Gay romance fiction

Readers’ Choice: on the power of set pieces and whammos

by Damon Suede

set piece can refer to any from an action-packed chase to a particularly sexy seduction or a hilarious comedy sequence or a shocking dramatic revelation; they're BIG moments in a book that demand (and reward) your readers' attention. Another way to think of them is as whammos (an old film term) because they pack a wallop or a preview moment a studio would feature in a trailer. These scenes are the candy that people want when they pick up a genre title…and the hook that brings people back for more.

Incidentally they are called “set piecesbecause they were so critical to a film's (or show's) success that the producers knew it was worth the money/time/energy/headache to build an entire SET so that particular scene could be included onscreen or onstage. That’s a good starting point for our today’s topic: set pieces are expected, expensive, and essential.

​As a former film guy, I’ll be the first to point out that books and movies are radically different forms with radically different challenges. Too often the lessons of one get slopped onto the other to little benefit, but for one grim fact: most modern readers learn story from movies and television. This is why opening stingers and slam-bang action have gradually killed off omniscient third person and leisurely descriptions of pre-modern novels.

Now, legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks knew a couple things about telling a story. As the director of Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Rio Bravo to name a few, he proved himself a master of multiple genres but his visual and narrative stamp was distinct, unforgettable, and worth studying. Hawks said often that “a good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes.”

Movies themselves draw on an ancient tradition. Sometimes we forget how much of the structure of popular storytelling comes to us from the theatrical craft of the late nineteenth century purely by a fluke of history. At the moment when technology allowed mass production and film projection, touring companies had developed some pretty sophisticated techniques for telling stories to millions of people and making strangers feel stuff. Films cost a lot to produce well and economics gave birth to a lot of truths about popular entertainment.

The irony is that the “three good scenes” Hawks describes is an old standby of the Victorian well-made play: obligatory scenes…a scene which the audience expects and that the playwright must provide before the play ends. Obligatory scenes play upon audience expectation so that events and endings feel satisfying. In Romance, our HEAs must satisfy and that means our obligations must be met. Yes?

Movie trailers capitalize on that knowledge: they hint at the obligatory set-pieces and elide anything dodgy or forgettable. Studios put the money on the screen to lure in the punters (…expected, expensive, essential). More important for our purposes, all genres live and die by these mandatory moments, and all too often I read books that ignore them entirely. Because the industry encourages genre mashups and mutation it’s easy to forget what the readers expect.

Maybe this is obvious to everyone but me, maybe you’ve already got this covered, but I mention it in case it's useful. My first novel Hot Head was about FDNY firemen and I’ll never forget the first time I read the rough draft and realized I’d forgotten to have them actually FIGHT A FIRE on the page. Duh. In the heat of drafting, I’d completely ignored one of the most obvious truisms of popular fiction: give your audience what they want in a way they don’t expect. Without question, that set piece transformed that book.

Howard Hawks was also known to point out that “There's action only if there is danger.” The secret to a great set piece is that it catalyzes the danger for the characters we care about. That danger doesn’t have to be blood-n-guts. Public humiliation, wacky musical numbers, and shocking makeovers all force characters into terrifying emotional territory…which is why they’re such a staple of sentimental rom-coms and family drama the world over. All genre runs on tropes.

Romance has its own obligations (the offer, the leap, the commit, dark night, the union, HEA), but every romantic subgenre comes equipped with specific mandatory scenes (and tropes) that your readers demand:

  • Romantic suspense: the threat, the doublecross, the chase, the moment of trust, the attack

  • Regencies: the familial dilemma, the badinage, the Grand Ball, the loathesome suitor(s), the social setback, the first chaste kiss

  • Superheroes: learning powers, suiting up, the splash-page fight, the rescue, the secret identity reveal

  • Cozies: the crime, the wrong track, the secondary crime, the Scooby doo reveal

  • Family sagas: generational milestones (births/deaths/weddings), tragic setbacks, wrenching showdowns, uplifting reunions

  • Paranormals: the hunt, convincing the skeptic, the transformation, choosing a side, the new family

Notice that all of these are also the moments that will be hardest to tackle as a writer because they can easily dissolve into cliché or all-purpose blather. Which means your skill with these obligatory scenes inevitably sets your book apart. Give them what they want in a way they didn’t expect.

I always know where my set pieces are firing on all cylinders when my beta readers come back and quote a section to me. They’re the unforgettable moments that get cited and quoted in reviews...and referenced by fans obsessively. Editors always want them amped and tweaked and perfected, because they’re the secret of breakout titles. ​

Omit them at your peril. Ignore them to your ruin.

Set pieces also reveal when an author is lazy, sloppy or inept, because they’re also where clichés cluster and crappy writing festers. Because these scenes are compulsory, all sorts of generic and forgettable language accretes to them (e.g. her heart raced, he had never been more wrong, they had nothing left to lose, wild with desire) like scum on a stagnant pond to create lame-o whammos. These sinkholes are the sex scenes people skip and the fights that confuse them. Readers can spot a failed set piece, too. “Ehh,” they’ll say. “It was fine, I dunno, I skimmed a lot.” So can publishers: “Well, we already have a similar book on our schedule.” Bomb these moments and the book bombs with them.

Readers hate a bait-n-switch…romps with no froth and westerns set in the burbs. Don’t betray their trust.

On the other hand, brilliant, memorable whammos set you apart from the pack. They are the destination referred to by the phrase “escapist fiction.” You know what these scenes are because you’ve looked for them as a reader. We expect them as a function of genre and subgenre. Live by the set piece, die by the set piece.

So my challenge to you is: SET PIECES. Have you given your audience the obligatory scenes in a way that only you can? Dream up some killer trailer bait. Craft a “Whammo” that leaves a mark. If you’re a conscious plotter, you can place them like trees on your narrative landscape. Plant them. Nurture them. Give them room to grow and then time to resonate so that they have real resonance within the story and your readers’ emotions. If you're a panster, you need to push into the terra incognita so you find the miracles and monsters lurking at the margins of this world. Make them carry their weight:

  • Where are the moments of greatest danger and escalation in your story? What are the highest highs and lowest lows you're going to tackle in this book? What are the unexpected dazzling wild-cards the story will throw at these two people?

  • How can you use your knowledge of your genre to raise the stakes? How (and where) will this story meet and exceed expectations about your subgenre? 

  • How much “build up to” and “coast down from” have you given each obligatory scene so they don’t interfere with each other?

  • Have you upped your game and earned their attention? How does each of your set pieces give the audience what they want in a way they don’t expect?

  • What is expected (by your audience/colleagues/industry), expensive (in time, money, energy, resources), and essential (to your genre, plot, and characters)?

If you are a plotter, you'll need to make sure you aren't hemmed in by your own experience and assumptions when building these big moments. If you’re a pantser, you’ll want to go back and make sure you’d given them time and space to build and matter. And if you have a shaky notion of what those exact genre obligations are then you need to do some serious study of your shelfmates.

Developing these unforgettable razzle-dazzle set pieces will amplify the stakes and push your characters in fascinating ways that set your book apart as a must buy and a perennial reread. 

Ready… SET… GO!

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2016. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as a lecture for Romance University.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.