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 originates (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 I only know I've seen quite a lot of it, mostly in unpublished work.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 theyjust 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 he 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 bur glar 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 neighbors 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.

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