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 yearns 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 climactic, 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 thejolt, 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 tojoin that coy and anticli-mactic 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.

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