Last post I discussed the importance of creating memorable set pieces in your screenplay and gave you some techniques for building anticipation for the set pieces. Today I’m going to discuss some techniques you can use to develop unique and satisfying set pieces.
The world of your story is a major potential source of fresh set piece ideas. At its core, The Devil Wears Prada (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna) is a story about a woman dealing with 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!)
Set pieces can be thought of as little movies unto themselves. They should have the same roller coaster ups and downs as the overall story. We can accomplish this in two ways: reversals of fortune for the main character and reversals of tone and pace.
It’s important that your character not progress toward their goal in too linear a fashion or your scenes will feel dull and predictable. In a set piece your character should face multiple obstacles, overcoming some, failing to overcome others and then finding new ways to pursue their goal. The character should get closer to their goal one minute, farther away the next. These reversals of fortune create suspense for the audience and that leads to emotional reactions.
Reversing tone and pace is trickier. To see how this works, let’s look at a musical. Musicals have very obvious set pieces – they’re accompanied by song! Studying music can teach a screenwriter a lot about pace and rhythm. The set up to the elephant scene in Moulin Rouge! (written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce) is that the singer Satine has mistaken penniless writer Christian for a wealthy Duke. Christian hopes to convince Satine to star in his play while Satine hopes to seduce the Duke so he’ll finance a play for her.
The scene starts with comically awkward misunderstanding as Satine tries to bed Christian while he tries to read her his poetry. Dialogue overlaps, Satine throws herself around on the bed. Things grow steadily more chaotic until suddenly, completely flustered, Christian belts out the first line of his poem in song. Satine freezes, thunderstruck by his passion.
This reversal of pace from chaos to stillness and humor to seriousness heightens the emotional power of the moment. Christian sings slowly and intimately and then gradually the music builds, rising to a crescendo as the couple dances ecstatically. The topper is when Satine sincerely professes that she’s fallen in love with Christian only to learn he is not the Duke she thought he was.
Now lets see how this can work without music. The set piece in Marion’s bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) begins with the Nazis coming to get the medallion from Marion. At first she talks tough, trying to cut a deal. But then things turn serious as Toht grabs the hot poker from the fire. Suddenly Marion’s bluster is gone. Toht approaches slowly until – CRACK – Indy whips the poker out of Toht’s hand. This moment is a great change of pace from slow, deliberate suspense to the rousing gunfight that follows.
Why is changing pace and tone so effective? It’s a matter of juxtaposition. The moment in Moulin Rouge! when Satine freezes at Christian’s song has much more emotional power coming after frenetic comedy than it would if he delivered it in the midst of a bunch of romantic sweet talk. Likewise, the action in the gunfight in Marion’s bar seems even more exciting after the tension of the hot poker beat. Note that to achieve these variations of pace and tone on the page you will need to use such stylistic tools as changing your vocabulary and the length of your sentences.
One of my favorite set piece techniques is out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire. The great opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrates this beautifully. Just as Indy escapes one trap, he finds himself in even greater peril. He leaps the pit and rolls under the descending door. Just as he recovers the idol and breathes a sigh of relief, the huge boulder begins rolling toward him. He makes a mad dash and leaps outside just in the nick of time – only to find himself facing the drawn bows of a hundred angry tribesmen.
The frying pan and fire don’t have to be physical danger. In the classic dinner table scene from Meet the Parents (story by Greg Glienna & Mary Ruth Clarke, screenplay by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg), the more Greg tries to fit in with his girlfriend’s family, the worse he makes it for himself. Forced to elaborate on a lie he’s told, he makes up a story about milking a cat. When future father-in-law Jack starts to deconstruct the lie, Greg quickly changes the subject by producing champagne. But when popping the cork he knocks over the urn with Jack’s mother’s ashes, making things hilariously worse. Remember, this technique is most effective when it’s the specific action of the character to escape one problem that lands them in the next one.
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.
In other news, a video game I wrote was just released for the Kindle Tablet. It's called Nightmare Cove, and it's an interactive horror story game. If you have a Kindle Tablet, you can buy it here, or if you want to see some screenshots and read about the characters and stories, check out the Nightmare Cove website (whether you have a Kindle or not).