The setting of any scene should never be arbitrary. Every scene setting should be chosen to maximize conflict and stress between the characters involved. Rather than put characters in familiar settings, put them in unfamiliar, unique settings. At the simplest level, a setting can be interesting simply because it’s exotic. Most James Bond movies put the characters in glamorous settings because it’s visually interesting to see yachts on the French Riviera or caged tigers inside a two-story dance club filled with young and beautiful people.
Beyond visually interesting settings, the best way to make a scene interesting is to throw your characters in settings that stress them out. The best way to do that is to put them in unfamiliar places. In the opening scene in “Fargo,” the main character, Jerry, is meeting two hit men he’s hired to kidnap his wife. To make this scene visually interesting, he’s meeting them in the middle of nowhere in a cold bar. This seedy bar is no different than any other seedy bar, but it’s not something Jerry is used to so he’s uncomfortable and unfamiliar with this type of setting .Even worse, he’s late to the meeting so the hit men are upset and testy over his tardiness. Right away before we even know what’s going on, there’s plenty of conflict where the setting makes one of the characters (Jerry) uncomfortable since he’s out of his element.
The setting should work against the main character. In “Fargo,” the opening scene works against Jerry because he’s unfamiliar with it. In “Legally Blonde,” an early scene is where Elle (the hero) goes to dinner with her boyfriend, fully expecting him to propose. Because of this, the setting is luxurious and calming in a fancy restaurant that Elle is comfortable with. Because she’s so comfortable with the restaurant, she thinks her boyfriend will propose to her there. Then he dumps her.
Because Elle is so comfortable in that fancy restaurant, it lulls her into thinking everything will be fine, but it isn’t. If the setting had been a seedy bar, that would have been a warning sign that something bad is about to happen, but because the setting is a comfortable, fancy restaurant, Elle (and the audience) are tricked.
In the case for “Fargo,” the setting of the seedy bar makes Jerry uncomfortable. In “Legally Blonde,” the fancy restaurant scene makes Elle comfortable, which contrasts with the end result, which is that she gets dumped.
Setting is more than just a place for the action to take place. Setting must also work against the hero. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E is alone and his loneliness is emphasized by mountains of garbage everywhere. In “Titanic,” the hero (Rose) wants to get out of an arranged marriage, but the setting (the Titanic) traps her in limited space where she physically can’t get away from the villain.
Setting should never be chosen at random. Instead, choose your setting to make life miserable for your hero. The more your settings can make life harder for your hero, the more interesting your overall story will become.
To learn more about the importance of setting, read “A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting.” Although this book focuses exclusively on fiction (novels and short stories), the principles work in screenwriting as well. For novelists and short story writers, they must describe setting using sensory information such as sight, sound, touch, and even taste. For screenwriters, you can only describe setting visually, but to emphasize that point, describe a setting that works against the hero.
Think of the opening scene in “Fargo” where Jerry meets the hit men in a seedy bar in an isolated place in the middle of winter. The bar is isolated and unfamiliar to Jerry, which emphasizes his own unfamiliarity and isolation in his hiring hit men in the first place.
Scene should never be an accident. Instead, scenes should tell a story visually (for screenwriters) long before any characters ever actually say a single word.