4 Rules to Writing A Kick-Ass Set Piece

4 Rules To Writing A Kick Ass Set Piece

By Armaan Uplekar

What exactly is a set piece? In a nutshell, set pieces are the kind of self-contained, high-octane moments you’ll find primarily in thriller, science-fiction and action-adventure movies. They tend to form the basis of the kind of jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring moments that make you sit up at the edge of your seat in a movie theater. They are often the centerpiece of many trailers, whether it be the collapsing football field in The Dark Knight Rises or an unbroken, death-defying skydive in Mission Impossible: Fallout.

They are, in effect, some of the most logistically difficult and expensive scenes you’ll find in a script. They are car chases, skyscraper rooftop fights, shootouts, major battles and bank heists. They are the climatic Death Star raid in A New Hope and the volcanic lightsaber battle in Revenge of the Sith. They are the kind of stand-out, no-holds-barred sequences that many genre writers dream of writing.

Which begs the question – how exactly do you write a set piece? Do it wrong and you might end up with a complex and confusing assortment of scattered story beats that fail to grab the audience’s attention. But if you pull it off right, you can deliver the kind of bravura moment that gets a reader to imagine your movie unfolding on an IMAX screen. Here are four rules to writing a kick-ass set piece your audience will be sure to remember.

Make it Consequential

In order to make a set piece effective, you need to figure out a way to make the sequence tangibly affect the outcome of the story. There’s no real reason to include a car chase if by the end of said chase nothing has changed the status quo of the story you are telling. When designing a set piece – whether it be a blimp explosion or a kung-fu battle atop a roller coaster – keep in mind that what happens on the page needs to alter the story’s course of direction. It’s important that your set piece be an essential part of the script that moves the plot forward, rather than a flashy distraction to keep your audience entertained.

Audiences and readers alike can tell right away when a scene doesn’t contribute to their overall takeaway from the story. The last thing you want is someone to think that the incredibly costly, time consuming and logistically complex set piece that you have painstakingly engineered is disposable! That’s why you need to be absolutely sure that these high-octane sequences have a consequence – whether it be the bad guy getting away or the hero having to make a choice that fundamentally changes what people think of him or her, cause-and-effect is an essential part of writing a set piece.

Raise the Stakes

How do you keep a car chase, a fight scene or an escape sequence from feeling repetitive? It’s simple – you raise the stakes. When writing a set piece, you’ll want to make sure to introduce complications into the very design of the sequence. You’ll want to put obstacles in your hero’s path and make it more difficult for him or her to carry out the goal that they are pursuing.

Raised stakes are what keeps the audience teetering at the edge of their seats – done right, it can potentially change the dynamics of a scene and make the circumstances of a climatic action sequence feel all the more intense. Consider the case of the skydive sequence in Mission Impossible: Fallout, where Ethan Hunt has to correct his oxygen supply in mid-air while also reviving a hostile agent he’s been paired with. The reason why this scene feels so thrilling is because it takes an already high-pressure situation and amps up the conflict within the actual scene.

For example, if you’re planning to write a bank heist, consider compromising the criminals’ getaway route in order to put them in a situation where all hope is lost. This will only increase the suspense present in your writing.

Give Your Protagonist a Clear Goal

One of the easiest ways to lose a reader during a set piece is to make the scene too complex. If you’re writing an action sequence, it’s safe to say that a lot of things might be happening on the page at any given time. During all this, you want to make sure that someone reading your script doesn’t get lost in the ensuing chaos. That’s why it’s very important that you keep careful track of all the elements at play and keep your protagonist, and his or her goal, front and center of all the action.

Make sure your character’s goal are clear within the context of the set piece you’re writing. You need to establish that goal early and often to your audience. Does your hero need to defuse a bomb? Prevent an assassination? Capture the bad guy? Whatever it is, you’ll want to be crystal clear as to what your hero is trying to accomplish. This goal is what will guide not only your character but your audience through the sequence – through aforementioned “complications” and raised stakes, as well as big-budget “wow” moments. If your audience loses track of what your character wants out of a scene, they will also likely lose interest in the sequence itself.

Most set pieces can be broken down into very simple goals. Its why newly minted classic scenes such as the “parkour” chase in Casino Royale work so well; James Bond is attempting to capture a weapons manufacturer, and that’s why he’s pursuing him. It’s the same with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, where Ethan Hunt chases the bad guy through the streets of Mumbai and into a parking garage; it’s clearly established that Ethan wants to keep the villain from launching a nuclear warhead. By keeping track of your characters’ goals, you’ll have a set piece that is anchored by a clear and consistent objective.

Upend Expectations

One of the worst things you can do to your audience is fulfill their expectations. In order to make a set piece successful and convincingly thrilling, you have to plot to keep them guessing. You’ll want to subvert their expectations as convincingly and consistently as you can. Yes, at the end of the movie the audience typically expects your hero to vanquish the bad guy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t surprise them along the way.

If your character is forced to do something that you previously never believed them to be capable of in order to solve a problem, you have a good shot at shocking your readers. Consider the case of Batman Begins, where Batman, refusing to capitulate to Ducard’s attempts to goad him into committing murder, leaves his nemesis to die in a train accident. It’s a fantastic and memorable moment because it puts the protagonist in a place where they have to switch up the game plan in order to win.

When writing a set piece, be willing to throw away established protocol. Really make your hero work for a solution and make their win feel like a surprise instead of an inevitability. By doing so, you’ll likely have the makings of a really compelling and exciting action sequence your audience will remember for a long time to come.


Newsletter Signup

Contact Us

© 2019 Fresh Voices LLC. All Rights Reserved.