writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing the Set Piece, An Analysis

One of the most difficult things to write, in my experience and opinion, is what the film students call a “set piece.” By this, I mean a large, often chaotic, scene or series of scenes involving multiple people and closely linked events. Think of a complicated battle scene, or a large cocktail party, a crowded nightclub, or a concert.

Now think about rendering it so that your reader feels the chaos, the over stimulation, but without having the event become a novel in itself. It’s difficult.

Providing we aren’t using an all-seeing omniscient narrator looking down from above to point out events, but are trying to show how one, human character experiences them, how do we render such scenes? How do we let the reader feel the chaos, the excitement, the fear? How do we do it, yet still keep the narrative moving forward?

To attempt an answer to these questions, I consulted an expert: John Sanford. Recently, I finished reading one of his very good novels (I have yet to read a bad novel by John Sanford, to be truthful) named Dark of the Moon. In this novel, a mystery/thriller hybrid, Mr. Sanford has his protagonist, an investigator named Virgil Flowers, accompany some DEA agents on a meth lab raid that turns into a firefight.

It’s a very effective scene, done very well. So I decided to analyze it. What did Mr. Sanford do to make this firefight scene so effective I remembered it weeks after finishing the novel.

Here are the techniques I noticed.

First, though the entire firefight sequence takes only seventeen of the novel’s three hundred seventy-three pages (not a major scene by any means), Mr. Sanford renders the action in twenty-one scenes. Some of them are only a few sentences long. This serves to speed up the action by having the reader process many short scenes quickly.

Second, Mr. Sanford reinforces the sense of urgency and danger with his sentence structure:

The third truck went past the driveway turnoff and set up on the road. The fourth stopped across the driveway, and the fifth stopped short, the agents out in the road. Virgil swerved around the back truck and put the Explorer in the ditch opposite the end of the driveway and shouted ‘Out the left side, left side,” and they both got under cover, saw running agents on the road, and then the gunfire.

Notice that Mr. Sanford uses almost no adjectives or adverbs in the previous passage, just enough to tell the trucks apart. That speeds up the pace of the story tremendously. He also structures his sentences in short, powerful phrases: ‘…the fifth stopped short, the agents out in the road.’ Long, complicated sentences are slow and mellow. People in high stress situations neither think nor talk in complicated constructs. That they reserve for lazy afternoons out on the back porch.

Third, he occasionally goes to the other extreme and uses a run-on construction:

Heard somebody screaming. Another agent, behind the other truck, was shouting at him, and Virgil saw a bloody patch in the dust behind him, but the agent was still operating and he pointed out between the trucks and Virgil saw a third agent down and he shouted back, and the other agent screamed, ‘You get him, I’ll unload on the house, I can’t move, I’m hit…

It works as a run-on sentence tied together with no less than five uses of the conjunction “and.” Normally, this type of sentence is a no-no. But in this case what it does is give the reader a sense of a lot of things happening at the same time. It is chaotic and above all rises the sensory memory of the first powerful statement, ‘Heard somebody screaming.’ Together, the sentences render a brilliant picture of a chaotic, dangerous and terrifying situation.

He uses the same techniques in the dialogue of the scenes. They reflect and reinforce the urgency of the situation. Under the extreme stress of a battlefield situation, where lives are in danger, people don’t converse like they would in a coffee shop.

At one point, the protagonist, Virgil Flowers, grabs a first aid kit and goes to the aid of a wounded colleague:

“…Virgil crawled up and shouted, ‘How bad?’
‘It hurts. I think it broke my shoulder,’ Pirelli shouted back. Everybody was shouting. Virgil could hear men screaming all around the house and hundreds of rounds pumping out. The house seemed to be falling apart, but there was still fire incoming.

Short, declarative sentences. No time or energy wasted in pleasantries. Everything, every word written screams the urgency of the situation. Then:

’No artery, don’t see any arterial bleeding,’ and Pirelli nodded and said. ‘Reload me.’

Now, let’s return to Mr. Sanford’s use of scenes to render the firefight. As I said before, he used twenty-one scenes over seventeen pages, which serves to speed the action along. But there is more to the story. Of those twenty-one scenes, fully half of them are very short, little more than a paragraph or two.

What does this do? It speeds things up even more. But more important, it gives the reader a break and simultaneously increases the urgency of the action that appears in the existing scenes. The problem is that the human brains is built in such a way that it won’t accept a great deal of intensity at one time, not voluntarily.

If John Sanford had written his firefight sequence as one continual scene, even using exactly the same language, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. Whether the reader recognized it, or not, all those scene breaks gave her exactly that: breaks. Breaks from the intensity.

If it had been written as one long scene, odds are the reader would either be forced into skipping ahead over the more intense parts, or would grow accustomed to that intensity, making it less effective.

Together, John Sanford used all these techniques to create a wonderfully memorable scene. With practice, and the lessons learned from this master, perhaps we will be able to do the same in our own work.


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