The Set Pieces Problem

So, there I was, happily clocking up 2000 words a day, and no problems at all. My idea, if you remember, was to do a rough and dirty first draft, which would inevitably be full of problems, problems which I would fix, of course, at the second, or third pass.

Around 30,000 words, however, I hit a snag. I found that, although I could quite happily write a scene involving exposition, or dialogue, or description, or getting a character from one place to another without tripping up or getting lost, I could not get the same result with set pieces.

Because I’m writing a science fiction story that relies heavily on action, I have to have several scenes where people are fighting, or something exciting is occurring. As any fan of action movies knows, fights are actually set pieces, where exciting events pile one on top of the other, usually culminating in an exciting climax. They have to be full of tension, they have to be plausible, and they have to make sense within the wider narrative.

The problem I discovered, was that you just can’t ad lib a good set piece. A good set piece is like a good short story: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It doesn’t matter whether you are describing a fist fight, or a plane crash, the rules are the same: you need to plan out what is going to happen in advance, or it’s just going to be another boring hollywood style action sequence.

Sure, I could easily flip open my laptop and go: “Okay! Desert Battle sequence! Here we go!” and then tap away until my 2000 word quota is done. My first draft would be finished in two weeks. The problem is, I’d have to cut nearly all of that crap in revision, because it would be really boring, and then I’d have to sit down and go: how does this battle sequence actually play out so that it works? Why bother wasting my time writing this stuff if I’m only going to cut it all later, because I didn’t bother planning properly?

Actually, if you watch cheap tv shows, you can see unplanned set pieces all over the place. You know what I mean: a couple of crooks run out of a bank, the cops pull up, the crooks shoot at the cops and pile into a car which drives off. Cue car chase, where the most exciting thing is trying to see if the continuity is correct by counting the dents on the vehicles. But with a bit of thought, as in movies such as The French Connection or Ronin car chases canbe great. But they gotta be planned properly.

I see in a lot of books, actually, especially of the action variety, that the writer has clearly thought to himself (or herself) “okay, that’s the boring dialogue out the way. Now I can relax because the next scene has my hero getting jumped by two goons, so it’s going to be really exciting without me putting any effort in. You wish. Where do they jump him? How does he fight them off? Are they stronger than him? Have they got weapons? If he’s avoiding one, how come the other guy doesn’t hit him? Does this happen in the street? Why don’t the police come? Is he ever actually in danger, or is it just Another Boring Action Sequence?

If you don’t believe me, check out George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan spitballing one of the greatest set piece action movies of all time: Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this revealing conference, you can see how the top-of-the-head ideas they have are often just as bad as your or mine. For example, they flail around for a while, coming up with possible climaxes to the temple scene at the beginning, until Spielberg finally says: ‘hey, I got a great idea, a giant boulder…’ But it took a bit of work to get there. And that’s just one element of a great scene.

So, at 30,000 words, I took a break, and started planning my set pieces: how the action plays out, how it builds up to a (hopefully) exciting climax. I’ve spent the last three days or so doing this, and I’ll probably take another three or four before it’s done. Sure, I’ve lost some time, and some words off my total, but I think I’ve actually saved time in revision, and the book will be a lot better for it.

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One thought on “The Set Pieces Problem

  1. Hey David, thanks for this post. It’s really interesting and inspiring to read someone describing their thoughts and problems in writing a first novel in real time! I really hope you manage to get there – I’d be really excited to read it. Can I ask – have you planned your cover yet, or thought about marketing? When do you plan to do this – now, or after the book is finished?

    Like

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