If you are a writer, you will need a handful of special cards to throw upon your work area. Your set pieces are the cards you need to unearth and reveal before your story can end and you can go home, so to speak.
A set piece is a screenwriting term, which means a fundamental scene or event in the story that you cannot remove. If you attempt to remove the set pieces, the story loses its integrity, its logic; it is deficient and probably cannot go on anymore. They are the highly emotional, unforgettable, unforgivable moments of the story.
Imagine removing the part where the dad abandons his children in the woods in Hansel and Gretel? Without this set piece, the story would have no reason to exist.
But the set pieces do not come out of nowhere like a surprise or a big bang that startles the reader. A set piece must be expected and anticipated by the reader. That’s what creates the tension and the suspense in your story. You build up to the set pieces. You set up some skirmishes before the big clash.
In Hansel and Gretel, the dad attempts to lose the kids once, but fails before he succeeds. It is a scene that the reader anticipates and waits for in hope or fear. It is a scene mirrored before it actually happens.
Set pieces define a story visually, thematically and dramatically. They hold the story like tent poles and are signature scenes that will highlight the originality of the story. These scenes are the ones that will stir the most passion in conversations.
When Belle, in Beauty and the Beast looks into the mirror the Beast gave her, every time something important happens and every time we are reminded that the story is about commitment and love. We are linked to other people, whether we like it or not, and whatever we do affects them profoundly.
A set piece is a big moment in your story that will change the cards. The set pieces will reset the story and provide mini-climaxes, particularly those that provide some kind of dramatic payoff, resolution, or transition.
In Titanic, a set piece is when the ship sinks. We are expecting it with a mix of horror and hope. We are curious to see if Jack and Rose will die or survive, if they will get away with moral or social infractions. Several times they risked being caught, but now they cannot escape anymore.
Finally, the hero has to be emotionally affected by these mini-climaxes and the action is reset to another direction. It is a turning point, an emotional turning point. At that moment, the hero will lose something he holds dear.
In Thumbelina, Thumbelina is sollicited by many males. She keeps being kidnapped by them and escaping. These kidnappings lead to a series of mini-climaxes in which she loses a part of herself, notably her self-esteem. Every time, Thumbelina learns why she does not belong in the world: other beings either have different tastes or their houses are terrible places, or she looks clumsy to them. Each set piece not only punches her down more, makes her feel more lonely, but also they build her personality, her strength. They build her up so much that she finally decides that she has had enough of being pushed around and decides to flee and take her destiny into her own hands.
The set pieces are important plot points in your story. So reach for three to five nuggets. Some people say in long fiction you can add up to twelve set pieces. They are that important.
Dibell, Ansen. “Plot.”