By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 10, 2015
Almost any story, if it’s gonna have real power in the climax, needs a blockbuster bang or invention—something that nobody’s seen before or, if they have seen it, something they’ve never seen done in this unique way. Often this bang is contrived and pushes the bounds of believability. Can a sperm whale really ram and sink a whaling ship? Can Vin Diesel really leap a car out of one skyscraper, soar across 100 feet of empty space, and land safely inside another skyscraper? (And, by the way, is his name really Vin Diesel?)
The tricky part about achieving this kind of Big Bang is that the moment inevitably strains, and possibly overstrains, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. The last thing we want as writers is for our readers to think, “Gimme a break! That B.S. could never happen!”
The solution is in the set-up. In no few books and movies, the main freight of the story—beginning, middle, and part of the end—is about nothing except preparing the ground for that one Power Fiction at the end. Ninety percent of the tale is dedicated to creating a world in which such a Big Fiction could plausibly happen. Have you seen Murmur of the Heart by Louis Malle? The whole movie is a buildup to the climactic scene of a 14-year-old-boy having sex with his Mom. And it works.
How do we achieve that?
The answer is truth, truth, truth, fiction.
When I say truth, I mean plausible scenes and believable characters. They don’t have to be literally true in the real physical world. But they must be scenes and people and concepts that, within the universe of the book or the movie, appear believably realistic. Can a penniless WWI vet really reinvent himself as “Jay Gatsby” and evolve in just a few years into a dashing zillionaire who builds a mansion that becomes the epicenter of the Roaring Twenties social scene in New York? He can if the story is told from Page One by Gatsby’s friend Nick Carraway, who tells us truth, truth, truth—plausible scene after plausible scene of his own life and of the world of the 20s—until, when he introduces Gatsby, we don’t even realize how far the envelope of believability has been pushed. We buy in. We believe.
Indeed, we have no problem with dragons on Game of Thrones because a universe has been created by the writers in which such creatures can plausibly exist and even interact with humans.
As beginning writers, we’re often counseled to conduct rigorous research, to pay scrupulous attention to detail. And we should. Don’t call it a tree, name it a loblolly pine. Make sure that that ’40 Oldsmobile has a Hydra-matic transmission. The reason these details are so important is because they, employed as elements in a sequence of other true facts, constitute the “truth, truth, truth,” whose role is to set up the Big Fiction.
Salesmen say. “Get the customer saying yes to the little things. Then he’ll say yes when we ask, ‘Are you ready to buy?'”
You, the writer, are a salesmen too. You’re selling your story. Remember, we your readers want to believe you. We want dragons to talk. We want Rocky to go the distance with Apollo Creed. Your job, Ms. Writer, is to seduce us. Your task, Mr. Tambourine Man, is take us on a trip aboard your magic swirling ship.
If you’re describing a dinner at The Palm whose climax will be one character pulling out a .45 and blowing another character’s brains out (i.e., something that has never happened in real life), we your readers need you to set it up by telling us all the details of the tablecloth, the soup course, etc. And we need everything to adhere to the conventions you’ve established for your story, to be consistent with what came before. The way the characters talk, the clothes they wear, what the emotional dynamics are between them. Keep it all of a piece with no inconsistencies. So that when, in the seventh course, one of your diners whips out an automatic and pumps six rounds into his rival’s chest, we your readers will say, “Oh, that makes sense.” Because the characters stayed true to the ground rules you had set up for them. And because they used the right spoons during the soup course.
Truth, truth, truth, fiction.