Stories don’t exist in a vacuum. When two characters fight, fall in love, or learn from each other, they have to do it in a specific location.
Suppose your story involves two people who want to fight. Where would the best setting be to do that? You might think a battlefield might be best, and in some stories that may be the case. However, just as every scene should have conflict, so should every scene’s setting make it harder for characters to achieve their goals.
In “John Wick 2,” the hero (John Wick) is being pursued by another assassin. Since the goal of both men is to kill the other, the best setting is one that makes this task difficult for both of them. In this example, both men want to fight but find themselves in a crowded subway car.
The crowd makes it difficult for both men to get close to each other, let alone fight. Only after most of the passengers have left can they finally fight. This delay creates anticipation and forces them to fight within the narrow confines of a subway car.
Imagine if this scene took place in a wide open space like a park. There would be far less tension and anticipation. Just by placing this scene in a setting that works against the goals of the characters, this scene becomes more visually interesting to watch.
There are three ways setting can make life harder for the hero:
- Specific locations
- Region where the location exists
- The story world
In the video scene from “John Wick 2,” the specific location is a crowded subway car. The region is a big city that’s filled with strangers, which means the hero has no idea who might be an innocent person and who might be an assassin trying to kill him. The story world is the entire assassin world where highly skilled assassins live by a code of honor and because the hero has broken that code, he’s now being hunted by multiple assassins from all over the world.
Pick any favorite movie and identify these three items from any scene. In “Thelma and Louise,” there’s an early scene where Thelma meets Harlan in a bar. Thus the crowded bar creates problems because it’s easy for Harlan to get Thelma drunk and sneak her outside so he can rape her.
The region is the neighborhood where the bar is located. Because this area is unfamiliar to both Thelma and Louise, it creates a minor conflict when they need to escape after Louise kills Harlan in the parking lot. If they were in a familiar location, it would be less stressful for them to escape than if they’re in an unfamiliar location.
Finally the story world of “Thelma and Louise” is a world where men are a constant threat to the women. Notice that the story world, the region, and the location all work against the hero.
Watch any bad movie and apply these same three criteria (location, region, and world) to a scene. Chances are good one or more of these will be missing, creating a much weaker scene.
So the lesson is to use location to make every scene harder on the hero. The entire story world should be working against the hero, but so should the region of the scene and the specific location of the scene. As a general rule, if life is easy for your hero, your story will be boring.
Make life hard for your hero so your hero must struggle, since this is what makes every story exciting. Part of that struggle involves making setting work against the hero at all times.