Make the Setting a Character in a Scene

A good rule of thumb is that if the action and dialogue in a scene could take place in a submarine, in a field, or in the middle of a city street equally well, your scene has a problem.

Every scene should make the setting an integral part of the scene. One way to do that is to think of the setting as a character that opposes the hero.

In the opening scene in “Fargo,” Jerry is planning to meet two men who he’s paying to kidnap his wife. Since Jerry is unsure of himself, the setting is a dive bar that makes him uncomfortable. As a result, the setting of a dive bar works against Jerry, which makes the scene more visually interesting as we see how much out of his element he is.

In horror stories, much of the horror comes from being confined in an isolated area to increase the horror. In “A Quiet Place,” there’s a scene where a blind monster is in the basement while a pregnant mother holds a rifle. Her dilemma is that she can’t escape from the blind monster because she’s trapped in the basement, so the basement setting is working against her.

The setting should always make life harder for the hero in some way. Physically the setting can make the hero uncomfortable but the setting can also help the villain.

In “Rocky,” the boxing ring in front of thousands of fans is a familiar place for Apollo Creed, but not for Rocky. So not only must Rocky fight Apollo Creed, he must also fight him in an unfamiliar setting with a crowd that’s rooting against him.

The setting is almost never the hero’s friend. Think of the setting as an enemy and find a way to make the setting as difficult as possible for the hero. That will create greater conflict and tension and create a more interesting scene as a result.

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