I’m headed off to teach a Screenwriting Tricks workshop in Cleveland (open to all, if you’re in that part of the country, see here).
So of course my head is in craft mode.
I sit on the plane thinking about what is really essential that I
want to get across in an always too-limited time to talk about our
craft, and also about what people are hiring me in particular to teach.
One of the things I always hope people get out of my workshops and writing workbooks is the concept of setpiece scenes. I try to hit that hard up front in a workshop, and keep going back to examples during the day.
There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you
have a movie.” And I’ve said before that these six great scenes are
usually from that list I’ve given you of the Key Story Elements.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Scenes like The Call To Adventure and
Crossing the Threshold (and on the darker side, the Visit to Death or
All is Lost scene) are magical moments: they change the world of the
main character for all time, and as storytellers we want our readers or
audiences to experience that profound, soul-shattering change right
along with the character.
Filmmakers take that “six great scenes” concept very literally.
These scenes are often called the “trailer scenes” or the “money
scenes” (as opposed to “money shots”, which is a different post, with a
different rating!). As incensed as I am personally about how trailers
these days give every single bit of the movie away (I won’t even watch
them before a movie I’m interested in seeing), I understand that this is
essential movie advertising: those trailer scenes have to seduce the
potential audience by giving a good sense of the EXPERIENCE the movie is
promising to deliver. The scenes that everyone goes into the theater
to see, and that everyone comes out of the theater talking about, which
creates first the anticipation for a movie and then that essential “work
of mouth” that will make or break a film.
And do not for a second think that directors aren’t putting
excruciating thought and time and detail into designing and staging
those scenes. There’s not a director out there who is not in the back
of his (or her, but statistically mostly his) mind hoping to make
cinematic history (or at least the Top 100 AFI Scenes of All Time list
in whatever genre) with those scenes. These are scenes that often cost
so much money that producers will not under any circumstances allow them
to be cut, even if in editing they are clearly non-essential to the
The attention paid to these critical scenes is not all an ego thing,
either. We are not doing our JOB as storytellers if we are not
delivering the core experiences of our genre. Genre is a PROMISE to the
audience or readers; it’s a pact.
And a setpiece doesn’t have to cost millions or tens of millions of
dollars, either, although as authors, we have the incredible advantage
of an unlimited production budget. Did you authors all get that? We
have an UNLIMITED PRODUCTION BUDGET. Whatever settings, crowds,
mechanical devices, alien attacks or natural disasters we choose to
depict, our only budget constraint is in our imaginations. The most
powerful directors in Hollywood would KILL for a fraction of our power.
Theoretically, they can’t even begin to compete.
However, directors can and do compete and top most authors on a
regular basis because they know how to manipulate visuals, sound,
symbolism, theme and emotion to create the profound and layered impact
that a setpiece scene is.
So how do we take back that power? By constantly identifying the
setpiece scenes in film and on the page that have the greatest impact on
us personally and really looking at what the storytellers are doing to
create that effect and emotion, so we can create the same depth on the
I’ve compiled some examples (and categorized them by story elements they depict) here and in my second Screenwriting Tricks workbook.
But just in the last week I’ve come across some great examples that have really stayed with me.
I’m on an Edith Wharton tear at the moment, and it’s striking how
beautifully she sets her love scenes, on every visual and sensual level,
like this setup from THE HOUSE OF MIRTH:
Selden had given her his arm without speaking. She took it in
silence, and they moved away, not toward the supper-room, but against
the tide which was setting thither. The faces about her flowed by like
the streaming images of sleep: she hardly noticed where Selden was
leading her, till they passed through a glass doorway at the end of the
long suite of rooms and stood suddenly in the fragrant hush of a garden.
Gravel grated beneath their feet, and about them was the transparent
dimness of a midsummer night. Hanging lights made emerald caverns in the
depths of foliage, and whitened the spray of a fountain falling among
lilies. The magic place was deserted: there was no sound but the splash
of the water on the lily-pads, and a distant drift of music that might
have been blown across a sleeping lake.
Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene
as a part of their own dream-like sensations. It would not have
surprised them to feel a summer breeze on their faces, or to see the
lights among the boughs reduplicated in the arch of a starry sky. The
strange solitude about them was no stranger than the sweetness of being
alone in it together. At length Lily withdrew her hand, and moved away a
step, so that her white-robed slimness was outlined against the dusk of
the branches. Selden followed her, and still without speaking they
seated themselves on a bench beside the fountain.
On a different note, in the romantic comedy FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
(a younger audience would call it a “lude comedy”, and I don’t
disagree!), the hapless hero has his first kiss with the love interest
at the Midpoint, of course, a classic “sex at sixty” scene (sixty
minutes, that is, halfway through the film.). Every kiss in a romance
or romantic comedy is, or should be, a setpiece and the filmmakers give
the lovers a typically gorgeous romance setting, in this case a cliff
overlooking the ocean in Hawaii. But being as this is a comedy, the
reckless heroine tells the hero, quite rightly, that they’re both in
ruts and need to take a leap of faith, which she promptly does, off the
cliff. The hero doesn’t land quite so well, but after narrowly escaping
death and possible castration on his slide down, he ends up in the
water with her, for a beautiful backdrop to a sensual first kiss that is
also a baptism that the hero has been sorely needing.
On the nose? Yes, but well-played and effective, and it does what the
Midpoint is supposed to do – it kicks the second half of act two up to
In the film of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, over and over the filmmakers use
images of bridges and interesting corridors, or stepping stones in a
creek, to underscore significant moments. The heroine first meets her
love interest, The Chairman, on a bridge over a stream, with cherry
blossoms in the background. Now, those of you with jaded eyes might look
at that and think, ‘Oh, right, another “lovers meet on a Japanese
bridge in an explosion of cherry blossoms’ scene, but the setting is
utterly gorgeous, and I would be very surprised if most of the
moviegoing audience even notices the bridge or the cherry blossoms –
except subliminally, which is how these things are supposed to register.
And in a subsequent scene, the nine-year-old heroine has just
realized what the desire of her life is to be, and runs through a long,
curving passageway, another classic symbol of transition and birth, but
the scene is filmed as an endless following shot in the psychedelically
orange gateways of the Fushimi Inari shrine (just click through and look!), and truly delivers on the sensation of transformation that the moment is.
Now, filmmakers have location scouts to find these perfect physical
settings for them, but I think it’s one of the great joys of my job as
an author (as it was when I was a screenwriter) to be constantly on the
lookout for perfect locations to use in current and yet-to-be-conceived
storylines. And they're all ours for the taking.
So you know the question. What are some of your favorite setpieces
and locations in films or books? Come across any good ones lately? Or –
what is a location you’ve always thought would make a great setpiece
scene in a film or book?
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.
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- Amazon UK
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