Avoid microwaving the soufflé in your story
In real life, achieving a goal and obtaining a possession usually is more satisfying when a lot of hard work went into it. The delay in gratification as the desire for and anticipation of success grew simply results in a greater release of emotion and tension. Storytellers are wise to utilize this strategy in their fiction.
Unfortunately, novice writers tend to want to jump to the super-exciting stuff first. Committing this craft of writing error is called microwaving the soufflé, a term coined by Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop’s David Smith.
Just as a cook would ruin a soufflé by sticking it in the microwave for a minute rather than allow it to puff up by baking for some time, so a writer can botch a short story by not taking his time with the setup. Going immediately to the payoff rather than delivering an interesting setup means a story with no lift and poor texture, ultimately ruining the flavor.
Suppose that in the novel “The War of the Worlds,” author H.G. Wells began with the Martian’s first attack. Rather than describing the events leading up to this scene – of astronomers noticing strange lights on Mars, of a spacecraft landing in a field, of the sightseers and the military surrounding the craft, of the Martians emerging from their craft and building their tripods – he just skipped it all and opened with the aliens blasting an artillery piece out of existence. Taking that approach might jump us right into the action, but the scene is far more riveting if tension and suspense first is built. Strange lights are a curiosity, a spacecraft in the field unsettling but not necessarily threatening, the military’s arrival points toward a potential conflict, the construction of the tripods incredible and mysterious. With the tension and suspense fully built, the first attack and its devastation is terrifying.
Readers find jumping right into the payoff frustrating for a couple of reasons. First, because the setup was rushed, it will be uninteresting. A much better choice for writers is to make the setup intriguing rather than give a few paragraphs of dull story just so that there is context for the payoff scene. Secondly, readers will feel cheated because the payoff – not being sufficiently set up – wasn’t earned. It’s akin to telling someone what their birthday present will be before they open it; what fun then is opening the gift wrapping?
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