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Old 06-25-2003, 06:32 AM   #1
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Default What are SET PIECES?

In hollwhooped column, Mr. Steinberg mentions that you should aim for at least five set pieces. What is that?

Is that the number of locations you need in a movie? Because my story takes place in three cities. But I have at least one dozen different locations in these cities.
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Old 06-25-2003, 07:15 AM   #2
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No. A "set piece" is not an actual location. I've listed this thread that Deus started, which explains this term in detail.

Good luck.
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Old 06-25-2003, 09:47 AM   #3
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[Here's the correct answer from my column:]


What's a set piece anyway?

--Todd Lencz


The term "set piece" is used differently by different people. Originally, it meant a moment in the movie requiring a big and/or expensive set (usually with a lot of extras), like the parade scene in Animal House. But now, the term is more general. It simply means, the big scene. In American Pie, it's the pie-fornication. That's not a big set, has no extras, and was probably really cheap to shoot. But it's a big comedy moment.

So what's the difference between a set piece and a "trailer moment"? They are usually the same, but trailer moments can also be small pieces of really funny dialogue. In Rush Hour, Chris Tucker screaming "Fifty million dollars?!?" is a trailer moment, but not a set piece.

The reason why set pieces are so important is that in Hollywood movies, the set pieces are often the only thing that matters in a spec script. Yes, character, dialogue, arcs, etc. are all important to good writing. But a studio has to decide whether this is a good writing sample or a movie. And movies are movies because of one thing only: because they can be marketed. So, the studio exec wants to know, what's the trailer look like? What are the big set pieces? In a comedy, you have to have BIG scenes with physical comedy and sustained laughs. In an action movie, you need BIG scenes with lots of action. Okay, your big scene can really be a small scene, like the pie scene, but it needs to be a big MOMENT.

Without these scenes, you've got a great writing sample, but no sale. This is so true, that when outlining a script, you should really figure out your five to seven set pieces first. Then, connect the dots with a story and character arc. If you're good, the set pieces will actually seem to flow from the character's motivation. If not, at least you still have a Chris Kataan movie that sells for $250,000.

I know this sounds cynical, and if you don't believe me, then keep writing your script without much thought to set pieces. I'm sure it will make a great writing sample.

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Old 06-25-2003, 03:55 PM   #4
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Wow, great answer, Dave!

I had never run across the term myself and am glad to see your explanation. Your post will go into my personal archive.

Last edited by ComicBent : 09-12-2007 at 12:21 PM. Reason: Referenced graphic "thumbs up" not available.
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Old 06-25-2003, 06:00 PM   #5
Deus Ex Machine
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Interesting, Dave.

I'm glad we sort of agree on what it is but I hadn't considered its importance as you obviously have. Thinking about what you say I have to agree that a setpiece moment is essential to every film so if your script is going to read like its a film that should be made it should include a set piece.

Very nice post.
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Old 06-28-2003, 10:02 PM   #6
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This is something to...ponder.
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Old 06-29-2003, 04:05 PM   #7
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Yeah. . .

I really like that answer on the part of Mr. DHS, and blending it with what the initial discussion, an important aspect of is it is it doesn't really need to have much to do with the "central conflict," or this whole business about how a script can't be any good if there isn't conflict in every scene.

(The conflict in every scene/every scene contributes to the central dramatic conflict/every scene is about the protagonist achieving his goal model can work perfectly well, but it isn't mandatory.)

It's the really, memorable scenes people like.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a worthless overall story. This is to say the "romance" if you could call it that, and the Ugly Duckling becomes Cinderella business.

Basically, the whole thing - partly as it was devloped from Nia's stage show, I guess - was set pieces in which all these different quirky characters get to show their stuff: the cousins, the aunts, the parties where they roast a lamb in the front yard. . . and I guess grandmothers from Sandusky, Ohio go in for that kind of thing. . . Wow, that was great, let's go see it again. . .

And there's conflict in that movie, but it's nominal. It's really a bunch of amusing character sketches transparently stitched together, and apparently it works.
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Old 06-30-2003, 02:42 PM   #8
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And, by the way, set pieces are even more important when you're pitching than when you're just writing on spec. I don't know an executive in town who won't ask you in the room what your set pieces are.
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Old 06-30-2003, 07:35 PM   #9
Rembrandt Writes
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You know, this is something you don't hear much about except when talking to working pros and execs. I tossed your thread to a friend who has produced a lot of films, and the answer was an immediate YES.

I just started the screenplay stage on a very good story that needed a couple more scenes that stood out. This pretty much defined what I needed to do at exactly the right time, so I truly appreciate your post.

Maybe one day they will only take scripts from repped writers who have DoneDeal credentials to boot.:smokin

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Old 07-01-2003, 05:47 AM   #10
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I think we have another FAQ candidate.
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