In 2005, LEGO almost went bankrupt. What saved the company was a line of toys known as Bionicles. One of the Bionicle creators said that the success of the toy series began with the setting of a tropical island topped by a massive volcano. “For me, every fantasy story starts not with the characters but with the location. You’ve got to give kids a compelling place to play.”
Applying this to screenwriting, you can see that every time you create a story, you still need to create an interesting place for that story to play itself out. In “Hugo,” that place happened to be a train station made even more interesting because the hero knows the behind-the-scenes areas of the train station. In “Avatar,” that story world literally takes place on another planet full of interesting creatures and plants. Even in the simplest movies like “Gran Torino,” the setting may be mundane, but it still has a certain character.
In “Gran Torino,” the world is an old suburb of Detroit that’s getting flooded with immigrants, specifically Korean immigrants. In the meantime, the hero (Clint Eastwood), is a grumpy old man trying to remain stuck in the past when that suburb was a much safer place to live. While not as awe-inspiring as the story setting of “Star Wars,” the setting in “Gran Torino” is still interesting in itself.
Another movie that uses Detroit as its backdrop is “Robocop.” The setting is a crime-infested city that’s falling apart. Put the story of Robocop in Paris or Seattle and the story suddenly loses part of its flavor because nobody associates Paris or Seattle as being crime-infested like Detroit. The mark of a good story setting is that if you changed settings, your story wouldn’t work as well.
Even “Thelma and Louise” had an interesting setting of the western states with its wide open areas and cowboy/redneck feel. Would the story have worked if the setting was New York or Boston? Not really because we associate cowboys and rednecks more with less congested areas than with major cities, even though New York and Boston has its share of rednecks and rapists.
Your setting is subtly important in ways that help define your story. If your story doesn’t seem compelling or interesting for some reason, maybe it’s time to move it to a different setting. “Sleepless in Seattle” was interesting because the story took place in Seattle and New York, but wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if it took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma and El Paso, Texas.
Make sure your setting is interesting in some way. Then make sure your story integrates with your setting in such a way that changing the setting would drastically affect the story. If your setting can be easily replaced with a wildly different setting without affecting your story, you probably don’t have a good setting or a good story.
Make your setting an interesting world by itself. Then it can’t help but make your story interesting as well.