Greetings, SE Readers. Beem with you today. First, I want to thank everybody involved with Story Empire for the warm welcome extended to me as a new member. The invitation to join truly is an honor. I would also like to wish everybody a Happy New Year. Here is my first post.
Some writers swear by the outline. Other writers, those seat-of-the-pants types, have little time for such nonsense. The desire to get that story from head to page is much too urgent. I’m not going to rehash that old outline-versus-pantser argument. Writers will choose the one that works best for the individual and run with it.
What I’d like to share today is the set-up. This is where an outline really comes in handy, though it certainly isn’t necessary. Most writers know what the set-up entails. It’s those breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the story that leads to the big reveal at the end.
One of my favorite movies, The Others, does this exceptionally well. If you haven’t seen this film, I’ll try not to spoil its epic reveal. A woman and her young children live in a remote country house, which they are convinced is haunted by ghosts. Throughout the story—set during the aftermath of World War 2—breadcrumbs are sprinkled liberally. These little clues are everywhere. The husband comes back from battle, apparently shell shocked and in a fog. He wanders off, never to be seen again. Her children suffer from an unspecified ailment that renders both boy and girl highly sensitive to light. A piano in the parlor plays by itself. The daughter claims to have seen unknown people in the house. Three new servants are hired: housekeeper, gardener, and a mute girl. The three had worked in the house years earlier. When questioned about their previous experience in the house, the housekeeper recounts leaving after an outbreak of tuberculosis.
There are many other well-placed crumbs throughout. By the time we get to the end, we find that the house is indeed haunted, just not the way the woman imagined. When reality hits, it’s quite a mind-blowing revelation (at least I thought so). But the thing is, the viewer doesn’t suspect this ending—until it hits. That’s the brilliance involved in this story. Once the truth is revealed, all those breadcrumbs suddenly fall into place, illuminating what was there for the viewer to see almost from the beginning. Everything makes sense at that point.
Now, back to writers sprinkling breadcrumbs throughout our own stories. The set-up should lead to a big reveal that surprises readers—or even blows a few minds. The reveal should bring understanding to those set-up points embedded within the story.
What exactly are those set-up points? They can be something as stark as burn scars of unknown origin your character has worn throughout his/her life. Later, it’s revealed the character, as an infant, nearly died in a housefire that killed his/her real parents. During a weekly session with a therapist, the character tells of having always felt different from his/her siblings, a disconnect, like he/she didn’t really belong.
The set-up can be mundane things as well. An item goes missing in the first or second chapter. It doesn’t seem important early on—until the big reveal. This is where readers finally see it as a vital clue.
Here are a few tips for the big set-up:
- Sprinkle your clues throughout the story. Don’t front-load them all at the beginning.
- Don’t make your crumbs obvious. You want to surprise the reader at the end, allowing them to recall the clues once all has been revealed. A brief line of dialogue, quick mention of an old friend, short narration describing an item on the fireplace mantle.
- Be sure your crumbs fit in with the big reveal. Your clues need to make sense to readers by the end.
- Work backward when getting ideas for what sort of crumbs you’ll drop. Outlines are perfect in these scenarios, but not necessary. If you have an intended ending, write it down first—even if it’s only a scene or two that offers the reveal. Then, examine it. Craft your clues based on those final scenes. Then, sprinkle them throughout the story.
The idea is for it all to make sense to your readers—without telegraphing the ending. We’ve all read books or watched movies where we’ve figured out the ending well before we’ve reached it. There’s a bit of a letdown there. Give your faithful readers a prize—and a thrill—at the finish. They will appreciate your attention to detail.