This past Saturday I watched some unbelievable football. At the close of the Packers-Cardinals game, the commentators kept saying they couldn’t believe the play they’d just seen. The Packers’ desperation long pass and reception as time expired was virtually unprecedented.
Except for those who’d seen Aaron Rogers throw a similar game-saving pass a few weeks earlier against the Lions. The first unbelievable reception prepared people to accept what would otherwise have seemed impossible.
The same principle applies in fiction. If you want readers to believe the scene as your protagonist pulls a rabbit out of a hat, you’d better first establish that there’s a hat ... and a rabbit. And several times throughout the story, you’d better show your protagonist performing some modest magic.
Likewise if you plan a closing-scene rescue by having the cavalry appear over the hill.
Awhile back, I pointed out that problem to an author whose novel I was giving a developmental edit. He had some supporting characters provide an unexpected rescue. Too unexpected. I encouraged him to insert a new scene a few chapters earlier that showed the cavalry overcoming obstacles as they rode toward the hill. With that preparatory material, readers were no longer bounced out of the story by wondering “Where’d the cavalry come from?”
In the author’s mind, the cavalry had been trooping toward the rescue. But in the rush of writing the story, that vital, minor scene got skipped. And with it, a perceptive reader’s ability to enjoy the finale.
An easy fix, but only once the problem was identified. If you want to end your story with a convincing bang, make sure your beta readers keep their eyes peeled for white rabbits and top hats. Inserted in your story, they work like magic.