In big budget movies, it’s easy to show a new world such as the alien landscape in “Avatar” or the world of superheroes in “The Avengers.” What’s more difficult is creating a unique world that doesn’t rely on special effects and massive costume wardrobes and somehow turns an ordinary world into something special just for your particular story.
If you watch smaller, independent films, you can often see how they make ordinary places seem extraordinary. In “Mississippi Grind,” a small film about two gamblers attempting to hit it big, their world consists of nothing but seedy bars and second-rate casinos filled with old people smoking and drinking their problems away. What’s unique is that the movie world of “Mississippi Grind” showcases the world as seen through a gambler’s eyes as they constantly rely on luck to guide them while stealing and lying to others to support their addictive habit.
The world that “Mississippi Grind” shows us is the familiar, but filled with desperate people living in run down neighborhoods and hanging around lonely and isolated bars. The goal isn’t just to plop your story in any setting, but to make the setting vitally important to the story somehow. “Mississippi Grind” is about two compulsive gamblers always looking for their next score, so their world is a world of struggling people. Thus the settings the characters find themselves in is also desperate and struggling.
Essentially the setting of your story world reflects the lives of the characters themselves.
Think of “The Karate Kid” where the hero suddenly moves to an entirely new neighborhood. The hero feels isolated in a new world and the less than cheerful environment he finds himself in further highlights his isolation in an alien world.
In “Die Hard,” the hero is a blue collar, street cop who’s trying to get back with his wife. To make his task harder, he has to show up at a corporate Christmas party in an elegant skyscraper. The luxury skyscraper setting contrasts sharply with the hero’s blue collar background, which creates a further sense of isolation from his wife and the new world that she’s inhabiting.
In “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the movie world is an everyday neighborhood in America. Yet to make this world different, the setting may be an ordinary high school, but the hero describes the setting as filled with different groups of kids who carve out their own territories. This makes the hero feel uncomfortable, which mirrors his own sense of isolation.
Basically your environment mirrors and reflects back the hero’s own emotional state. Make sure your story setting makes things worse for the hero and reflects the hero’s own desperate state that needs changing.
Your story world isn’t just a place for your characters to appear, but an integral part of who they are. Make sure your story could only take place in that particular setting. If your story could easily take place in an entirely different story world, chances are good your story and hero aren’t clearly defined in your own screenplay. When rewriting, look for ways to make your story setting an integral part of your hero’s emotional change. You’ll have a much better story as a result.