Thursday, July 29, 2010

When the set piece has to be UNBELIEVABLY AWESOME...

A couple of days ago, I got to a point in the scene of my latest story, and had to stop. Why? Because I knew I was on the verge of writing the climactic set piece of the story, and whatever I wrote had to be unbelievably awesome.

Living up to my own expectations can be enough to shut me down for days (I suppose it's a variety of writer's block).

Just in case this has ever happened to you, I thought I'd share a few of the things I do when I get blocked by my own expectations.

1. Review your plans.
I look back at what I've sketched out. Usually I have a basic sense of the events required by the plot. "She kills him," for example. Of course, it's important to keep in mind that events alone are not enough. Even the most exciting-sounding events can fall flat if done badly.

2. Back up and look for clues to how you should approach the next piece.
If you work with themes or consistent imagery, see if there's a way to incorporate the theme or the ongoing imagery into the piece that's coming up. In my case, I realized I should try to work typhoons into the scene as it progressed. Even if you don't typically work with themes, you may be able to find little hints that your subconscious has seeded throughout the early sections of your story - places where an image or a connection can be repeated or enhanced.

3. Try getting as close to the ground as possible.
Immerse yourself in your events, your characters, your text. Get as deep into the point of view as you can so that you can be inside your main character's impressions and reactions, and forget everything else. After all, what's looming ahead (the set piece) is primarily looming for you, the author/drafter/editor. For the characters, it typically won't loom as much. Your character may be aware that they have to kill the bad guy - but even if they are, they may not realize it's about to happen now. If you do happen to be in a Percy Jackson situation where you know your time is short, you know the big bad guy's coming right now, etc., then see if you can rely on the supporting characters.

4. Forget about the magnitude of the task, and about trying to make it awesome.
The strength of set pieces comes from two different sources. You might expect that the words you use in a set piece are key to its success. This is true - but those words by themselves aren't what's going to lift this piece into the realm of true awesomeness. If you work too hard to make the words of your set piece awesome, they won't be awesome - they'll be strenuous. The other place you'll be able to build strength for your set pieces is in the material that leads up to them. For example, if the action of the set piece is going to have a huge impact on your point of view character, set up the needs and sensitivities of your character early on and let readers know that certain things will have particular impact for him/her. That way, when you get there, the words you use will gain the additional resonance of all the places where you placed supporting material.

To use a wacky metaphor, imagine that your main character's plot arc is like a boulder rolling down a hill. To make it more exciting, you can decorate the boulder, or you can stick something in the place where it's supposed to land - but how much more exciting would it be to have a whole bunch of boulders (of different sizes?) rolling in from different directions to converge on that one spot? The impact would be much bigger, and its consequences would be much trickier to anticipate.

So after a couple of days and after talking all these elements through with my best writing buddy, I managed to sit down last night and write the piece. Of course it needs work - but it's out there now. The fear is gone.

I hope these suggestions can help you with your set pieces too.


  1. Good ideas!
    The one that resonates the most with me is #4. Yes, I am the guiding force behind my story; it's up to me to make it awesome. But I've found I have more success if I don't try as hard.
    My mind seems to know what it's doing even when I don't know what it's doing.

  2. Trust your subconscious, for it knows things you don't! At least, that's what I've found. I'm lucky in that I am usually able to step back and analyze what I've done, after I've done it. Getting analytical too early doesn't help much, though; it shuts down the muse.

  3. Happens to me as well. What I've done is alternate between two things.

    1) Writing the very bare-bones of it. What happens, why it's important. Don't decorate it, etc. Then I flesh it out and give it that extra flair.

    2) Usually the 'big' moments are moments that are led up to, so I backtrack and sort of rev myself up. Many times I notice (especially considering how many action sequences I use) that I'm just completely sucked into the telling and the words just fly out, so I make a beeline for the climactic, super-amazing-awesome part.

    So I'd say some combination of 3 and 4, but all the points were good.

  4. Thanks, Jared. Good of you to stop by and comment. Your technique makes sense.