In my last post on Rewriting I said I was saving the key concept of SETPIECE SCENES for its own post. (Or two, or three…) Because this is one of the most important craft and career game changers that authors can take from filmmaking, and of course is critical for any screenwriter or any other filmmaker to understand.
What am I talking about? Think of a movie you love, and then think of the most memorable scenes in it (and make a list!) The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll:
- That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- The crop duster chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in North By Northwest.
- The goofy galactic bar in Star Wars.
- Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the poppy field, Emerald City,the dark forest, the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz.
-Clarice going down into the dungeon —I mean prison —to meet Dr. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
- The kiss in the wine cellar in Notorious.
There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” Those six scenes are almost always Setpieces.
Can you have more than six? Of course! The point is that if you have at least six, you can sell that book or script. And if you can write books and scripts that always have at least six, you will have a writing career.
Here’s a huge thing to understand: Setpieces are almost always Act or Sequence Climaxes, and they usually dramatize one or more of the Essential Story Elements we’ve been talking about. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Scenes like Meeting the Lover and The Call To Adventure and Into the Special World (and on the darker side, the All is Lost scene) are magical moments: they change the world of the main character for all time, and as storytellers we want our readers or audiences to experience that profound, soul-shattering change right along with the character.
These are numinous events, and we crave scenes that are worthy of them. So filmmakers very deliberately design these key scenes as SETPIECES.
We authors can, and I say should, do that, too. And this is very, very often second or third draft work, which is why I’m talking about it as a Nanowrimo Now What? or rewriting post. Because in your first draft, you’re very likely writing just to get the story down, and you’re handling so many elements that you are (probably!) not taking the time to consider all the layers that go into a Setpiece.
But now that you’ve got that first draft, you really want to cosider it.
There are multiple definitions of a Setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in any Marvel movie that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects, and car/plane/spacecraft crashes. Or it can be a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in — a shower, for instance, in Psycho. Location almost always is a key component of a Setpiece—the word actually comes from early filmmaking days when filmmakers would build elaborate sets to make these key scenes visually stunning.
Two of the movies I mentioned above, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Silence of the Lambs, are great to use to compare Setpieces, because one is so big and action-oriented (Raiders) and one is so small, confined, and psychological (Silence),yet both are excellent examples of visual storytelling.I often use Groundhog Day and the first Hunger Games in class because they have such classic and easily identifiable Setpieces. Any Hitchcock movie, any Spielberg movie, any classic movie, period, is going to make a good textbook on Setpieces.
When you start watching movies specifically to pick out the Setpiece scenes, do it with a timer, so you can see how they’re almost always used as Act and Sequence climaxes. (Act Climaxes at about 30, 60, 90, and 110 minutes of a 2-hour movie. Sequence Climaxes every 15 minutes).
They are tent poles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline.
These Setpiece scenes are often called the “trailer scenes” because they are essential advertising. Trailer scenes have to seduce the potential audience by giving a good sense of the EXPERIENCE the movie is promising to deliver, the scenes that everyone goes into the theater to see, and that everyone comes out of the theater talking about, which creates first the anticipation for a movie, and then the word of mouth that will make or break a film.
We are not doing our job as storytellers if we are not delivering thosecore experiences of our genre. Genre is a PROMISE to the audience or readers; it’s a pact.
Filmmakers take that “Six Great Scenes” concept very literally. Do not for a second think that directors aren’t putting excruciating thought and time and detail into designing and staging those scenes. There’s not a director out there who is not in the back of their mind hoping to make cinematic history (or at least the Top 100 AFI Scenes of All Time list in whatever genre) with those scenes.
A Setpiece doesn’t have to cost millions or tens of millions of dollars, either, although as authors, we have the incredible advantage of an unlimited production budget.
Did you authors all get that? We have an UNLIMITED PRODUCTION BUDGET. Whatever settings, crowds, mechanical devices, alien attacks, or natural disasters we choose to depict, our only budget constraint is in our imaginations. The most powerful directors in Hollywood would kill for a fraction of our power. Theoretically, they can’t even begin to compete.
However, directors can and do compete and top most authors on a regular basis, because they know how to manipulate visuals, sound, symbolism, theme, and emotion to create the profound and layered impact that a Setpiece scene is.
So how do authors take that power? By constantly identifying the Setpiece scenes in film and on the page that have the greatest impact on us personally, and really looking at what the storytellers are doing to create that effect and emotion so we can create the same depth… on the page. And oh yes, it can be done on the page.
This is not something you can learn by just passively reading about it. To create Setpieces that your readers will respond to, you need to take a deep look at Setpieces you respond to.
If you have a first draft of your WIP, or you’re in the middle of your first draft and you want to do some Setpiece work, I’d suggest that first you:
Make a list of your own key scenes.
If you did Index Cards, you already know these: your Act Climaxes, your Sequence Climaxes, your Story Elements like Meeting the Hero/ine, the Call to Adventure, Into the Special World, the Midpoint Game Changer, etc. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I break the Index Card method and Story Elements down Act by Act, element by element in the Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.
Now grab your Master List of movies for your current book or script (and if you haven’t made one, start with that).
Sit with that list, and—
1. List the most memorable scenes from those movies (and any other movie scenes that come to mind as you’re writing—the movies you use here don’t have to be on your initial list!).
2. Once you have about ten scenes listed, you can choose three scenes that strike you as similar in tone, location, action, meaning, feeling— or anything that you want to capture in scenes from your own book or script.
3. And then watch those three scenes, one at a time, several times, making notes on what you see going on in them. What is it about them that grabs you? Is it unique location, the emotional stakes, the action, the character revelations? (Probably a combination of a bunch of those things and more). How are those scenes delivering on the PROMISE OF THE GENRE?
4. Now that all those elements and visuals are activated in your head, take your list of your own key scenes in your book or script, and do some brainstorming on each scene. How can you work with location, theme, emotions, actions, and one or more key Story Elements to shape those scenes into Setpieces?
5. And not that you have to do this right away, but I would really encourage you to work through three touchstone movies from your list (not all at once!) noting ALL the Setpiece scenes and how much the wrtters and filmmakers have layered in to create them. If you’re serious about your craft, there is possibly no better exercise on the planet to take you to a whole new level.
I’d love to hear: What are some of your favorite setpieces and locations in films or books? Come across any good ones lately?
And yes, I will go on to talk about creating Setpieces on the page!
Want these free posts delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe!
Need some help? In the Stealing Hollywood workbooks I’ve compiled a extensive checklist of essential story elements, Act by Act with plenty of classic examples of each element). In the online workshop I help writers work through those elements Act by Act.