|Very similar to the ossuary under my house; except where this has skulls, candles and crucifix, mine has a water heater.|
A set piece is a bit of description that doesn’t really move the story forward except to ground the reader in the location or give a physical appraisal of a newly introduced character. Set pieces can also be used, more rarely (and sparingly) for thematic tangents and rants. (Cough, Atlas Shrugged, cough.) Candidates for set pieces:
- Major Characters
- Minor (often Nameless) Characters
- Thematic observations
You can write set pieces before you know where they will go in your novel. Let's say that three important locations in your novel are going to be: the Ossuary, the Bedroom of Lady Astrid Kingwrecker, and the Hearty Wench Tavern by the docks. Before you ever write those scenes, you can start gathering relevant inspirational pictures, and then sit down and write a few paragraphs to a few pages of description. Go into extravagant detail. Describe smells, textures and sounds, even tastes, as well as sights. As many sensory details as you can. Also let your imagination meander to remark on previous events and free associations with this location.
Do the same with the physical description of the characters. Describe their bodies, their hair, their eyes, their clothing, their fragrance, their stance, their tics, their speech patterns.
You can even describe a location that you already know won’t be in your book. For instance, you could describe your protagonist’s childhood bedroom, even if the book you plan to write is a Law Thriller that will take place in the courtroom and flashbacks to a crime scene in a rundown tenement building. The point is to gain insight into your character, not to use this description. If it shows up in your book at all, it might be a passing reference to his model airplane collection.
Another useful exercise is to have two or more characters, in particular the hero and the villain, but possibly also the best friend or romantic interest, describe the same place. If this is a locale in the novel and you have multiple viewpoint characters doing something here, you might even use these descriptions, but for now, don’t worry if it’s used or not. The point is to get a feel for the place and the perspective of different characters.
Set pieces work well to bring the five senses into your novel, and to enrich your setting. Set pieces can also encourage you to replace boring, cliche locations (or character types) with more uniquely realized locations and characters. If you're writing a fantasy, you might find your characters served stew by a blowzy barmaid in a tavern. It's a genre cliche. Take some time with your set pieces to brainstorm more interesting alternatives; or at least make your barmaid and tavern vivid and alive with unique details.
Just avoid the danger of falling so much in love with your set piece that you want to include every word of it in the novel, whether it fits or not. Be prepared to pare down or toss aside your set piece. It may or may not fit into any actual scene in the book. If you've written a three page description of the ossuary, with associated death histories of half the skulls there, don't make the mistake of trying to cram all this into the book. Choose just a few juicy details to include. Sprinkle a few sensuous descriptions each time your characters are in the location, but don't go overboard.
Do, however, keep all your set pieces. You might not be able to use them word for word in the book itself, but you may well be able to mine them for nuggets. Richer description should be more heavily weighted toward the beginning of the novel, when places and people are being introduced, and lighter toward the end, when the pace accelerates.