The Keys to Writing the Best Set Pieces

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The best set pieces are the ones that take our breath away and make our jaws drop. Here are five tips to make your settings pop!

The best set pieces are the ones that take our breath away and make our jaws drop. The ones we want to rewatch over and over and over again. The ones we want to discuss with our friends and rave about on social media.

Here are a few of my personal favorites:

- The Battle of Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

- The velociraptor in the kitchen in Jurassic Park (1993)

- The bike-takes-flight scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

- The Hall of Mirrors shootout in John Wick 2 (2017)

They’re iconic and memorable. Exhilarating and emotional. Awe-inspiring and visually stunning. And they stand the test of time.

So once you have the inspiration and the drive, how do you go about writing your own great set piece?

Well, for starters we should answer the question: What exactly is a set piece?

According to trusty old Wikipedia, “the term set piece is often used more broadly to describe a sequence in which the filmmaker's elaborate planning allows for the maximum payoff in thrills for an action, suspense, or horror audience. (or maximum laughs for a comedy audience, or maximum awe and spectacle for a science fiction or historical film audience, etc.)”

So when you sit down (or stand up - no one is judging) to write your own set piece, these are some good things to keep in mind:

- Set it in a unique or interesting location

Do we really need to see something take place in another boring coffee shop? And if you do choose to set your set piece in a coffee shop, it’d better be different and it’d better be AWESOME.

- Conflict and suspense are crucial

Pile on the dilemmas and obstacles. Make things as difficult as possible for your character(s). Will they achieve what they want, and how will they do it? Make the audience guess.

- Embrace the action and momentum

No matter the genre, the scene should be gripping and it should build at a steady pace. It doesn’t hurt to constantly turn things up a notch and take it to another level.

- The climax is everything

The best movie set pieces have their own climax, like a movie within a movie. There’s a beginning, middle, and end to the scene. The climax is the ultimate pay-off, where everything reaches its peak - whether it’s physical or emotional (it’s best if it’s both), internal or external (again, it’s best if it’s both). And don’t forget that the result of the scene could either be a good or a bad outcome for the character (once again, it’s best if it’s a mixture of both).

As for the screenplay formatting for a set piece...

Make the action precise.

Get straight to the point with the details.

The words should POP off of the page.

In the end, it’s best to write what YOU would want to see on the big screen. Put your passion and enthusiasm onto the page, and your set piece should reflect that.

Now that your palms are sweating and your heart is racing, go and write that great set piece!

Question for the week:

What are YOUR favorite set pieces of all time?