It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when an anvil is introduced in the first scene of a cartoon, it must be dropped on the head of the cat by the third act, and preferably in the first and second acts as well, or the audience will feel cheated.
When I was a child, cartoons characters were not those round-eyed, androgynous figures whose legs sprout wheels, or who turn into rockets, which children seem to enjoy so much nowadays. In my day they were jolly little figures, cute and amusing, and they moved like cartoons are supposed to. There were one-legged pirates and spinach-eating sailors, or irritating canaries and ducks with nephews, and the anvil was the weapon of choice for most of them.
But one of the more popular cartoon casts in my day consisted of a smug, smarty-pants mouse, an elastic cat, (who could be squashed down as flat a razor blade and bounce right back, with one vigorous shake of his head), and a bad tempered bull-dog who spent his time snoozing in his kennel. The goal of the cat was to eat the mouse and the goal of the mouse was to batter the cat, either by doing it himself, or by getting him into trouble with the dog.
I loved the cartoons but was unhappy with all these slap-stick, anvil-wielding antics. Of course the cat must not be allowed to swallow the mouse, but why couldn’t they just be friends? That was before I understood about plot.
The anvil is such an unlikely choice. Impossible for the mouse to handle. Impossible for him to push off a table onto the cat’s head. Impossible for him to it shoot across the smooth floor, like a bowling ball, straight into the sleeping cat’s mouth. Impossible for it to go straight through the hollow cat, giving him an anvil-shaped tail. Impossible, impossible, altogether impossible. I hadn’t yet learned to suspend disbelief or to understand the importance of tension.
Being a middle child, I identified so much with the cat, even though the stories were clearly told from the point of view of the mouse. The dog was a secondary character, off stage sleeping for much of the time, like my elder bother. And the mouse… well, he even looked like my little sister. However impossible, cartoons were really true to life.
I use the same mechanisms in the book I’m working on. Just when things are going the hero’s way, along comes fate with an anvil, and tosses into the works. Even more effective than a spanner for moving the story forward.