One day this could happen to you. You’re sitting in a meeting with an agent, manager or producer (okay in my case, I am talking about a producer) who says to you - I really, really like the script. Great concept, great writing, I think I can sell this. Except…. He leans forward. Could you just…make the set pieces, I don’t know – bigger?
And you stare. And you think, what do you mean – bigger? I have this incredible car crash or fight scene or jet fuel explosion – how does that get BIGGER than that? You mean like, more stuff in the scene? Yeah, exactly – he says – more stuff!
And you leave the meeting and google the nearest bar. More stuff. What the hell? But this is where the two most powerful words in screenwriting can be your friend. And those two words are “what if”. But let’s wind back the tape and talk about just what a set piece is:
Set pieces are the – wait for it – stuff that producers dream of. Because set pieces are the parts of movies that audiences remember the most. Think of some of your favorite movie moments – likely those moments were set pieces. Set pieces are relative to the genre of the movie, so your set pieces may have nothing to do with jet fuel or car chases or smashing through plate glass windows. Set pieces are the essence of show don’t tell. Set pieces can be five minutes long or just a quick moment.
The other night, I (re) watched BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY and had a new appreciation for great set pieces. When Bridget shows up to the Tarts & Vicars party and it’s been canceled – that very first moment when all eyes turn to her in her ridiculous bunny suit – that’s a terrific set piece. The montage when Bridget shaves her legs, waxes her punanny and works out really hard – that’s a set piece. Set pieces show up in the trailer for your movie. They are on the poster. They sell the movie.
One set piece from BRIDGET is a perfect example of more stuff in a set piece. And here we harken back to those golden words: What if? Colin Firth and Hugh Grant get in a fist fight outside in the street. It’s a great confrontation, it really is. Because every time it gets good, it gets better. So what if the two main love interests are duking it out in the street, in front of Bridget? What if as they start fighting, they tumble into a restaurant? But – what if someone was having a birthday party in the restaurant? What if, just as the fighting is really going crazy, a waiter brings a birthday cake into the room? A really elaborate birthday cake? And what if, as a comedic detail, the two characters stop fighting momentarily to join in singing “Happy Birthday?” And THEN the fighting resumes and they crash through a plate glass window? So we’ve gone from a confrontation out on the street to a full-on slapstick reverie. With a lot of stuff.
It is helpful to go through your script and simply list the set pieces you have. Do you have at least six? And – do they have enough “stuff?” Are they big, bigger, biggest? Are they exciting and scary and funny or whatever your genre calls for?
Set pieces are the coin of the realm when a producer reads your script. You need to not only deliver a number of entertaining set pieces in your script, you need to make sure they are as chock full of exciting detail and imagination.