How to Write: Bump, Set, Spike

I’ve been working more on THE MEMORY THIEF–getting close to being done with the second draft. But over the weekend, I’d run into a problem. The book felt good to me–right up to the climax. The ironic thing is that the climax also felt good. But something was off. Something was missing. Everyone who read the climax loved it, but they felt like it hadn’t been climactic in the right way once it was over. In other words, it was *a* climax, but it didn’t feel like *the* climax.

This is not how you want your climaxes behaving.

So I’d revised up to the climax, and it was time to tackle that problem. All that was left was 5000 words or so of text between me and being done with the main part of the revision. But I stared at that climax, and stared at it, and stared . . .

And got nowhere.

So I called up one of my author friends who has already read the book. She’d been one of the ones to note something was off with the climax, and I was pretty sure that if I could just talk the problem through with her, I’d be home free.

As usual, it was tremendously helpful. The problem snapped into focus, and all became right with the world. How did the fix come about?

Bump, set, spike.

Yup. It’s time for a volleyball metaphor.

As you likely already know, when playing volleyball, each side gets three touches of the ball before the ball has to be on the other side of the court. The best approach to handling the ball is to usually go through three steps. The other team has just spiked the ball straight at your side of the court. So step one is to get the ball slowed down and just bobbing up into the air. That’s the bump. You tackle the immediate problem, without worrying so much about where exactly the ball is going to go next. Then comes the set. Someone rushes beneath the much-slower-moving-ball and puts the finesse on it, setting it up perfectly so that someone else can come up, leap into the air, and then spike that ball straight down the opposing team’s throat.

Writing is like that.

The beginning of a novel is the bump phase. You take your reader and catch her attention. They might have been coming in from any direction, but you field them and get them more or less in order. Next, you’ve got to prep the spike. You need to make sure to put the finesse on the story so that when that spike–the climax–comes, it’s just the best thing to hit them since chocolate peanut butter ice cream. And then of course is the spike itself.

I think a lot of the time, we focus on getting the spike just right. In movies or books, it’s a part we like to talk with others about afterwards. “Could you believe it when _______.” And so when we’re writing–or when I’m writing, at least–I can tend to focus on that spike, too. Making sure it’s the spikiest spike to ever spike a spike.

The problem I’d had with THE MEMORY THIEF is that everyone had noticed the spike wasn’t ending up in the right spot. And so to fix that, I was focused solely on the spike. What I discovered through my talk with my friend was that the spike was just fine. It was the set that was off. I hadn’t put in the groundwork earlier in the novel to set that spike up.

Let’s use an example. In The Lord of the Rings, the spike is pretty clear. Frodo’s got to get take ring and chuck it into Mt. Doom. When the ring finally goes down down down, we all feel great. Yay hobbits! But that spike only works because the set was there. We know early on that the ring can only be destroyed by fire. We know there’s only one fire that can destroy it. We know that fire is in the middle of a place where no one can get to. Tolkien made destroying the ring difficult enough so that when it’s finally destroyed, we appreciate it. If you had LOTR, but the ring could just be melted down for gold in Rivendell . . . a scene where Frodo dramatically hurls the ring into a fire in Rivendell wouldn’t have nearly the oomph. Even if Rivendell had a volcano.

In other words, Tolkien could have taken the exact same ending but switched how the protagonist arrived there, and instead of being awesome, that ending would have stunk.

Bump, set, spike.

Once you’ve got this concept down, you start seeing it everywhere. You’ll be watching a movie and see the screenwriter moving things into position for the final spike. You’ll know ahead of time what that spike is, because of what went into the plot ahead of time. It’s the reverse of Chekov’s Gun (the rule of thumb that basically states if you introduce a rifle in chapter one, it had better go off by the end of the story). Except in this case, if you’re going to have a rifle go off at the end of the story, you’d better be darn sure you introduce that rifle in chapter one.

Strangely enough, this is something I rarely end up noticing when I’m plotting a book or writing the first draft. During those phases, it seems kind of self-explanatory. Of course you’d set things right so that your spike is just spikalicious. No–where this concept comes in really handy is during the revision, where you’re wrestling with a part that just doesn’t feel right. And then you realize that instead of needing to revise the whole climax, you just need to pepper the right 500 words across the rest of the book in the right places–and voila! Problem solved.

And that’s my writing advice for you today.

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