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 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.

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