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 to 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 bejust 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 unforgivable 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.

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