Some things seem to be inevitable. The other day my daughter knocked over a box of cereal. As I cleaned up a significant volume of crunchy breakfasty goodness, it struck me how many things had come into play to ensure this particularly messy outcome:
- It is the end of the school year and I have caved somewhat and am buying the children ‘special cereal’. (Yes mother guilt here… usually they eat toast and porridge).
- Typically I would only buy a small box, but this week the large box was on special…
- Because the contents of the large box wouldn’t fit in the plastic cereal container I put the whole box on the table.
- I put the box next to my six-year-old daughter, on the edge of the table (you can see where this is going).
- I thought to myself, ‘that box is a bit close to the edge‘.
- My next thought was, ‘no – she’ll be right’...
- My daughter knocks the box with her elbow.
- She catches the bottom of the box as it falls.
- Because she is holding the bottom of the box the considerable contents inside continue to rain down all over the floor…
- I do that slow-mo “Nooooo” as I wade through the crunchy tide in a futile attempt to stem the flow.
- I have to clean up the floor because it’s a bit sticky and crunchy and bits have bounced everywhere…
You might think the moral of this story is: Don’t buy the cereal. But as a writer, the moral is actually: Don’t overlook the power of a good set up.
If you know your character needs to stumble, or encounter setbacks – work out ways of making sure
they fall into your clever trap their circumstances are such that the only way forward is into conflict. This can be either internal or external, but it can be enough to give your story real momentum.
The Plotting Tool.
The movie Signs is an excellent example of how to make the most of the set up. The beginning of the movie establishes some strange and random character idiosyncrasies that end up being the key to saving lives and defeating the ill-informed alien invaders. As a technique it’s fairly simple. Identify your desired outcome and work backwards from there.
In my WIP, The Fall of the Kings, one of the important plot points turns on one of the characters helping another. It’s an unlikely scenario because Jae (the helper), belongs to a group typically shunned by the general populace. Tobias (in need of help) is not only of the general populace, but is also part of the religious order Jae is particularly leery of. Yet although it’s unlikely she would go out of her way to save him – it is imperative to the story that she does. So I needed to lay some groundwork. This started with questions:
- What would cause her to risk her life (and the life of others) to save this man she doesn’t know? Answer: She wouldn’t for any stranger. There would need to be some sort of connection between them.
- What could he do that would impact her enough to a) recognise him again; and b) cause her to act. Answer: He would show her he was different – had a different attitude towards her people. Maybe show her unexpected kindness.
- Where would their paths cross before the major plot point?
You get the idea. When all the elements line up, Jae and Tobias are set for their own adventure – one that seemed destined from the beginning.
Inevitability is not the same as Predictability.
The difference between inevitability and predictability is one of perspective. Predictability is knowing something is going to happen; inevitability is looking back and realising it couldn’t have happened any other way.
No one wants to write predictable stories. The trick is not to be so obvious when you line things up that the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen. Use a light touch. There is plenty of room for nuance, subtlety and surprise. If all goes well the story will feel real – rather than manipulated.
Set-up with Care.
We’re told as writers not to include anything superfluous in a story – i.e. don’t go giving Frodo the light of Earendil’s star and then not have any opportunity to use it. But also don’t give Frodo the light and then have him use it in the very next scene either. Let him carry it around for a while, and preferably leave it to the very last moment to realise it might be of particular significance against a creature steeped in darkness. Even better for tension if the reader has had time to forget about it too. Unless you’re writing a pantomime you don’t want your audience yelling use the light.
Reader Pay Off.
In my personal experience (as reader or viewer), I love it when things all of a sudden fall into place.
Take the classic line in Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader says: “I am your father.” What can I say – one of the best reveals ever!
Or in a smaller way in The Name of the Wind by the amazing Patrick Rothfuss, the main character Kvothe breaks a string on his lute and has no way of replacing it. So every time a string breaks he teaches himself to play with those that remain. Although this is appropriate to the place in the story – it really comes into its own much later when someone tries to sabotage him by breaking a lute string at an important concert. Honestly as a reader I literally started jumping up and down…
How about you? As a reader what are some of your favourite set-ups? As a writer do you actively set things up to fall like a line of dominoes? I love to hear from you…