When writing screenplays, beginning screenwriters often forget to add the element of the visually unforgettable to their stories. This element is called a Set Piece. To understand what a set piece is, think about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Remember the scene with the sword fight on a big wheel while it was rolling through the jungle? That was one of the film’s set pieces.
Now look at the Bourne Trilogy for a moment. The incredible chase sequences were set pieces in all three films. Note that the chases weren’t limited to vehicles. There were some pretty amazing sequences that happened on foot. Remember when Jason ran over the roofs to rescue Nicky and he jumped from one roof through a glass window of another building? You didn’t even have to see the movie to check out this set piece. It was in most of the trailers.
So how do you add a set piece to your screenplay? Start by thinking about what your character wants. Your set piece is very effective if it’s something that will put your character’s goals into jeopardy. As in Dead Man’s Chest, three characters were fighting over a key. As the wheel bounced around, note how many times the key changed possession. Each got and lost what he wanted several times within the same set piece.
Now that you’ve ironed out what the character is trying to achieve, think of the most visually stunning way to either give it to him or move him further away from it. This is where you should let your imagination run wild. If your character is trying get out of a foreign embassy undetected after stealing information, maybe her evening gown gets caught in an industrial sized shredder as in Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
The key to an amazing set piece is that while it’s off the charts on the visual scale, it’s totally reasonable on the logic scale while also arising from your character’s desires. If you’re writing a romance, something like a big wheel rolling through a jungle probably won’t work for you. But a costume ball where your character has wings as in Ever After just might.
You know your genre. Trust your instincts to decide what you can use and what you can’t. Although it might be a fun challenge to figure out how to make your characters slide over a cliff in a flash flood or even swing on ropes across a deep ravine when your story is a romance. It can be done. Just take a look at Romancing the Stone.
When you’re actually ready to write the set piece, don’t forget that the five line rule still applies. This will keep you from over describing the scene thus killing its entertainment value. Focus only on what the audience should see at that moment and write that. Add some dialogue to break up the action. You can even cut to other characters for a brief break. And after it’s over, please don’t have the character rush up to another and tell them all about their experience in the set piece. If the viewer wants to relive it he’ll buy the DVD.