Writing Setpieces: the unlimited production budget

by Alexandra Sokoloff

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 plot.

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 page.

I’ve compiled some examples (and categorized them by story elements they depict) on my own blog 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 another level.

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?


9 thoughts on “Writing Setpieces: the unlimited production budget

  1. billie hinton

    I loved Room With A View and Out of Africa for probably the same reasons – love when landscape is used as a backdrop that weaves in with the emotional feeling of the story and characters.

    I also think that the Hogwarts train in all the Harry Potter movies really gave a visceral sense of "bringing us into" the magical world. And that the safety of the passage could be breached.

    As happens, my brain is now locked onto the first few examples I envisioned! I'll check in later to read comments and maybe add some more. 🙂 Fun for a Friday – and such a great thing to think about when writing!!

  2. Laura Pauling

    I first heard about the concept of set pieces on your blog. And now I love searching for them in movies and books. Some books do it better than others and I love trying find the best ones for my novels! you're right, just our imagination holds us back!

  3. Sarah W

    I saw The Losers two night ago, and I can't help thinking of the scene where Clay and Aisha are full out trying to kill each other in his hotel room — setting it on fire in the process, how's that for visual metaphor — and they pause for a moment and say, "Hi," in recognition and connection before continuing to fight.

    Is that the kind of thing you mean?

    And not to spoil, but the Stark Building in The Avengers seems an inevitable setting in one or two major places, and rightly so . . .

  4. Lisa Alber

    Hi Alex,

    One of my all-time favorite set pieces is Manderley in REBECCA. I love atmospheric old houses. As for setpiece scenes, there's the classic one where the heroine breaks a figurine and instead of copping to it, hides it from evil Mrs. Danvers. It is such a telling scene.

    For some reason, I can't think of anything from the movies at the moment. Except that there's nothing like the Atlanta-is-burning scene from GONE WITH THE WIND. Is that a setpiece scene or what? (I think this move came to mind because I'm still thinking about houses — Tara.)

    Great craft post as ever, cheers, Lisa

  5. Jake Nantz

    Hard to do better than the first time Kane leaves the Nostromo and wanders into the Egg Chamber of the derelict spacecraft on LV-426 in ALIEN. Also the shot of the Blue Ridge Mtns that Daniel Day Lewis (Natty Bumpo?) has to race through/up to save the girl at the end of Last of the Mohicans.

  6. Allison Davis

    I like the idea of an unlimited budget, makes me feel rich and secure.

    One of my favorite broadway musicals was In The Heights where the entire story and play take place on one street corner. It's the proverbial "teaming with life" type of scene where there are many stories being told all in one place, a neighborhood in Washington Heights in Manhatten.

    I also like what Scorsese did in Hugo with the machines in the tower and the one panning scene along the train.

    As for my current protagonist, she's an army vet — there's a scene set in tiny village in Afghanistan and another on Mission Street in San Francisco. I like urban settings for scenes, much can happen there.

  7. Catherine

    I'm not sure if I'm thinking way too deeply about The Avengers… And the cold meds I'm on are pretty effective…but I noticed some commonality between both Stark residences is that some aspect of the dwelling juts out suspended high above the ground below.

    However the first residence is sort of like a mushroom on a cliff and the second one really aggressively thrusts up out of the cityscape. Really what goes on in development meetings?

    The Avenger Stark abode also seemed very modern battlement-esque in design.
    I wonder sometimes when I see set design in a Marvel movie if lots of glass has to do with any deep symbolism or it's easier to create cool effects when it breaks? Rats maybe I do need to go again …

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry you guys – I was traveling on Friday and teaching on Saturday and never had a second to respond! I'll respond individually later when I'm actually settled in one place, but I did want to say that some of you are confusing what I call thematic sets with setpieces. Manderly, the house, is a thematic set, as is Stark's abode/lab in Iron Man. A setpiece, as Hollywood defines is, it the ACTION that takes place, often in a thematic setting. But a setpiece isn't the set, even though it's named for that.

    More later!

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