What is a Set Piece? (And How to Write a Compelling One)
You might be asking yourself, “What is a set piece and what could it possibly have to do with writing?” It sounds like a piece of furniture you would find on a film set doesn’t it? Well, a set piece is actually a critical part of your screenwriting process and can elevate your narrative and your film to a new level. It is essentially a scene or sequence where something really big happens.
The term comes from the old studio system days of Hollywood where most films were shot on custom-built sets on the studio lot. It refers to a really large scene that required the crew to build a new custom set. The scene needed to be so powerful that it justified the time and expense of building a new set. While times have changed and most filmmakers choose to shoot on location, the idea lives on. Here are a few tips, tricks, and ideas to help you understand and write a compelling set piece.
Think about the big moments in your film
Break down your script into these big moments. These are really your set pieces. Depending on your main character’s journey and the narrative of your script, your film will have a varying number of them. Remember that these are grand, sweeping, massive scenes. Think about how your characters will be impacted by each one. Like all good writing, one scene should serve as the motivation for the next.
Create the build-up
Your set pieces should build upon each other just like your scenes. The motivation of the action should lead to the next one and so on until the final outcome or conclusion of your film. Set pieces don’t necessarily consist of positive outcomes for your main character or characters, but they should lead to an outcome — be it positive or negative.
Set the stage
You should set the stage for the set piece and mention it either through dialogue, location, or action before it happens. It should be something that the audience is anticipating and that sticks with them long after they have seen your film. Great ones can become part of popular culture on their own.
Plan a movie night
Watch a few films from different genres — horror, comedy, drama, and action. Look for set pieces. Go back and watch these films with fresh eyes. There are plenty of examples of contemporary filmmakers creating set piece homages to classical Hollywood cinema productions, and with good reason. The elements of good storytelling are universal.
Examples of great set pieces
The Mission Impossible franchise uses set pieces throughout for massive impact, creating films that linger with the viewer long after the credits have rolled. The Matrix franchise is another great example of a series of films that rely on well-developed set pieces.
Let’s take a look at the Matrix Reloaded car chase set piece. The production cost for this part of the film was over $30 million. We see a lot of different characters in the video clip below, and we take in the action from various points of view.
Another great example that has become part of the cultural landscape on its own is the diner scene from the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. Let’s take a look at this below.
This set piece could stand on its own as a short film. It has all the key elements and perhaps most importantly, it reveals the vulnerability between the two main characters and adds to the intimacy of their friendship with the ultimate goal of a romantic connection being forged between the two of them.
Set pieces are short films
When you are in the process of writing, it is helpful to think of them as their own short films. They should be able to stand alone as far as their story structure is concerned, as well as have a beginning, middle (where the action happens), and conclusion. Think of it in the same act structure that you think about your script at large.
Set pieces inform
It should reveal some central truth or information about your character and their journey. Set pieces should be both memorable and original. What do we learn about the characters at the conclusion?
Think about your trailer
It’s also helpful to think of your set pieces as “trailer moments.” These are the scenes that will be used to promote your film. Every film needs to have these kind of impactful elements, and they will play a critical role in the marketing materials produced for the film.
Another important element to consider is pacing. You want to space your set pieces out throughout your script. Consider adding one every 15 minutes if possible. They are great to include right before the conclusion of your film as well.
The actual act of writing can feel challenging. When you are sitting down to write, don’t spend too much time with the description — focus on showing your viewer the action. This will help you craft an impactful set piece that resonates visually. It should resonate with the overall goals and tone of the film at large, so keep that in mind.
Outline the events. Step back and look at them in the broader context of your screenplay. Does the set piece help to move the story and the action along? Does it push us towards the inevitable conclusion that has been established within the script outline? These are great questions to ask yourself as you are writing your set pieces — and even as you are writing your full screenplay.
Now that you have a broad understanding of what a set piece is and how to write a great one, it’s time to start your next script. Happy writing!