(Spoilers: Whiplash, There’s Something About Mary, Gravity, The Devil Wears Prada, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Meet the Parents)
The big, spectacular scenes in movies are called “set pieces.” Set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. We often say 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.
Typically, the term refers to action scenes or broadly comedic scenes, but I like to take a broader definition:
Set Piece: The big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.
That means the action scenes in an action movie and the funny scenes in a comedy, of course, but also the romantic scenes in a romance, the emotional scenes in a drama, the scary scenes in a horror movie, and the tense scenes in a thriller.
Here are three techniques for getting the most out of your set pieces:
1. Build anticipation. You can use advertising and scenes of preparation to build up to your set pieces. This is like the slow climb of the rollercoaster to the big drop. The anticipation is part of the thrill. Certain kinds of set pieces lend themselves particularly well to these techniques: the big game in a sports movie, the big date or a wedding in a romantic comedy, breaking into a heavily guarded location in a caper or spy movie. We’re told repeatedly in advance how important this upcoming scene will be.
For example, recent best picture and best screenplay Oscar nominee Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) contains several critical performances. Before the final concert, sadistic conductor Fletcher informs the players that there will be people in the audience who can make their career – or destroy it. This is not just any concert; it will be the biggest performance of our hero’s life.
Scenes of preparation are an even more emphatic way to build anticipation for an upcoming set piece. In sports movies the team or athlete trains for the big game. In heist movies the burglars scout their location and gather their equipment. In romances the bride tries on her wedding dress.
There are more subtle scenes of preparation. Remember how in There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, screenplay by Decter & Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly) Ted’s unusual preparation for an upcoming date with Mary leads into the greatest set piece in the movie, the infamous “hair gel” scene?
2. Exploit the unique world of your story. The world of your story is a major potential source of fresh set piece ideas. The suspense scenes in Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) were unique because they used elements of their unusual setting. And the writers explored all the possible dangers in that setting, from space suits running out of air to a fire on a space station to space debris moving at the speed of a bullet.
The world is more than just the location. 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 arena of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages. But one of the best scenes involves Miranda Priestly going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several humorous bits about how demanding Miranda is. Then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a hilariously 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.
3. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. This is one of my favorite set piece techniques. The great opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) 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.