6 Ways to Craft Spectacular Set-Piece Scenes

What are set-piece scenes? They’re the big ones. They’re the scenes that define your story, not just in terms of plot mechanics, but particularly in terms of scope and impact. These are the scenes your audience will remember when they think about your story. They’re the scenes they’ll remember even when they’ve forgotten everything else about your story. As screenwriter Matt Bird put it in his book Secrets of Story, these are the scenes with images so captivating and iconic that they’re chosen for the book covers, movie posters, and production stills.

In many instances, these scenes might be the ones that first inspired your desire to write this story. Very likely, they’re the scenes you’ve looked forward to writing for the whole book and, indeed, the scenes you’ve enjoyed writing the most. But they can also be more than a little challenging to write, particularly since your story’s success hangs on its set-piece scenes.

For the most part, the rules of writing a good set-piece scene are no different from writing any other scene in your book. But because they almost always occur around structurally necessary beats within the story, they do come with extra pressure and significance. Today, let’s take a little jaunt through the possibilities for identifying and amping up the most important moments in your story.

Which Scenes Should Be Set-Piece Scenes?

First things first: how do you know which scenes should be considered set-piece scenes?

Generally, a set-piece scene will distinguish itself with two factors:

1. What happens in the scene is important for moving the plot.

2. What happens in the scene is particularly colorful and entertaining (according to your chosen genre).

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

Number one on that list makes it clear that every structural beat within a story offers the inherent opportunity for a set-piece scene. Although every scene should move the plot in some way, the main structural beats specifically function as pivots within the external plot. This is particularly true of the three plot points that split the book into fourths (First Plot Point, Midpoint, Third Plot Point). As a reminder, here are the major beats and their ideal timing within the story:

1. Inciting Event — 12%

2. First Plot Point — 25%

3. First Pinch Point — 37%

4. Midpoint (Second Plot Point) — 50%

5. Second Pinch Point — 62%

6. Third Plot Point — 75%

7. Climax — 88%

>>Click here to explore these structural beats more deeply.

However, just because a scene contains a major structural beat will not automatically make it stand out as a set-piece scene within your story. It is possible, especially in quieter character-driven stories, for the plot beats to pass almost without fanfare in the outer plot if most of the change is happening internally for the characters. A set-piece scene will be one that is not only important, but one that is noticeably “big” in some way. If you think about some of your favorite books and movies, the scenes that immediately pop to mind are likely some of the story’s set-piece scenes.

For example:

  • Elizabeth Bennet’s dance with Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball in Pride & Prejudice.

Pride & Prejudice (2005), Focus Features.

Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel Studios.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Liberty Films.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), Warner Bros.

The Book Thief (2013), 20th Century Fox.

This is not to say all your favorite scenes will be set-piece scenes. Some of my favorite scenes in any story are often the quiet reaction (sequel) scenes that take place after the big showy events of the set-piece scenes. But usually the imagery is notably strongest in the set-piece scenes.

6 Considerations for Writing Set-Piece Scenes

In thinking about how to strengthen set-piece scenes in your story, look first at the major structural beats. Are they all as strong as they can be? Do they all move the plot? Are the events in each one unique and exciting? Are these the scenes readers will skip pages for because they’re so excited to read them?

Here are six more considerations to keep in mind when amping up your story’s most important scenes.

1. Pay Particular Attention to Scene Structure

Stripped down to basics, scene structure is about making sure each scene unfolds with a realistic arc in a way that links each scene to the one that came before and the one that comes after. There are many systems for structuring scenes (my favorite remains that of “scene/sequel“), but they all come down to cause and effect/action and reaction. The more blatant this connection, the more plot-driven your story will tend to be. Regardless your approach, scene structure is important in every scene if your story is to come together into a cohesive whole. But scene structure is especially important in set-piece scenes, not just because they are the scenes of the entire story, but also because they tend to be longer and more sprawling than other scenes.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for set-piece scenes to expand into set-piece sequences. Many of the major structural moments of your story (the Midpoint and Climax in particular) may not neatly fit into single scenes. Rather, they may require multiple related scenes linked together by an overarching goal. For example, if your Midpoint features a heist sequence, your characters will enact specific smaller goals in smaller scenes, building up to the larger goal of stealing the payload at the end of the sequence.

2. Identify the Scene’s Particular “Theme”

Just as scene sequences are defined in a story by a particular unifying idea, so are set-piece scenes, no matter their length. A set-piece scene isn’t just a scene in which “the protagonist kisses her love interest for the first time”; a set-piece scene is the scene of “The Kiss.” Or the Duel. Or the Protest. Or the Accident. Or the Squirrel (do what you will with that one).

In identifying your set-piece scenes, go beyond simply describing their events to nailing down a single simple unifying focus that drives this powerhouse moment in your story. Think not just about what physically happens in the scene, but also what images pop or what significant change will occur within your character as a result of the scene’s events.

3. Brainstorm Extra Special Settings

In addition to the physical action that will often provide the foundation for memorable imagery within your story, one extra-quick way to boost set-piece scenes is to amp their settings. Not every set-piece scene needs to take place in a new or different setting (indeed, too many settings may weaken some stories), but making sure each set-piece scene is given an important, evocative, or even iconic setting can take everything to the next level. And then, of course, you must bring this setting to life, so readers can see it clearly—and therefore remember it.

4. Choreograph Necessary Characters

Some set-piece scenes may be relatively simple, requiring only two characters or perhaps even just your protagonist. But often, they will be sprawling affairs requiring your entire cast—and perhaps a crowd of extras as well.

The first consideration here is to make sure you do indeed need every character you think you do. Often, sidelining an unnecessary character or two can make the scene that much more streamlined and accessible.

But if you do require a large cast for the events of your scene, you’ll want to pay extra attention to choreographing their presence not just in the scene itself, but particularly in the lead-in and lead-out of the scene. How will you realistically gather all your characters in this one space—and then send them on their ways afterwards so they are positioned for their next appearances? In some cases, this will be extremely easy and intuitive (i.e., all your characters are already in the same space), but in others, it will require some forethought.

5. Identify All Characters’ Goals

In writing scenes that feature multiple characters, you will want to make sure you are not focusing on the main action of the protagonist’s goal to the exclusion of every other character’s goal. After all, why are all these other people here? If they really need to be in this scene, it’s because they have a reason—a motive, a goal—to be there.

Look particularly to the main antagonist in the scene. This will be whichever character is providing the primary opposition to the protagonist’s forward movement in the scene. What does this character want? Then look to any other characters who have speaking roles in the scene. And finally, even if you never directly mention them in the scene, try to at least bring your own awareness to the reasons any bystanders are present in this scene. You can mine lots of opportunities for depth and complexity just in this one consideration.

6. Double-Check Plot, Character, and Theme

Because set-piece scenes are the microcosm of your entire story, it is particularly important that they represent your story’s plot, character development, and theme at their strongest. These scenes—especially if they are structural beats—will define your story, whether you want them to or not. If plot, character, and theme are off-kilter in these scenes, the cohesion of the entire story will falter, perhaps fatally.

Although you can analyze and address plot, character, and theme as individual entities within a story, they are ultimately three parts of a single engine. If one truly works, all three work. If one falters, all falter. So look not just to double-checking that each piece is working on its own accord, but also to whether or not they are properly intertwined.

>>Click here for more in intertwining your plot, character, and theme on the scene level.

***

Writing set-piece scenes is one the most fulfilling experiences for a writer. However, as the lynch-pins of your entire story, set-piece scenes can also be stressful. As long as you know what problems to look for and what aspects to strengthen, you can leverage your set-pieces scenes to help you create what may indeed become a set-piece story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are some of your favorite set-piece scenes in your story so far? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post! Yesterday, I was stressing out about my Midpoint. I know now that some of it was because I was entering an autoimmune flare and was exhausted, but a large part of it was also just anxiety on getting the scene right. This really helps isolate the variables within those big scenes. I think I know what to look for now.

    (I might wait till I’m feeling better to tackle writing it, but I think I can work out the design of it today!)

  2. You write very insightful and perceptive articles. I learn a lot from them.

  3. Grace Dvorachek says

    I always knew there was a reason that I have a favorite scene in each story I write—I just didn’t know that that scene had a name. Set-piece scenes (now that know what to call them) are probably some of my favorites scenes to write, though they can sometimes be overwhelming. And hopefully this post will help those scenes seem a little less ominous in the future. While I am a long ways away from writing the set-piece scenes in most of my current WIPs, I’ll probably be coming back to this post when I arrive at that point.

    I do have a few questions, however. If pretty much all of my set-piece scenes occur during each respective story’s Climax, is that due to lack of creativity and too much similarity between stories? Or is it just more of a writer’s tendencies and preferences? And should I consider trying to make my next set-piece scene take place during a different story beat?

    • I don’t see a problem with every set-piece scene being the climax of the story. If anything, it makes it seem like the climaxes of your stories are something to look forward to.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Climaxes will frequently feature some of the “biggest” of set-piece scenes (although not always). Just because the biggest scenes are happening in the Climax doesn’t necessarily mean there *aren’t* set-piece scenes happening earlier. So I would be sure not to discount earlier scenes just because they’re comparatively “smaller.”

      However, that said, I do think it’s important to try to make at least the major structural beats (First Plot Point, Midpoint, Third Plot Point) into set-piece scenes. These are the fulcrums of your entire story, and you want them to be as entertaining and memorable as possible. What that means for your story will depend on its genre.

  4. Colleen F. Janik says

    Wow, a critically important topic! I have recently witnessed a very lacking set-piece in a novel actually written by one of the greats. In chapter fourteen, the protagonist finally engages in her first romantic scene. This was a moment that the writer, Daphne Du Maurier had been leading up to. This is a book written BY a woman, FOR women, and don’t you suppose we are all anticipating that first kiss??? For some reason, she decided to leave that first romantic encounter up to the imagination. So before I went to sleep last night, I composed my own version of how Dona and the Frenchman drew closer, how his warm breath swept her bare cheeks…
    I so wanted to read Du Maurier’s version of that encounter. I’m guessing that she somehow wasn’t allowed to be too “specific” in this scene, because it did involve a naked married woman with a pirate, but the author did make a sort of ‘promise,’ didn’t she???

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Considering the copyright date, censorship and the general social mores of the time might have played a role in her (or her publisher’s?) decision.

      • Colleen F. Janik says

        Yes, maybe Du Maurier was carefully tiptoeing around all the social mores while still managing to publish a novel about a married mother of two, secretly taking off with a pirate.

  5. After you described what a set-piece scene is, I immediately thought of the dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s such an iconic scene in that series (the Vorkosigan Saga) than if I’m communicating with other Vorkosigan fans all I have to say is ‘the infamous dinner party’ and they’ll all know what I’m talking about, even if I don’t specify the novel. It’s the midpoint of that novel. It has a huge cast, but it works because a) it’s a late book in the series, so readers who have read previous books already know most of the characters well b) the first half of the novel sets up the host’s and each dinner guest’s goal/motive (and it’s obvious that some of them conflict with each other) so that by the time the dinner happens, the reader can follow along what’s happening pretty easily, despite the large cast.

    When I write the set-piece scenes which inspired my own novels (yay, that’s now a plural, I finished the first draft of my second novel yesterday) it feels so disappointing when I finally write them since the first draft version doesn’t live up to the glory I imagined in my head. But that’s what revisions are for.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Congrats on your second novel! And, yes, I totally relate to that sense of deflation after attempting to transcribe the glories in your head. 😉

  6. This is all pretty good advice for any scene, but definitely kick it up a notch for the key set piece scenes. I tend to write under the assumption that if you have strong scenes, lots of other things will come together. However, I can’t deny that my the plot points all received special attention with probably the Inciting Incident (a trail), the first plot point (a battle) and the climax (beating back the antagonist) received the most attention.

    This is a valuable checklist, which I definitely want to hanging onto both for scene development and editing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, all the advice here works for just about any scene. Every scene doesn’t need to be a set-piece, but every scene does need to be strong!

  7. theotherworldsnet says

    Good stuff (as usual)! Good points.
    I often find the set piece scenes are about setting the mood. My goal is to bring the reader not just into a colorful, exciting or important moment, but the right emotion to feel the biggest impact.

  8. Thanks for this episode and your podcast in general Kate!

    I have a set piece scene right at the midpoint in the story I’m writing called Gwella. The protagonist by the same name must shamanic-ly travel into his past lives to right his karma and to keep himself from dying of a plethora of diseases. The set piece scene I’m referring to is where all the characters of all his past lives, guides of the present and future plus the antagonist, Death, get to meet each other at a cocktail party which is beyond time. I call this party the Wingtail party and Gwella is halfway around his cycle of past lives when he attends. Any Suggestions?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as it’s moving the plot forward with a strong turning point, this sounds like a solid choice for set-piece Midpoint scene to me.

  9. Bryan Rice says

    I really enjoy your work. I have many of your books and often refer to them for improving my craft. You are truly a generous and radiant soul. Thank you for sharing your passion. Your consistent encouragement for developing writers is unmatched in my view. Can’t express how much your posts and books inspire me. When I doubt or step away from my writing, I always find myself returning to all the tools you make available. All the best toward your continued success!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for the kind words, Bryan. Very glad you’re finding all the resources useful. 🙂

  10. I’ll be adding this to my revision of my 3rd novel. Thank you so much for all your great articles.

  11. Another helpful article – thanks. I’m just writing the climax which is a set piece and I’d already decided to upscale the setting (when I write I tend to see my novels visually, like films) but what was a helpful reminder was your comment that it might be a sequence of scenes. I’d been worrying about identifying the single scene which was the climax and now I’ve let go of that worry. I’ve also realised that most of the characters have ended up featuring in these sequenced scenes which is interesting given your comments about a big cast.

  12. Horton the elephant searching for his flower which contains the town of Whoville in the field of millions of flowers that look the same. That’s a very memorable ‘set-piece scene’.

  13. Respected K M Weiland,
    SUB: SCENE WRITING BOOK AND WORK BOOK PUBLISHED BY K. M. WEILAND
    I am your great die hard fan and I have your all books, series of Articles which helped Writers, Directors and Actors communities. You have not released a single book about SCENE STRUCTURE WRITING. Although you have series of Scenes Articles and you have covered Scenes topics in your other books and work books. I have a deep desire and humble request to you to release SCENE WRITING BOOK at the earliest based on your reach study materials, Scene Templates, Charts, Examples and Design Dwight SCENE STRUCTURE: Goal – Conflict – Disaster – Reaction – Dilemma – Decision – New Goal… It is unfortunate that WRITING GURUS have not published a SCENE WRITING BOOKS, only few books are there but your book will be very helpful Bible for Acting, Writing and Direction communities.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very glad to hear you’ve found the info useful. The second half of my book Structuring Your Novel is, in fact, all about scene structure.

      • Thanks for your prompt reply and respect your decision about not to publish a seperate book on Scene Structure.

        I need your guidance about Sequel Scene (Reaction, Dilemma, Decision to New Goal) in Screenplay Scene. Can you give me a Scene Example in a film which covers both scene and Sequel together in one scene or Two Seperate Scenes of Scene and Sequel? Just a humble request.

        Your Books and Series of Articles are outstanding with simplicity and clarity to grasp it and apply it in Screenwriting and Acting Performance. I sill face great difficulties to understand and apply it regarding John Truby and Robert Mckee classic books. And sadly I forget their content of books after passing years. Sorry to express my personal difficulties.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Off the top of my head: the scene in Star Wars in which Luke goes after Artoo in the Dune Sea, is attacked by the Sand People, and rescued by Obi-Wan–which is followed by the sequel where he recovers while fixing Threepio’s arm in Obi-Wan’s hut.

  14. “set-piece scenes are the microcosm of your entire story”

    That brought it all together for me. I remember writing what I didn’t know then was the set-piece of my middle grade book, I was so excited to see on the page what I’d seen in my mind, what I’d been looking forward to writing. It happened at the climax, but to be clear, the set-piece can happen around any major structural beat? Thanks for this post. These are all excellent points.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Technically, a set-piece scene can happen *anywhere*. It doesn’t *have* to be just at the plot points. But, yes, it’s preferable if all of the major structural beats get a set-piece scene of some level.

  15. KMW, thank you for yet another outstanding post — you always deliver the truth north that gets me back on track. I have a question about plot points and percentages–I recently discovered that my midpoint is hitting late — 59%. How fatal is that? If these percentages are ballpark, what kind of wiggle room can we allow ourselves without losing our readers?
    Thanks as always for your insights!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Largely, it depends on the overall length of the story. The longer the story, the more wiggle room. For example, movies are a “shorter” medium than most books and so need to hit the timing pretty precisely. But in a very long book, the pacing won’t necessarily suffer if the timing is off by even as much as 15%.

      Ultimately, timing is always about pacing. So if you feel the pacing works in both the overlong section prior to the Midpoint and the necessarily abbreviated section(s) after, then I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

  16. Michael W. Zach says

    Thank you very much for all your work teaching better writing. Its also very interesting for me as a non-writer. Have a good week! xx Michael

  17. Thanks for this post. I had not liked a two of my major scenes, but could not put a finger on why. I found out they don’t do anything for the theme. Bringing them into alignment might be the thing to make them work. And for the other scenes that were already strong, I’ve been looking at the setting to see if they could pop more, and how all the characters are choreographed within them. As a former theatre teacher, that really got me going this last week. Thanks.

  18. Pat Weill says

    Excellent! Thank you so much.

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