This post is by Jason Hellerman from No Film School

I was sitting in an IMAX theater this weekend, watching fremen summon and ride sandworms across the desert. The scope and scale of the shots, plus the epic fighting scenes reminded me that set pieces are still one of the main reasons audiences go to the movies.

We can to sit in front of the biggest screen possible and see something amazing happen.

So, how do you get these amazing moments into your work?

Today, we’re going to go over set pieces in film and television. We’ll look at the definition, some examples, and talk about how to get them into your work.

Let’s dive in.


What Are Set Pieces?

What Are Set Pieces?

At its core, a set piece is a self-contained scene or sequence that serves as a major story beat, pushing the narrative forward and leaving a lasting impression.

It’s a moment where the director, writer, and all the filmmaking departments come together to create a spectacle, be it through action, comedy, suspense, or awe-inspiring visuals.

Think of it as a miniature film within the film, with its own mini-arc, complete with a setup, a thrilling or hilarious middle, and a satisfying conclusion.

The History of Set Pieces

The History of Set Pieces

The term “set piece” has its roots in the early days of filmmaking. Back then, studios relied heavily on elaborate, constructed sets. A scene requiring a whole new set to be built became a significant undertaking, and filmmakers ensured these scenes were showstoppers to justify the expense.

This focus on elaborate physical sets gradually evolved into a focus on creating impactful moments, regardless of the physical set itself.

From the comedic like Charlie Chaplin getting stuck on some gears, to the thrilling like the Thief of Bagdad riding on a carpet, people have always gone to the movies to see these kinds of exciting displays.

Tropes and Expectations of Set Pieces

Superbad

Set pieces often play with genre tropes and audience expectations from genre.

Action films rely on car chases, explosions, and elaborate fight choreography.

Horror movies might feature a character chased through a dark house, a tense stand-off with a monster, or a jump scare that makes you want to hide under the couch.

Comedies might use elaborate Rube Goldberg machines of physical comedy or awkward social situations that build to a hilarious climax.

The point is, identifying the genre you’re writing in can help you pull more out of the kinds of set pieces your audience wants.

Set Piece Examples

The best way to learn about set pieces is just to look at some of the best all time. Honestly, when it comes time for me to write something new, I wind up watching a lot of film and TV and make lists of set pieces I think are really interesting or unique, then I try to put my spin on them.

Here’s a bunch I go back to over and over.

  • The Truck Chase – Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones scrambling on, under, and even between vehicles in a frantic pursuit is not only thrilling, but showcases Indy’s ingenuity and humor under pressure.
  • The Lobby Shootout – The Matrix: Unforgettable bending of reality, gun-fu action, and slow-motion acrobatics made this a game-changer in action filmmaking.
  • The House Fight – John Wick: Intense, claustrophobic martial arts within confined spaces. This scene raised the bar for intricately choreographed, visceral combat.
  • Shower Scene – Psycho: The stabbing frenzy combined with the shrieking score shattered expectations of safety and became a landmark of horror filmmaking.
  • Chestburster – Alien: The shocking emergence of the creature, the visceral gore, and the genuine terror of the actors create a truly horrifying and iconic moment.
  • Food Fight – Animal House: A chaotic, hilarious escalation of food-flinging mayhem that embodies the irreverent spirit of the film.
  • The Mirror Scene – Duck Soup: Harpo and Groucho Marx mirroring each other perfectly in an escalating silly bit of physical comedy.
  • The Odessa Steps – Battleship Potemkin: This early silent film features a harrowing massacre on a grand staircase. Its editing and powerful imagery cemented it in film history. And there’s a great homage to it in The Untouchables.
  • Crop Duster Chase – North by Northwest: Cary Grant, wrongly accused, flees from a plane in a suspenseful, almost dialogue-free scene. It’s a masterclass in tension through visuals and score.
  • The Bicycle Chase – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The joy and sense of wonder as Elliot and his friends take flight is pure movie magic.

How to Craft a Compelling Set Piece

How to Craft a Compelling Set Piece

So, how do you write a set piece that leaves a lasting impression? It’s not just where and how the set piece takes place, but also injecting stakes into each of them so we understanding what we’re rooting for and why.

Here are some other key ingredients:

  • Clear Goal and Stakes: What are the characters trying to achieve? What are the consequences of failure? Establishing high stakes keeps the audience invested.
  • Rising Tension: Build anticipation through clever pacing, dialogue, and visuals.
  • Unique Visuals: Whether it’s a mind-blowing stunt or a dazzling display of CGI, a set piece should be visually engaging.
  • Character Connection: Don’t let spectacle overshadow character. Ensure the set piece reveals something new about your characters or propels them forward in the story.

Whether it’s a thrilling escape, a side-splitting comedy sequence, or a breathtaking display of visual effects, a well-crafted set piece can elevate a film or TV show to new heights.

So the next time you’re watching a movie or show and find yourself glued to the screen, take a moment to appreciate the work that goes into creating these unforgettable set pieces.

And when you sit down to write your own, try to think about what would make someone spend the money or the time to watch what you craft, and start writing from that emotion.