What is a set-piece?

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So, the first thing I found out by researching set-pieces is that there’s not a lot of agreement as to what they are exactly. My understanding has always been that a set-piece is a self-contained portion of your story which can stand on its own. That is certainly the dictionary definition. However, some sites are saying that a set-piece is an expensive sequence that is the dramatic or comic highpoint. That’s a definition I disagree with so what I’ll be discussing here is the first idea of a set-piece as a self-contained portion of your story.

Comedy Set-Pieces

The term set-piece actually comes out of vaudeville and referred to what we’d now call a skit. Vaudeville (and its naughty sister Burlesque) was strong until the 1920s when radio began to take hold and audiences had a free alternative form of entertainment. Film had begun, originally silent, at the turn of the century. During that three-decade period, there was a lot of crossover between Vaudeville and films. The Vaudevillians bringing the idea of a set-piece with them.

Vaudeville was an evening’s entertainment composed of many different acts, what we’d now call a variety show. Comics typically had a collection of set-pieces they could call up at any time and perform. When those comics began working in film, those set-pieces came along with them. Here’s a bit from a W.C. Fields’ movie to check out.

W.C. Fields starts a set-piece in It’s a Gift! Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The first thing to notice about this scene is that you don’t need to know much about the movie to get the jokes. It relies heavily on physical humor and one basic joke that plays over and over; it does not rely on the audience knowing anything that happens before or after the bit.

There are some very specific comic set-pieces you’ve seen over and over again: Food fights, Man vs. Environment set-pieces (slipping on a banana peel), or Man vs. Machine set-pieces (this scene with Lucille Ball).

Occasionally, a set-piece might also be a highlight but, usually, it’s something a little bit tangential that could be removed from your film.

Some people would say that a make-over sequence is a set-piece, (like the famous bit in Moonstruck) and since it is self-contained we could include it. Though, it could also be thought of as a trope or simply a sequence. There’s no reason it can’t be all three, which is probably why you see a lot of crossover in the way people define these terms.

Cher re-makes herself for a night at the opera in Moonstruck. Photo courtesy of MGM.

Thriller Set-Pieces

Alfred Hitchcock had an interesting way of working with screenwriters. He’d hire them and then talk to them about the story for a long time, laying out his particular requirements. When he worked with Ernest Lehman on North by Northwest, he requested that the film climax with a chase scene across Mount Rushmore. I would call a chase scene in a thriller a set-piece, in this case it is a set-piece that meets my definition and also the dramatic highlight definition.

The Bond franchise often begins with Bond chasing a villain. These scenes typically have nothing to do with the rest of the movie, so they’re tangential, but they do get the adrenalin going and begin the film with a bang.

Daniel Craig gets things off to a rousing start in Skyfall. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures.

Are There Set-Pieces in Other Films?

Yes. Anytime you have a party scene, a dinner scene, a funeral, a wedding, you’ve got the potential for a set-piece. (If your film is called A Wedding and is basically two hours at a wedding, then the whole film is not a set-piece.)  A good way to think about set-pieces is to think about them as the parts of a film that are always pulled out for award shows or documentaries. Producers don’t simply choose random scenes, they like to choose scenes that can stand on their own.

Finally, should you be thinking about set-pieces for your story? Absolutely. You wouldn’t think of writing a comedy without jokes or a thriller without thrills. Set-pieces need to be part of your skill-set. However, you need to be aware of them and make sure that your set-piece fulfills expectations while offering something unique and compelling at the same time.

What are your favorite set-pieces?

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

9 Replies to "What is a set-piece?"

  • comment-avatar
    Bev Gandara January 11, 2018 (2:46 am)

    Simply, thank you Marshall for the clear and concise explanation “that a set-piece is a self-contained portion of your story which can stand on its own.” It is of great help knowing its history.

  • comment-avatar
    Allen B. Ury January 11, 2018 (8:42 am)

    I’ve studied set pieces for decades. All tend to be single scenes that take place in a specific location, play in real time, and involve some kind of a “gimmick.” And all add virtually nothing to the main narrative. Some of my favorites include the stateroom scene from The Marx Brothers’ A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935), the subway train chase in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971, Indiana Jones’ battle at the Flying Wing in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and, more recently, the DMV scene in ZOOTOPIA (2016) … the latter being a riff on the old Bob & Ray “Slow Talkers of America” routine. Good stuff!

  • comment-avatar
    Miguel Cruz January 11, 2018 (5:45 pm)

    I agree that a set piece relies on a gimmick or a specific concept that defines what that sequence is within the larger narrative framework. A lot of movies will have gun fights and chase scenes, but
    usually what makes a set piece stand out is the novelty of the premise.

    For example, Back to the Future has a set piece where the hero has to outrun on a skateboard a bully who is driving a car. You don’t see this in very many movies. It’s not an, “Oh that trope again,” thing.

    To be effective, the set piece also has to function as it’s own mini-narrative. The hero has to have a problem to solve where there are some stakes for failure. The sequence has complications and reversals that cast doubt in the mind of the audience about the hero’s ability to solve the problem. And it concludes with the hero solving the problem.

    Ideally, the set piece is a functioning element of the entire narrative puzzle. You can’t cut it out completely without doing damage to the story. The set piece sets up things that will pay off later in the story, reveals character, or pays off earlier set ups.

  • comment-avatar
    Paul January 13, 2018 (1:53 pm)

    1) For the vaudeville/burlesque type set piece, the globe dance from Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” comes to mind.

    2) Since you mentioned “make over” scenes, how about “training sequence”, where the hero learns how to do whatever task he is obliged to do, and usually set to some exciting music, such as in sports films, “Rocky” being a classic example. Or Yoda teaching Luke how to be a Jedi. I wouldn’t call them set pieces exactly though.

    3) Having re-watched “The Royal Tennanbaums” recently, I thought of highly stylized films like those of Wes Anderson, where the whole picture seems to be a series of them and to a lesser degree the Cohen brothers career.

    3)

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton January 13, 2018 (1:59 pm)

      Thanks for the comment. Great examples. I think you’re right, training sequences are great set-pieces.

  • comment-avatar
    Chris Denholm January 26, 2018 (6:20 am)

    A common set piece would be the final swordfight or other fighting ending, where the hero looks like he (or she) is about to get killed by the rival but it turns around just in time for the hero to be victorious. (Kind or like staged wrestling matches.) I don’t much like set pieces, but I need to write just this sort of ending, so it came to mind.

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