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  • Creating Set Pieces for Script Success

    April 15th, 2017

    By Danny Manus

    Ever wonder what it takes to create truly memorable movie moments? Those scenes that just stay with you long after you leave the theater? Those scenes that, when someone mentions a movie title, immediately rush back into your mind? Those scenes that allow you to picture the trailer?

    These scenes are usually the major set piece sequences of a film. They’re what writers look for in a concept to know it CAN be a movie. And I want to share with you how to create them to make your script more commercial and cinematic.

    You hear the phrase “building set pieces for your script” but it wasn’t until I spoke with A-List comedy writer Tim Dowling (Office Christmas Party, Just Go With It, Role Models) and writer/filmmaker Joe Nussbaum (Just Add Magic, The Late Bloomer, Sydney White) about the topic that I started to look at set pieces differently.

    Set pieces are not just locations – they are scenes or a consecutive, connected sequence of scenes that build in a way that not only makes for a memorable and trailer-worthy moment, but also develops your characters, plot, increases emotion, and exploits the hook of your story.  One of the keys to building great set pieces is building layers into your scene.  If your scene is not accomplishing all of the aforementioned things, then it is not a set piece – it’s just a scene.

    Nussbaum and Dowling said that it’s their ability to brainstorm and picture these 3-6 major set pieces that tells them if their concept has potential.  If you cannot think of 3-6 scenes that do all the things mentioned above, that you can exploit your hook through, then you may not have a strong enough concept to write about. This was confirmed by comedy giant John Hamburg (Meet the Parents, Zoolander, I Love You Man, Why Him) when I interviewed him here.

    And this is NOT only for comedy – action, horror, thrillers, sci-fi, and even drama – ALL should have some version of set pieces. When you come up with a concept and a hook, you need to brainstorm and ask yourself what kind of big set piece scenes could EXPLOIT this idea – where are the big moments within this concept?  What are the scenes that are going to get this hook across, connect an audience with my main character, and create big cinematic, iconic moments?

    The difference between a scene and a set piece is in how it builds. Your set piece should build so that you’re not JUST writing or building a scene to hit that ONE joke line or have that ONE visual gag moment, but instead the comedy is constantly and continuously building and hitting throughout the scene. So there are at least a handful of big laugh (or action, scare, suspenseful) moments within each set piece.

    To help you, I’ve come up with a basic formula for creating a set piece Though sometimes the steps are not exactly in this order and not every set piece is alike, this is a basic guideline:

    1. Set-Up – This includes your location, setting up what your character wants to get out of the scene (so we know why it’s funny when it all goes wrong), and the situation your character has walked into.
    2. Bring out the conflict of the scene.
    3. First big funny moment/visual (or action, scare, suspenseful moment).
    4. Payoff for first funny moment/visual which causes or increases an uncomfortable situation, tension, anxiousness, or other funny emotion. Changes your character or the way others view your character.
    5. Regroup and try again hoping for different results – but unsuccessful.
    6. Second big funny moment/visual that raises the comedic stakes.
    7. Payoff for second funny moment/visual.
    8. REPEAT steps until you have exhausted the hilarious moments and visuals of the scene and exploited your hook.
    9. Last button on the scene which is the final, if not funniest moment or visual of the scene that makes it clear how the scene affected or progressed the story.

    I want to give you a few examples which will help illustrate this perfectly;

    • The Zipper scene in There’s Something About Mary – Stiller gets to the house, is already nervous and wants badly to impress her and her family and seem like a suave guy. He sees Diaz in the window (first funny moment), her father isn’t too happy with him (conflict), Father goes into the bathroom to help – doesn’t work, raises humiliation (second funny moment), they regroup and wife comes in (third funny moment/line/reaction), cop comes to the window (fourth funny moment/reaction), then the memorable visual of what’s stuck in the zipper (fifth funny moment), then the button final action and reaction (fixing the zipper and Stiller’s hilarious scream). Then he’s taken by the paramedics – prom is ruined and he’s lost his chance with his dream girl.
    • The Dinner/Urn scene in Meet the Parents – the set up of the conflict was set up previously but increases in this scene as Stiller tries to impress and win over DeNiro’s character (his motivation). The scene builds with the “milking” dialogue (first funny line), the VISUAL of Stiller milking the invisible cat (first funny visual), DeNiro’s reply (the payoff and second funny line), Stiller regrouping and trying again unsuccessfully which makes him even more nervous and anxious, the revelation that Stiller’s girlfriend was engaged before (creates more conflict and affects the story later on), champagne cork hits the urn and smashes it (third funny moment), the cat takes a shit on the ashes (the button on the scene).

    And a few scenes I thought of which also exemplify creating great set pieces – you can watch them and do the breakdown yourself:

    • The Bridal Shoppe scene in Bridesmaids
    • The Beauty Pageant scene in Little Miss Sunshine
    • The opening scene of Scream
    • Every action scene in every Fast & Furious

    Each of the above-mentioned scenes USE and EXPLOIT the hook of their story piece, and they build from that hook with a visual, a set up, an action and/or dialogue, and a payoff – then another visual/dialogue and a payoff that builds the moment even more – then repeat and repeat until that scene leaves you in stitches, or crying, or scared, or on the edge of your seat, depending on the genre.

    All of these scenes don’t just have ONE payoff moment or line or visual – but a constant build of big moments/visuals and creates those trailer moments. Memorable moments.

    Even smaller personal private journey movies often employ this technique. For example, in Call of the Wild, each of the important characters that help the lead character on his journey is a different set piece.

    Another key to set pieces is that they must feel natural to the story and concept you are writing – they are not forced moments. They fit naturally within your story and structure and character arcs. So, take a look at your scripts and stories and see if you are creating set pieces for success.

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