but you’ll learn a lot about laying evidence, build-up, and delivering set-pieces from it. Also, if it’s any inducement, it’s short…
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
There are ways to prepare for an upcoming set-piece. Some of them are obvious, some less so.
One obvious thing you need to do is simply naming the approaching event – the visit of the wealthy but irascible grandfather, the trip to the zoo, the battle at the river, the big dance or exclusive party your protagonist years to be invited to. It would seem just common sense to mention the event before it happens and indicate, through characters’ words and attitudes, why it’s likely to be climatic, but I’m always surprised how many writers neglect this basic chore.
Maybe they figure if they spring their set-piece on the reader without preparing the ground, it’ll be even more of a surprise. And it is – but not a good one. Without anticipation, a sudden crisis has all the drama of slipping on the ice and thumping your tailbone. There’s no suspense, no anticipation – just the jolt, and it’s over. Big deal. At least half the fun of any holiday is the looking forward. Apply that to your fiction, and prepare for your big scenes.
These no-build-up folk are the opposite of those I mentioned earlier: the ones who enjoy the hinting and the looking forward, but hate arriving, whose idea of effective surprise is that, after considerable preparation, nothing happens. Wow. Surprise. I trust you won’t be tempted to join that coy and anticlimatic crew. You may have heard the saying, “It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” Maybe so. But in fiction, you’d better do both or take up another trade, like fan dancing. There’s only just so much hopeful traveling you can expect readers to do before they give up in annoyance and disappointment. After a strong beginning, you’ll have some credit to draw on, but there are limits.
Use a Preview Scene
Another way to lay groundwork is to have a small preview scene where some form of the actual events of the coming set-piece are set up – a small duel or clash anticipating the big duel or clash.
There’s an instance of this in The Empire Strikes Back, which I discussed in the previous Chapter: Luke has a laser-sword fight with an apparition of Darth Vader conjured in an evil cave (a fight Luke loses because he wins). Those few seconds are setup for the actual duel enacted in several distinct stages near the movie’s conclusion. In that later duel, Luke loses but escapes defeat by casting himself into the unknown rather than allow himself to despair and surrender – a reverse mirror of the earlier fight where victory paradoxically meant defeat. Here, defeat leads to Luke’s coming to terms with the truth, that Vader’s his father: the pivotal insight which powers the trilogy’s eventual and climatic reconciliation between them in Return of the Jedi.
If your set-piece is going to hinge on the fact that your protagonist has lost his glasses, show them being lost (and eventually found) a time or two beforehand. It will provide foreshadowing as well as make the important loss of the glasses, in the set-piece, entirely believable and convincing.
Use Contrasts and Make Things Get Much Worse or Much Better
Your set-piece will have the most impact if you lead up to it with scenes of varied length, but all brisk and relatively short. Then, when your set-piece arrives, your reader will be ready to settle down to something more substantial and intense.
If your set-piece is going to be a grim disaster, you have a choice – your lead-in scenes can be cheery, hopeful, or peaceful (suspicious readers will immediately start suspecting the worst) or else more and more troubled and disturbing. Then the scene will need to be not merely the confirmation of the characters’ worst fears, but beyond anything they’d even imagined. (Merely confirming suspicions has little drama; finding out things are even worse than you’d thought leaves whole new vistas of unpleasantness to explore.)
But if your big scene is going to turn out wonderful and happy, the lead-in should probably be as black as possible. Cheer followed by more cheer, cute upon cute, can make even the non-diabetic among us wince. A touch of sour gives tang and helps ward off banality. Unrelieved sweetness, thoroughgoing uplift, becomes stronger and more persuasive by the addition of a dash of bitters, at least in anticipation, though your set-piece may open all sunny and go on to become positively idyllic and full of implicit happily-ever-afters.
Make Room for the Aftermath
How you lead your narrative out of a set-piece is just as important as how you lead it in.
The outcome of the set-piece has no matter, and needs to have narrative and emotional space to matter in. After the big scene, the story should be changed and the characters meaningfully affected by what’s happened. If everything goes on as before, the set-piece will seem much fuss and bother about nothing – empty, irrelevant, and finally disappointing, no matter how well written and dramatic in itself. It should not only arise from the story that goes before, but be a determining factor in the story that comes afterward.
Crises are sometimes called turning points. Make sure that, after a set-piece, the story does turn – into something even more absorbing and important. With each round, all bets are raised and more is at stake and at risk. By the story’s end, everything of importance to the protagonist, in that particular context, should be at hazard, win or lose.
A Matter of Life and Death
In fiction for the widest readership, what’s at stake will probably be life, love, or both, in the most literal and direct way. Somebody, or somebody’s lover, could get killed. In less melodramatic fiction, the stakes may be self-respect, reconciliation, being true to oneself or to an ideal or a relationship. But these more subtle, interior stakes must in fact be just as high as those in stories where the protagonist faces purely physical and external threats.
The death of the self is also death, though the body may live on. An interior death is still a death to be feared and fought with all one’s energy and wit. So is the death of the heart – the capacity to feel, as distinct from the threatened loss of a relationship or of a particular lover. The risk of becoming what one hates, committing the one unforgiveable act, speaking the lie (or the truth) that can never be unsaid, are dangers perhaps more terrible than that of facing a loaded gun.
Whatever the actual terms of the risk, it should finally always become and be a matter of life and death – however life and death have been defined in this particular context, your own unique world. And the risk should escalate and intensify from the opening crisis right up to the end. With the whole weight of the book’s context, the characters’ development, and the building momentum of the crises along the way to give it force and meaning, what seemed perhaps a minor threat or a small personal desire at the beginning should, by story’s end, be felt by the reader to be as profound as a clash of suns, in which all light will either fail or blaze triumphant.
Where everything’s on the line, and that line keeps getting nearer the edge – that’s a set-piece.