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I was using a book in a writing group that talked about set pieces, but I never really got a clear idea of what it is or how they're supposed to appear in writing. My impression was that you have a few major scenes that you work up to and away from. Would this be accurate?

How much space do they require? Is it something you would have one for each chapter or so, or is it something that would build over a few chapters?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

A set piece is a big moment in a story, usually quiet a bit of the story builds up to it and it has a large effect on the plot. You'll see it a lot in video games and movies. For example, the lobby sequence in The Matrix is a well know set piece.

Set pieces are usually large and memorable and often the plot pivots around them. You can write a story by connecting two or three set pieces, but it might feel a bit hollow unless you can create a good plot connection between each one. I think they are less common in books, or at least less obvious, but I'm sure you can find them.

I wouldn't have one each chapter or so in a book, usually you need time to build up to them so they have the full impact that you want. There would probably only be three or four in a book, and I suspect they would herald act changes as well.

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Thanks. The things I found online about set pieces are geared toward cinema rather than literature. I can see how a set piece would affect pacing of the story, building up to the climax and giving everyone a moment to breath afterwards, or not. Like climbing mountains, you cross the saddleback rather than starting at the bottom of the next one. –  foggyone Dec 1 '10 at 19:52

there's a whole section in this book: elements of fiction writing, Plot, by ansen debill. I wrote a bit of it below. What is a Set-Piece?

• Set Piece: Small moments of climax and temporary resolution. • Set-piece: is a big scene the reader can see coming and look forward to in fear or hope. The writer must build up to this scene. • Reader knows and looks forward to it. • Large novel = 12 set pieces / short novel = 6 set pieces

• How does this set piece relate to the whole story? • Set pieces must be a natural outcome and not staged. • Just as a scene builds on scene, set pieces build on set pieces • Set pieces can be bad where the protagonist is defeated • Set pieces should reveal a central truth of the story • Let the readers know the set piece is coming • After the set piece, the story must change and characters must be effected by it • Set pieces are emotional • Set pieces arise out of what happened before and affects what will follow the set piece • Waiting to find out builds suspense and drama. Actually finding out should be reserved to a climax, a set piece. • Pg 74 of PLOT, reader’s digest – each set-piece should have an unfolding revelation of a central truth concealed at the story’s beginning and demonstrated in the FINAL crisis. • Each set-piece should be set in motion by what happened in the previous one. • Mention the event before it happens and indicate (thru character’s words or actions) why it’s climatic.

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I think the plot of Mission Impossible 3 is a good example. It's like the author thought of a list of exciting locations for scenes (sets) (A weapons factory in Berlin! A kidnapping in the Vatican! An attack on a long bridge! A heist in Hong Kong!) and figured out a way to tie them together in a coherent story.

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A lot of action movies are like that. Seemingly unrelated events connected by the main character's doings. –  Nick Bedford Dec 17 '10 at 3:48

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