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  • Creating Set Pieces for Success

    December 19th, 2011

    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 often called set pieces. And this week, I want to share with your how to create them and automatically make your script more commercial.

    While I had heard the phrase “building set pieces for your script” hundreds of times, I never truly thought about it until the recent panel/interview I moderated with A-List comedy writers Tim Dowling and Joe Nussbaum. Dowling has written Just Go With It, Role Models, the upcoming This Means War, and more. Nussbaum has directed Sydney White, Prom, American Pie: Naked Mile and has written some very hot scripts around town, two of which landed on the Black List.

    I learned something so valuable from our chat about the importance of set pieces that it has changed the way I look at scripts. And maybe it will have the same affect on you. 

    Set pieces are not just locations – they are a scene or a short, connected sequence of scenes that builds in a way that not only makes for a memorable and trailer-worthy moment, but also develops your characters, plot, increases emotion, and exploits and explores 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 and moments that do all the things mentioned above, then you may not have a strong enough concept to write about. All the big comedy giants – the Farrelly Brothers, Judd Apatow, Weitz Brothers, etc – use these types of set pieces in their scripts.

    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 basically, there are at least a handful of big laugh (or action, scare, suspenseful) moments within each set piece.

    To create a set piece, I’ve come up with a basic formula for the scene. 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.

    And just so you can see exactly what I’m talking about, I want to give you a few of the examples Dowling and Nussbaum used, 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).

    –        The opening Masturbation/Sock scene in American Pie – it’s clear what Jason Biggs’ character wants. We have the scrambled porn and porn dialogue (first funny visual and line), mom comes into room and he scrambles to hide and excuse away what he’s doing (second funny moment, causes uncomfortable situation), more porn dialogue (third funny moment), father comes in (fourth funny moment, raises stakes of comedy), Biggs tries to regroup without success, reveal of the penis sock (fifth big funny moment/visual), and the father’s dialogue and look at Biggs’ humiliated face (button on 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 where they all get sick

    –        The Beauty Pageant scene at the end of Little Miss Sunshine

    –        The chase scene in The Departed that leads to Martin Sheen’s death (spoiler, sorry)

    –        The opening scene of Scream.

    Each of the above-mentioned scenes USE and EXPLOIT the hook of their story piece – a guy who can’t get laid, a guy meeting his fiancée’s family, a woman dealing with her friends’ wedding arrangements, etc. 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 Into the Wild, each of the important characters that help the lead character on his journey is a different set piece. 

    Sometimes the first big set piece is in the first act, but if not, it could serve as a great scene to begin your second act. Just as your characters are starting their adventure, this is a great time for a big set piece because normally your set pieces also serve as OBSTACLES for your characters (look at all the examples above).

    Another key to set pieces is that they must feel incredibly 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. Do not force a set piece – it will throw your story off completely.

    So, take a look at your scripts and stories and see if you are creating set pieces for success. Good luck and keep writing!

  • The Keys to Query Letters That Work

    October 25th, 2010

    By Daniel Manus

    The query letter is often a writer’s first impression – an all-too-important introduction of one’s writing ability and personality to an executive or representative. And much like when trying to get a first date, the point of a query letter is to entice whomever is reading it, to want more.

    After pouring 110 pages of heart and soul onto a blank screen, a half page query letter should be a breeze, right? …So how come writers keep screwing it up?

    Between snail mail queries, online query sites, the spec market, pitchfests, websites, consulting clients and general submissions, I have probably read about 2,500 query letters and over 25,000 loglines.  So you can imagine how impressive your logline and query letter has to be to not only grab an executive’s attention, but keep it, and impress them to the point where they want to read more!

    Your query letter could be the thing that’s keeping your great script from getting read. If you find that you have sent out 100 queries and gotten no reads, you need to rework it. So, I want to give you a simple, straight forward and darn-near foolproof plan for writing successful query letters.

    Let’s go back to the dating analogy. Approach your query letter like you’re approaching the opposite sex, trying to impress them. Be descriptive, honest, informative, appropriate, and seductive. You wouldn’t walk up to someone at a bar and start with a cheesy cliché pickup line question like “Haven’t we met before?” or “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” So, don’t start your query letters with a silly rhetorical question either – it’s not like whomever’s reading it can answer you.

    Don’t start with something insanely personal or embarrassing. You want the person to WANT to get to know you and work with you. You want to come off as professional, but much like with dating, you want to seem like you have a personality and there’s something special about you too. 

    As for format, your query letter should be about a half page, and never more than ¾ of a page. And while there are different ways to structure your letter, I recommend the following:

    The greeting; your title; then a 2 sentence introduction to you which should include anything that is special about you that pertains to your story, writing, or the film business in general that will set you apart. 

    For example, if you are represented (or were), if you’ve ever been produced, optioned or published (yes, even books), if you won (or were a finalist in) any prestigious contests – even if it was for another script, if your script is “based on a true story,” if it is an adaptation to a successful comic book or novel or webisode series that you own the rights to, etc. Anything that is going to set you apart from the stack of others. However, it needs to pertain to the business. Execs don’t care if you were raised on a farm with 3 cows, 2 goats and a chicken named Ted. If you can’t think of anything to say, or there’s nothing to connect you to the business at all, then leave it out.

    If you were a quarter-finalist, that’s usually not good enough to mention on a query letter UNLESS it was for Nicholls. That’s the only contest where being a quarterfinalist still means something. And if you’ve won the Po-Dunk Town Regional Screenwriting Contest – no one cares. It’s not worth mentioning and only tells the executive that you are that much removed from Hollywood.

    Back to format. Next, comes your logline. The logline should be 35 words or less and contain no more than 2 commas. It needs to make clear the genre, the major conflict, and what makes your script different – basically, it’s hook. It needs to contain action words, not just passive, descriptive words (for example, “chooses” is passive, “is forced to choose” is active). It should tell us a bit of the set up or starting point, who the main character(s) is, and then whatever the main story is about. It doesn’t need to say your main characters’ name, but it can. Not easy to do in 30 words, is it?

    Often writers use a tagline on a query letter instead of a logline. Don’t do that. A tagline is much different – it’s the 6-7 words on a poster that intrigue you about the story. The logline tells us what the story actually is and makes us picture the movie in one line.

    Then, 1-3 short (!) paragraphs about your story, your main characters, what happens, etc. I always like it when one paragraph is a bit more descriptive and places the script in context by using comparison movies. It’s “this” meets “that.” Or “it’s in the vein of THIS and THAT.” Just make sure to use movies that are similar in genre and tone and that did WELL at the box office! Don’t use a movie just because it starred the same actor you want for your project!

    These short paragraphs need to convey your story, its’ stakes, and the visual, emotional elements in an impossibly small amount of words.  It should be more stylized than your synopsis, which means your voice as a writer should shine through! It needs some detail, but don’t get bogged down in minutia – there’s not enough room.

     In 6-10 lines, you needs to give the BROAD STROKES of your story which should show us you have three acts and (inherently) answer the three major questions an executive asks – ‘Can I sell this? Who can I sell it to? When can I sell it?’ And the most important question for a query letter to answer – ‘Do I want to read more?’

    And there better not be ONE typo or grammatical mistake. If you can’t write half a page without typos, I could only imagine what your script looks like. Don’t give execs a reason to pass that is totally in your control.  Then close with a gracious and engaging closing and include your contact information, including email (even if they have it already). And you’re done.

    Here is a sample query letter using this format for a project I made up. Obviously, the things in parentheses are for you and would not be in the actual letter:

    To Whom It May Concern:

    Title: “Untitled Cop Thriller Screenplay”

    My name is Your Name Here and I’m a former police officer turned optioned screenwriter and Nicholls Fellowship (or whatever prestigious contest) semi-finalist and I’ve written an exciting new action thriller based on a true story (if it is) titled “Untitled Action Thriller Screenplay.”

    Logline: When a rookie cop in South Central LA gets paired with a grizzled detective secretly running a drug operation, he is forced to decide which side of the law he’s on before it’s too late. (sets up main characters, conflict, setting and that action is imminent)

    In the vein of Training Day and Boyz in the Hood, “Untitled” is a gritty, explosive story about vengeance and redemption (or whatever your big exciting themes are) that follows ROOKIE COP NAME, who has been pushed around his whole life. Now that he has his badge, he thinks he can finally command the respect he’s been seeking, while just maybe making the world a better place. But when he’s partnered with the hard-nosed veteran DETECTIVE NAME, he realizes getting respect on the streets needs to be earned.

    When a drive-by shooting kills a respected gang leader, it’s up to the new partners to investigate and keep the peace, any way possible. But Rookie begins to suspect there is more to the murder than meets the eye.

    As a city-wide gang war escalates, Rookie uncovers that Detective is secretly running an underground drug ring and is in business with the very gangs he is supposed to be arresting. Not knowing whom he can trust, and with his own family caught in the middle, Rookie must decide what’s more important – his badge, or his soul.

    If you’d like to read “Untitled Action Thriller Screenplay,” please contact me at ___________. Thanks for taking the time to consider my script, and I look forward to hearing from you.

    Sincerely,
    Name
    Email/Phone Number 

    That’s basically all you need. You can mix it up a bit and make sure your own voice comes through, but that’s about it.

    The funny thing about query letters is that unlike loglines, treatments and synopses, query letters are a tool only used by unrepresented writers or those trying to break into Hollywood.  A good agent or manager doesn’t send out general query letters on behalf of their clients. If they need to, they don’t have the contacts necessary to be an agent or manager. Once you have relationships around town, query letters are unnecessary.

    Queries, and the way they are sent, have changed over time. It used to be that if you didn’t have connections in Hollywood, sending a query letter through the mail and hoping someone read it and liked it, was the best way to break in. Now, snail mail query letters have become bird cage lining. I honestly don’t know why writers keep sending them. MAYBE an intern opens them, but in the last 5 years, I haven’t heard of more than ONE success story coming from this method of querying.

    So what are your other options? Well, there are online query letter services. There are sites like Virtual Pitchfest, InkTip and PitchQ. Yes, they are more expensive than a stamp, but at least you know someone is seeing what you’re sending.

    No matter how you send them, execs can tell if someone can write by their query letter! And much like with dating, these first impressions could be the difference between you getting lucky, or you going home alone.

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