The Hollywood Touch: Turning Your Scenes Into Set Pieces
Let’s say I’m writing a YA thriller, full of twists and reveals. In my next scene, the protagonist will discover a terrible secret about her past. What’s the most exciting way for this to happen?
- Dialogue with another character.
- Discovery of a physical object.
- Exploration of a creepy place.
- Mental processing leading to the revelation of a repressed memory.
If you’re like me as a reader, then you probably answered 2 or 3 — or, better yet, a combination of 2 and 3! A scene that involves action and interaction with a physical environment is inherently more exciting than a scene that’s all dialogue (1) or internal reflection (4).
For various plot reasons, many reveals have to involve dialogue or internal reflection. If my main character’s great-aunt is the only one who knows her dark family secrets, then she’s going to have to spill. And much of what she spills will be exposition — which has the potential to grind your story to a halt.
How can you keep readers interested while an exposition fairy is delivering the goods? My solution to this problem is to steal a technique from Hollywood and turn my key scenes into set pieces.
According to Webster’s, a set piece is “a scene, depiction, speech, or event that is obviously designed to have an imposing effect.” In filmmaking specifically, according to Wikipedia, it is “a scene or sequence of scenes whose execution requires serious logistical planning and considerable expenditure of money.” Typically that’s because a set piece features both a striking setting (like the Snake Pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and complicated action or CG effects (cha-ching!).
Lucky for us writers, our set pieces are cheap — but it still takes a lot of drafting and labor to pull one off. A set piece could be a climactic action scene involving dozens of characters with distinct objectives. Or it could be a simple two-person reveal scene like the one I sketched earlier.
The key to turning that talky exposition scene into one that readers remember? For me as a writer, it’s all about choosing and capitalizing on a setting. If I can see the scene as a series of cinematic images in my head, then I know it’s going to be tense and compelling.
Take the climactic reveal in Stephanie Kuehn’s psychological thriller Complicit (which I promise not to spoil!). Throughout the book, the protagonist has been playing a game of cat and mouse with his volatile older sister, who was recently released from juvenile detention. He finally follows her up a mountain, where he finds her “on the edge of the craggy cliff, all skimpy clothes and cigarette blazing.”
Talk about a cinematic image. The characters then retire to a cave, where the sister starts laying down exposition. But the precipice remains close by, and an earlier scene in a similar setting has foreshadowed just how easy it would be to fall. So, not only is the cave setting cool to visualize (and metaphorical of the characters’ hidden places), but it’s also conducive to dangerous action.
Let’s break down the steps in turning a scene into a set piece, using another example: a reveal scene near the end of my novel The Killer in Me.
Like Kuehn’s, my reveal is delivered in dialogue: the protagonist’s biological mother is telling her a crucial secret about their family. This could easily have been a dry, talky scene, but I wanted something more fun.
1. Choose a setting that is both striking and appropriate.
If you set a scene on the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll certainly have cool stuff to describe, but you need a believable reason for the characters to be there. In my novel, the main character, Nina, has come to the Southwest to meet her biological mom. (That’s actually her cover for hunting down a serial killer, but I digress.) It makes sense that the two of them would visit tourist attractions together.
For this pivotal scene, I chose the Painted Desert in Arizona, because all the photos I saw made it look alien and surreal. It was the perfect place for my heroine to get a jarring revelation.
The best way to make a setting vivid, obviously, is to observe it directly, but we don’t always have that opportunity. I’ve never been to the Painted Desert, so I pored over vacation photos and videos that people had posted online. I read guides for hikers and studied maps. I mapped a path for my characters and tried to visualize each leg of their hike. (Pro tip: When your characters are road tripping in a place unfamiliar to you, and you want to describe the landscape, check out the highway-driving videos on YouTube. Besides being a great resource, they’re oddly hypnotic!)
3. Describe, then pare down.
Once you’ve researched a cool setting, you naturally want to describe it. Go right ahead and write a description full of excessive, flowery detail, just to get it out of your system. But realize that, for your scene to move along, you’re going to have to edit that description and make it work for you.
Here’s my before and after for the opening of the Painted Desert scene.
Before (the first draft I scribbled in a notebook):
Becca says we’re not lost in the Painted Desert, but I think we are.
Everything looks strange to me, and everything looks the same. There’s no trail under our feet, just pale sand and dirt and dust. We keep passing things that look like striped Egyptian pyramids, and other things that look like heaps of ash or wood chips or gravel, only they’re four stories high.
B. recognizes the things; she gives them names and says things like “Only a quarter-mile to the _________.” [I had to go back to my notes later to find a landmark.]
But I don’t buy it. I think we’re walking in circles. There’s the dust and rubble under our feet, and there are these vast things that look like they could collapse at any minute, and there’s us, on whom they could collapse. The only thing I really recognize anymore is the sun.
After (published version):
Becca says we’re not lost in the Painted Desert, but I think we are.
This place is like a fever dream. No trail under our feet, just sand and dirt and dust. We passed two tiger-striped Egyptian pyramids a half hour ago, then skirted gravel heaps four stories high, then picked our way through a plain of cigarette ash strewn with black shards of petrified wood.
Becca treats these bizarre visions like landmarks on a map, saying things like “Only a quarter mile to the Lithodendron Wash.”
And that, too, could be part of a dream. Any minute the pyramids and giant ash heaps will slide into rubble. The sky will go dark, and I’ll lose the only thing I still recognize: the sun.
The first version is me still exploring my imaginary landscape. (Note all the “there is/there are,” which is a flabby construction, compared with the action verbs in the final version.)
Over successive drafts, I tightened my description and shaped it into a stronger expression of my narrator’s mood. In the first draft, the rock formations “could collapse at any minute”; in the final version, they “will slide into rubble.” That apocalyptic vision conveys Nina’s instability. She feels like her world is about to collapse — and soon, in a sense, it will.
4. Find ways for the characters to interact with the setting.
I started the scene with a conflict between the two characters: Nina thinks they’re lost; Becca (her bio mom) doesn’t. This is a parallel to their current relationship: Becca has information that she is withholding from Nina, just as Becca knows the way through the desert and Nina doesn’t.
The purpose of this scene is for Becca to spill her secrets. But she needs a motivator, and I used the setting to push her to that confession. The hike in the heat is strenuous, and Becca collapses, succumbing to exhaustion. Water revives her, but when she becomes coherent again, her first words are “I lied to you.” We soon learn that Becca has a memory of hiking in this very spot with Nina’s dad, which helps trigger her lengthy, devastating confession.
If that confession had happened on Becca’s couch, it might still have been devastating — but probably a lot less so. The stark strangeness of the landscape, Nina’s anxiety and disorientation, the actual physical danger posed by desert heat — all contribute to making this a more dramatic reveal scene.
I love cinematic flair, and I will go out of my way to set a scene in a beautiful, odd, or dangerous place. But even if your entire story is set in a small town with zero tourist attractions, you’ll still have opportunities for set pieces.
Create settings or environmental conditions that will destabilize your characters and push them toward strong emotions and decisive actions: a county fair, a creepy cornfield (à la Bone Gap), a Halloween party gone wrong, a rainstorm, a blizzard, a seedy roadhouse on the outskirts of town (think Twin Peaks), a meeting in the woods at midnight. Think cinematically, and you’ll create scenes that stick in readers’ heads.