Thinking Outside The Plot: The Set Piece

With Story Consultant David Warfield

David WarfieldIs your story stuck or running out of juice? We asked screenwriter David Warfield to share his top-secret weapon against flagging momentum: the Set Piece. With over 20 years of Hollywood experience, David has sold screenplays to MGM, written for Warner Bros., and analyzed countless scripts via his story consulting website, storysolver.com. Take it away, David!

Most of us find at some point, despite all our careful plotting and well-developed character motivations, that some section of the script (usually in Act II) feels flat. We sense the audience will perceive the trajectory of the story too easily and we’re waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for things to heat up.

While the term "Set Piece" means different things to different people, and is often associated with big action scenes, à la James Bond, the Set Piece can be any “big” or “memorable” scene. It's often the scene that audience members are most likely to discuss after the movie. The Set Piece doesn’t usually do a lot to move the plot forward or tell us more about the characters. It takes advantage of the situation that’s been set up thus far and exploits the characters and plot for a sequence of sheer fun, often of “pure cinema.” Another characteristic of the Set Piece is that it may delve into the irrational or chaotic, or deliver the kind of out-of-left-field “I can’t believe they did that” creative blow that leaves audiences amazed or in stitches.

If you find a section of your Act II is falling flat, or that you can’t point to any specific scene or sequence as “memorable,” it may be productive to stop thinking in terms of plot and character, and come up with some wilder ideas that would be just plain outrageous fun to see in your story—something that will cause the audience to gasp in astonishment at a character’s predicament or audacity, something that will make people talk. It’s no accident that some part of the Set Piece makes it into the trailer.

Think of the train wreck in The Fugitive, the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest, Meg Ryan doing the orgasm act in When Harry Met Sally, or the bowling/musical fantasy sequence in The Big Lebowski. These could all be considered Set Pieces, or memorable scenes, ones that have an indelible “wow” effect on the audience. Note that the examples above are not part of the climax, or even of the third act. Like the shower scene in Psycho, the Set Piece can come at any time in the story.

Look at it from this perspective: The writer’s goal is to create a story that facilitates one or more major Set Pieces: unforgettable moments of cinematic energy. In some cases the Set Pieces even drive the story, rather than the other way around! The extreme example is any James Bond movie—films that consist essentially of a string of action Set Pieces—but we may think of scenes as diverse as the puppet sex scene in Team America or Hannibal’s murdering the two police guards in Silence of the Lambs as possessing this quality. Here is where you hold up your end of the pact to entertain and amaze the audience, be it through laughter, passion, pity or terror.