dpeterfreund (dpeterfreund) wrote,

On Set Pieces

set piece: (n.) an important dramatic or comedic highpoint in a film or story, particularly those that provide some kind of dramatic payoff, resolution, or transition. (Source: Wikipedia)

set piece: (n.) A situation, activity, or speech planned beforehand and carried out according to a prescribed pattern or formula. (Source: American Heritage Dictionary)


Last week, I got into an interesting conversation about set pieces with blog book reviewer Angie of Angieville. Well, I was thinking of them as set pieces. I don't know if that's how she thinks of them, or if readers tend to think of them at all.

Some writers I know call them tent pole scenes. They are the scenes that you are plotting your story around -- the big scenes that keep the story aloft. I'm someone who plots my books in advance. this seems to confuse a lot of writers, who think I literally look at every scene and go "And now she lifts her hand, and now she crosses the room." I don't tend to even think of scenes when I'm plotting my books -- with the exception of these big tent pole scenes -- the scenes that I ABSOLUTELY know that the book will have in order for the plot to proceed as planned. The other scenes are string between the tent pole scenes. I know certain bits of information need to get out from scene to scene, but I'm not sure exactly how that's going to play out in every single scene in advance.*

What is interesting to me is that the scenes I tend to think of as absolutely vital and pivotal to the story when plotting, though they almost always make it into the book as written, they may not be as vital as I originally thought. They certainly may not be as vital to the reader as some other scene -- one that I may not have even planned.

Which is why this Laurel and Hardy still is so illustrative to the way I write (with apologies to Maureen Johnson, who usually has a monopoly on the use of classic film stills to illustrate her writing lessons).

So here we've got Hardy, Laurel, and a hapless bystander about to build something.

When I am plotting a book in advance, I'm Hardy. Decisive. Clueless. I think I know exactly what I want and exactly where I think it's going to go. I'm saying "Right here. Right here is the big scene on the sandbar."

When I'm writing the book, I'm Laurel. I'm saying, "There, there, Hardy. I do not think you were right about this. Nice try though. It worked in your head. On paper, it's a certifiable mess."

And when the book comes out, I'm the dude in the uniform, and the readers are all saying, "Wow, that shower scene was a real humdinger," and I'm going, "About that scene on the sandbar..." ::THUNK! Boardinface::

Which is fine. Great, in fact. I love it when I'm surprised by a powerful moment or turning point in my books. And I love it when anyone responds to any moment in my books, whether it was something I myself was concentrating intently on or not.

When planning out series, I often find myself imagining scenes years and years in advance of the moment I actually get to write them. I wrote the aforementioned "sandbar scene" in summer of 2007. I first imagined it in summer of 2005. I recently wrote a scene into KU2 that I'd been imagining also since 2005.

There's a lot of built in pressure to writing these set pieces. Since they've been living in my head so long, I worry if they don't conform to what I've been imagining when they finally get down on paper. Sometimes I approach them with genuine excitement and anticipation. "I can't wait to finally get this down!" Sometimes, I approach them with fear and trepidation. "Uh-oh. I hope this works out as planned."

But when they do work out, it's magic. When I sail into a set piece, a piece I've pictured, dreamed of, been excited to weave into my story for months or years -- and it unfolds as I planned -- or even better -- it's fantastic. One of the absolute best parts of my job.


* This is, I feel the need to point out, the reason I put my plot boards together AFTER writing. It's a comparative assessment against my synopsis, so I can see how plotlines actually played out on a scene by scene basis.

Originally published at Diana Peterfreund.

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