(Spoilers: Casablanca, Aliens, The Devil Wears Prada)
Think about the last time you went to a movie you really loved with your friends. When you came out were you talking about how the second act break fell at just the right moment and how neatly the inner and outer conflicts of the main character tied together? Or were you talking about your favorite scenes and quoting the best dialogue? My guess is the latter.
It’s the same for producers and executives. Put yourself in the shoes of a development exec going home with a dozen spec scripts for the weekend. She reads one that is perfectly structured, in a marketable genre, and with a good character arc. She’ll probably jot down some very nice notes about that writer. Next she reads one that has several original, fantastic scenes -- scenes she’s still thinking about on her drive into work. Scenes she can’t wait to tell her coworker about as they get their coffee. Which script do you think she’s going to fight passionately for in the Monday morning development meeting?
I’m not suggesting your script doesn’t need solid structure. But competence with structure is just the buy-in to the poker game of screenwriting. Once you’re at the table, success depends a great deal on your ability to deliver things like memorable and compelling set pieces.
There are several ways to define the term “set piece.” For me the most useful is, “the big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.” In a successful comedy they’re the scenes that have you clutching your sides with laughter. In a good action movie they’re the scenes that put you on the edge of your seat holding your breath. In a horror movie they’re the scenes that make you cover your eyes in terror. In a romance they’re the scenes that have you reaching for your loved one’s hand.
Of course, a good comedy will never go too long without a joke and a good horror movie will probably be pretty creepy throughout. But set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. It’s a cliché that good movies are like good roller coasters -- they have peaks and valleys, periods of anticipation and moments of adrenaline rush release. Set pieces are the loops and big drops of the roller coaster.
I don’t like hard and fast rules, but here are some guidelines I use for myself: Every movie should have at least five set pieces. More than ten and most likely either the script will be too long, the set pieces will be underdeveloped or the pace will be too unrelenting. One set piece should be near the beginning, one at the climax. If the script goes more than 25 pages without one, that could be trouble. Often set pieces will correspond to major turning points in the film such as act breaks or the inciting incident, but they don’t have to.
You should try for a sense of spectacle with your set pieces. This often means big, showy visuals, but spectacle can also be of the emotional kind. Think about the scene in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) where Ilsa comes to beg Rick to help her husband escape Casablanca. Even though it's only two people in a room it delivers big emotional fireworks. How? By pushing the main characters believably to the extremes of their emotion.
Hopefully, you’ve spent some time thinking about what’s unique and original about your script’s premise. In Aliens (screenplay by James Cameron based on a story by James Cameron, David Giler and Walter Hill), one of the new twists in the premise of the sequal is Ripley taking on Newt in a surrogate mother/daughter relationship. There are plenty of expected action-horror-suspense sequences about Aliens attacking the overmatched human characters, but the premise is more deeply exploited in a set piece in Act III when Ripley has to rescue Newt by facing off against the mother Alien. When it comes time to deliver the spectacle, don't just go for the standard car chase or love scene. Build your set pieces on what's original to your story.
The world of your story is another potential source of fresh set piece ideas. At its core, The Devil Wears Prada (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna) is a story about a mean boss but it’s made unique by setting that story in the world of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages, but look at the scene where Miranda Priestly is going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several jokes about how demanding Miranda is and then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a withering monologue breaking down how Andy ended up with the bargain bin sweater she’s wearing. That scene draws its humor completely from the world of the movie which is why it’s so memorable.
Also, be sure to exploit your setting. The same basic set piece from a movie located in New York can be very different than one set in San Antonio, Texas or Venice, Italy. Think about how you might use those three locations to give a unique spin to a big emotional scene about a couple breaking up. (The world of the Deep South was a particularly rich setting for C. Jay Cox and I to mine in the development of Sweet Home Alabama!)
The hard reality of this business is that there are probably a thousand well structured but unsold scripts out there for every movie that gets made. If you want to sell your script, you need to make people passionate about it. Creating set pieces that are funny, scary, exciting, or moving is a great way to inspire that kind of passion.