July 4, 2019

How to Write Effective Set Pieces in Film and TV (Free Checklist)

Chernobyl
Set pieces are one of the most fun things about film and television. They're high octane thrill rides that put butts in seats and make studios excited to produce your work. But what's the key to writing them in your script?  

When you're sitting in the theater or watching your big screen at home, you expect a certain level of entertainment, especially within the action and adventure genre. You want explosions, stunts, chases, and hand to hand combat. These fun moments all occur within set pieces. 

But what's a set piece? 

Today we're going to go over some of the best strategies behind writing set pieces, look at a checklist to help you on the page, and check out a few examples. 

So let's rumble! 

What are set pieces, and how can I add them to my screenplay? 

Set Piece definition

A set piece is a part of a movie or television script where events reach a dramatic or comedic high point. They're isolated scenes or series of scenes that play off the plot or premise and can stand alone as something indicative of the theme of the story.  

 John August defines set-piece this way:

"A scene or sequence with escalated stakes and production values, as appropriate to the genre. For instance, in an action film, a set-piece might be a helicopter chase amid skyscrapers. In a musical, a set-piece might be a roller-blade dance number. In a high-concept comedy, a set piece might find the claustrophobic hero on an increasingly crowded bus, until he can’t take it anymore. Done right, set-pieces are moments you remember weeks after seeing a movie."

Chances are, you know what a set piece is, but had trouble describing it. Now, let's worry about writing them. 

How do you write a set piece? 

No one can teach you to write. You either have it or you don't. But you can learn some of the best terms and tips to make your writing shine within set pieces.

First, there are three questions I want you to remember when writing any set piece: 

  1. Who's in the scene?
  2. How much time is left before X?
  3. Where are they trying to go / what are they trying to get? 

The answers to these three questions will serve as a writing prompt for what you put on the page. But how should it look on the page? 

How should set pieces look on the script page? 

If you've read enough screenplays, then you know storytelling has shifted from the enormous blocks of text that were common in screenplays of old and now have a more staccato rhythm. When you're writing a set piece, you want to break up every line of action into complete ideas. 

Don't over explain or get lost in metaphors. Just give us what's happening in the most precise and concise way. 

Take a gander at this page from the Chernobyl script of episode three where Craig Mazin describes what's going on inside a reactor. It's a brilliant set piece where everything is clearly explained and simple, yet it still builds excitement and tension. 

To maintain this level of control and restraint on the page, I made a checklist that I use when I sit down to write. 

The Set Piece Checklist 

  • Does this scene echo the theme of the movie? 
  • Are there explicit goals set inside the scene? 
  • What does the setting look like? 
  • What is the pace of the scene? 
  • Is there a ticking clock? 
  • How does the set piece link you into the next scene? 
  • Does this set piece contain any trailer moments? 

Now that you've seen the checklist and have some ideas for your set pieces, let's look at a few examples in different genres, so you get a clear sense on how to move forward in your projects. 

Set piece examples 

I wanted to pick out some more diverse samples of set pieces to show you how they flow and work in many genres. I also think these will help you see why set pieces need to be indicative of the theme of the story. 

Comedy 

Comedies are great spots to find inventive and exciting set pieces. They have to be funny and have to play into the characters. Make their lives difficult; put them in uncomfortable situations. Check out the "Dead Dog" scene from There's Something About Mary

As you can see, the action here is spaced out. There's lots of physical comedy and a juxtaposition of what they're talking about against what's going on in the scene. It's exciting, and there's a ticking clock for when someone is going to walk back into the room. 

Thematically, it's about the lengths Healy will go to get the titular Mary. 

Action/Adventure 

These two genres are where you'll find your biggest set pieces. They are roller-coaster movies that live and die on trailer moments. To get us into the frame of mind,  let's check out the dangling scene from the original Mission: Impossible

That set piece is easily the most famous scene in the movie. It launched a successful franchise, and breaking into the CIA is the definition of an impossible mission. Again, the action is served in bite-sized pieces. Nothing is over-described, and we waste no time laboring over mentioning every detail of the room or the sweat. 

It's all about tension, a ticking clock, and the action at hand. 

You'll also notice plenty of cuts between points of view. They're all clearly defined by mentioning the characters in the heading and action. We ALWAYS know where we are and what's going on. 

It feels slick because IT IS SLICK. 

Horror 

Lastly, I wanted to mention horror films. Horror set pieces are all about tension. As that tension spreads, we get scared of what might happen. Let's check out this set piece from the Get Out screenplay! It's from the opening scene of the movie. 

The time lock on this one is not so clearbut think about it. The action has to happen before Andre reaches his party. And as far as the setting, we know he's lost in the suburbs. Everyone can picture that in their minds. Since this is the opening scene, it has to set the tone of the whole movie, so it leads us into a story about black people being kidnapped and attacked. It's thematically relevant and matters to the plot later when we meet Andre. 

Lastly, the jump scares here help with the pace and goal. Andre is losing his mind getting to this party, but he's also being hunted. 

What's next? Write a montage!

There's nothing more satisfying than an adequately executed montage. We all know how they look on the screen. But how do they look on the page? What's the first montage you remember seeing in movies or TV? I think the one from The Godfather stands out for me. I was probably too young to see a bunch of mafiosos killed to the prophetic words of the Michael rejecting Satan, but hey, I turned out okay. Right? 

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