Make the Setting a Character in Your Story

If two characters have dialogue that sounds too similar, you’ll likely have a dull story because there’s nothing distinct about either character. Just as you must make your characters speak and look differently, you should also make your setting different as well.

If you can put characters in a bowling alley, a castle, an airplane, or a submarine and their actions and dialogue still work, you’re not taking advantage of your setting. The setting isn’t just a backdrop for your action to play out in. Instead, the setting should color your story and emphasize the theme.

It’s no secret that when life is going downhill for characters, it always starts raining. The rain simply echoes the gloominess of a character’s mood. Of course, it can be even worse when a character is depressed and he or she must walk through a sunny day. The contrast can show us the vast difference between where the character might be and where they’d like to be.

In general, make your setting work against the hero. The prison in “The Shawshank Redemption” isn’t a clean, friendly prison but an older building. The office in “The Matrix” consists of nearly identical cubicles, which matches up perfectly later when the hero discovers human beings trapped in pods that look alike. The faceless nature of office cubicles perfectly foreshadows the faceless character of pods holding human beings.

So make your setting work against the hero. Second, make your setting emphasize the theme. The hero in “The Shawshank Redemption” feel trapped, so a prison is the perfect setting. A person who feels trapped might appear in an office, but an office doesn’t convey the sense of hopelessness and isolation that a prison does.

Besides having a setting emphasize the story theme or mood, consider making the setting a unique character on its own. In “Star Wars,” Luke and Obi-wan need to go into a bar to find a starship pilot. Instead of an empty bar, they wander into an active bar filled with colorful characters. Seeing so many aliens in one place that are dangerous further intimidates Luke while also making the scene more memorable.

When writing a screenplay, find ways for your setting to do one or more of the following:

  • Emphasize the character’s mood
  • Emphasize the story theme
  • Provide a memorable backdrop

A setting should not be generic. Make your settings as colorful and interesting as possible and it will enhance your overall story in a subtle but important way.

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